This is one of those gospel stories we’ve probably heard dozens of times before. Jesus goes into the district of Caesarea Phillipi with the disciples. Now this isn’t any old city. It is a Roman city and they are surrounded by the god’s of the Roman Empire. In this of all places, Jesus says to the disciples “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13)
And they come up with a bunch of possible answers. “Some say John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus turns to all of them and says, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mathew 16:14) Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.” Talk about a bold proclamation! Especially in a place where they are surrounded by stone carvings of the Roman god’s. Jesus turns to Peter and says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18)
Amazing isn’t? We sit here worshipping together and in some strange way it starts with Jesus saying, “You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my church.” Now I don’t think Jesus had in mind churches like we know today. He probably imagined people worshiping this living God in the synagogues. Still, here we sit gathered in Jesus’ name because Peter and others had the nerve to proclaim boldly to anyone who would listen that “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” More than two thousand years later that church with all its successes and all its failures still clings to the promise of a living God.
But churches, not just United Churches, are faced with hard times. Some of it is bad PR on our part. People think that churches are judgement, unfriendly and unwelcoming. Some of it is the changing place of church in society. Sunday mornings are no longer reserved for church attendance. It is hard for those of us who remember full pews and Sunday schools bursting at the seams to know that we are faced with budgets that are stretched to the limit and buildings that are beautiful but bigger than we need or can afford. And it makes me wonder what is next for this church – the church of Jesus, the messiah, son of the living God.
Recently Scott attended some church meetings by the Edge Network which is trying to help congregations who are wrestling with some of these hard questions. He brought home the gift of a new word – well two words linked together in a new way. Discontinuous change. “Discontinuous change” happens when we struggle to understand why the ways we have functioned in the past no longer produce the same results.
And isn’t that where we are in the church? The things that worked once no longer produce the same results. The things we’ve always done seem to fall flat. The world has changed and that leaves who sit in the pews on Sunday mornings trying to figure out what to do. We wonder if the church even has a place in this new world. And if we do, what is it? Hard questions with no easy answers or instant fixes.
Sarah Cunningham’s book Portable Faith writes about finding new ways of being church. She begins with a story of a middle aged woman behind the desk at the local bond office who says to her, “There’s at least a dozen churches within a four block radius of here and that doesn’t change anything. … The city is the same as it’s always been. Same problems, same hardships, same cycles. Churches hold weekly services for anyone who wants to come, but I don’t think there’s any reason to believe they impact people beyond their own buildings.” (Portable Faith, pg. 1)
Cunningham continues by writing, “…despite growing up as a pastor’s kid and logging hundreds – maybe thousands – of hours in church pews. I knew in the sinking, what-is-true part of my gut that “coming” was not the verb that Jesus had used in his parting shot to the disciples. “Come join us” was decidedly different invitation than “go into all the world.” And “inviting ones” was almost the polar opposite identity as “sent ones,” the term attached to those first believing apostles who bore the message of Jesus.” (Portable Faith page 3)
Peter was a sent one. He started life doing what his father before him did – fishing. Then he met Jesus and everything changed. He quite literally left everything to follow Jesus. He went to places he’d never been and he even got a new name, “Peter.” Rock. After Jesus’ resurrection, he didn’t stay in his hometown. He went and spread the word about Jesus wherever he could because he knew that Jesus was the son of the living God and that is what made all the difference.
Now it is our turn today to pick up from Peter and all the faithful who’ve gone before us left off. It is our turn to share the good news of Jesus, Messiah, son of the living God. And we can. We’ve just gotten out of practice. We all grew up hearing that religion and politics aren’t something you talk about in polite company. Here’s the problem, if we don’t talk about why we come to church, if we don’t talk about what God has done for us, if we don’t talk about why we are followers of Jesus, how will anyone know about the living God whose love changes everything?
And here something else we’ve forgotten, people want to know. If you go to the Spirituality section in the bookstore it is full of books for people searching for answers to the meaning and purpose of life. Why not share ours? There are several longitudinal studies that link attendance at religious services with lower rates of depression. So going to church is good for you. We have something so special in the church and we need to share it with others.
We don’t have the luxury of being polite or holding back. There was a time when I was outside the walls of churches that I would actively work at not telling people that I was a United Church minister. I would dread the question, “And what do you do?” And then watch the people who clam up or worse apologizing for swearing in front of me – like I’d never heard the words or said them. But no more. We have a message of the living God to share and if we don’t tell our stories then no one will know about it.
So here it goes. I love the church. I love that Jesus loves me as we sing in church, “Yes, Jesus loves, Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes Jesus loves me the bible tells me so.” I love the stories in the bible call me to see things in every new ways. I know when it seems like my life is crumbling around me God is holding me. I love that I can feel the Holy Spirit pushing, nudging, inspiring me to try something different. Church is one of the few places I truly felt comfortable. I think it saved my life when I was a teenager because it was the only place I felt loved for me. On Sunday morning I could walk in through the doors of Edgewood United Church and I could breathe again. I knew that in school I didn’t belong – not with the cool kids and sometimes not even with the people who were my friends. But church was home. My wonderful Sunday School teacher Mary made it a place to explore and think about faith but most importantly to belong.
Perhaps, if we can find a way to start sharing those stories of grace and forgiveness, those stories of love and acceptance, of our God whose love gives life, we can find every new ways to be the body of Christ for this time and this place. It is our turn to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” and boldly declare, “You are the Messiah, son of the living God.” And then, we like Peter, like all who’ve gone before us, become the rock upon which the church is built. Amen.
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Links to articles about church attendance and depression: