Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Trinity High Mass Sunday 7 September 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
This morning we’ve jumped two chapters in Matthew from the last two Sundays’ provision. Chapter 17, which we’ve missed out, includes the Transfiguration: unarguably one of the better moments of our Lord’s ministry. That passage is read just before or during Lent, and again on the feast of the Transfiguration (at the beginning of last month). But it isn’t a dislike of repetition that lies behind this leap forward in the gospel trajectory. It’s actually a piece of joined-up thinking. Because this morning we’re completing a story which is peculiar to Matthew, and one which should be of peculiar interest to us – because it’s about us. Matthew is the only gospel writer to mention the word ‘church’: ekklesia, literally ‘something called-out,’ is an assembly, a summoned gathering; it’s a commonly used word in the Greek version of the OT to denote the assembly of the people of God. So it is also a natural enough usage of the New Israel, us.
And, if we hadn’t been celebrating St Bartholomew two weeks ago, we would then have heard Jesus’ first use of that word which we translate ‘church’: ‘you are Peter and on this rock I will build my ‘church’, my ‘assembly’, my ‘summoned people of God’. I talked about that last week when we did hear the immediate aftermath, the moment when Peter fell off his newly-granted perch and was compared to Satan.
So, what did Jesus mean when he gave the nickname ‘Rock’ to Simon son of John? Clearly if you read Matthew 16, the name Peter is intended to be a fitting reward for getting it right – a name for a name – just after Simon has correctly named Jesus as ‘Messiah’ and ‘Son of God’.
The early Fathers of the Church and the Reformers (who, admittedly, had an axe to grind) read Peter as representative here – his faith, not his person, is the rock on which the church is built. At this distance, whether it is Peter himself or his faith probably matters less than what sort of church is built on it, on how the continuation of Peter’s function in the church is to work. But the question of attribution seems to remain unresolved.
There is a predictable split along confessional lines in the attempt to answer this question. Protestant commentators tend to see Peter’s role as a once-and-for-all event in the foundation of the church after the first Easter and the resurrection appearances; the power of the keys and of binding and loosing is seen as conferred on the whole church, though able to be entrusted to particular members of the Body. Anglicans tend to agree with the Orthodox that the power of the keys, and binding and loosing, is shared by the whole episcopate, though many in both communions would be prepared to allow the Bishop of Rome a special place in this collegial office. Roman Catholic scholars naturally maintain that the Petrine office is vested in the papacy (though Pope Francis seems to be challenging what this means, if not the statement itself – yet).
But today we come to some evidence, very good evidence indeed, that the Petrine charism is democratized. Because this morning we hear Jesus delivering the same power of binding and loosing to an unidentified audience of disciples during a teaching session. This indicates that the apostolic ministry belongs to the whole church, at which point all our various polities are obviously at liberty to parcel it out as seems good to them and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Roman Church may delegate it to Peter, but that is an institutional choice and no more. There is no single mandate to Peter or his putative successor.
More importantly, whether the original subject of the words was Peter himself, or the character of his faith, the continuation of the Petrine charism in the church, and the promise that the church has the power to endure in the face of anything that human foolishness or antipathy can throw at it, is a reminder of the faithfulness of God.
We don’t need to fear for ‘the Church’, and we especially should not fear for it in that way which forgets that it is actually us. Our responsibility is to be witnesses of the risen Christ in our context, and to build the kingdom with whatever gifts God has given us. Being the Church happens at Mass and is fulfilled as we are sent out: that’s what the word ‘Mass’ means. It is a ‘dismissal’ into the world, nourished with the bread of life.
The Church doesn’t only exist when we are gathered here, as some protestant theologians, anxious to debunk the whole apostolic institution, have tried to argue. That is a theoretical view which is observably untrue in the church’s life, as well as theologically dubious. Without embarking on another sermon, the dubiety is simple: if the church doesn’t exist except when we are all gathered in worship together, the relationality which is at the heart of Jesus’ gospel, and which is wrapped up in the understanding of communion (koinonia) by Paul, would swiftly stretch past breaking-point: we would then all end up as disconnected individuals claiming allegiance to something completely intangible and, probably, incomprehensible. Some protestant ecclesiology collapses into that scenario. We don’t inhabit it.
As I’ve said to you before, the reason why our liturgy is so important is that what happens here forms what happens out there. If it isn’t doing that, we have a different set of problems to address. But it is true at the most basic level that the Eucharist makes the church; without it at All Saints Margaret Street we’d be better off joining the Victorian Society. Which would probably be a lot easier than belonging to the Church. QED.
All of which is entirely relevant to our gospel. It assumes that we are members of one another in a giant dysfunctional family, which is observably true. When we gather Jesus is here among us. But that is not the end of it, or we are lost. His parting words in this same gospel are, ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the ages.’ The gift of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is given to us as individuals but it is, noticeably, given in a corporate setting, of baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist.
I’m not arguing that our Anglican polity is perfect. But it is clearly consonant with tradition as delivered by the Lord himself. Other polities, protestant and catholic, may be able to make the same case. Our assemblies and sacraments may be like currency which is shared by the members of one nation state but doesn’t work across a border. But there is something larger behind that currency which we do all hold in common. In the world, the citizens of different countries precariously share the common status of humanity. We are fortunate that in the Church we can add to that humanity an acknowledged familial relationship with God which transcends all other allegiances. The sadness is that our sacraments are not, now, the common currency of that whole family. Christian Unity is unity in sacramental sharing, not signed covenants or shared administration: that is the unity for which we need to pray. That is what will make us who we are.