August 27, 2017
Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20
Jesus says to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Friday night, Stephanie and I went to see a new movie titled “All Saints”! It’s a low budget, simple, based on a true story, movie about All Saints Church in Smyrna, Tennessee, a church that is facing imminent closure. Did I mention it is an Episcopal Church…in the Diocese of Tennessee? In the first scene we see the recently ordained priest on his first Sunday with only a handful of parishioners and orders from the bishop to close the church in 2 months, so the property can be sold. On one hand, what unfolds is not unique—I know other dying Episcopal Churches, one in Fall River, Massachusetts—with a similar story in which a tiny church decides the Kingdom Jesus proclaims means they are to invite strange people from the other side of the planet who live in their town to become a vital part of their faith community.
But it is also a timely story given the shocking events two weeks ago in Charlottesville, Virginia where angry white men and some women held a march that proclaimed their racist ideology and the supremacy of their race. I imagine a majority of the marchers would also gladly claim that they are Christians who follow Jesus Christ. Certainly most white churches in the South of my childhood loudly proclaimed that they too were followers of Jesus and just as loudly proclaimed that those with dark skin were not welcomed to be part of their church.
From the very beginning the church had to struggle with this radical challenge: Is our loyalty to Jesus and his vision of the kingdom of God stronger than our loyalty to our tribe and its vision of specialness?
The same question is raised in Rwanda, which was called “the most Christian country in Africa” with as much as 90% of the people affirming an affiliation with a Christian church. In the genocidal madness that swept over that country in 1994 800,000 men, women, children, mostly members of the Tutsi tribe were slaughtered with machetes in a 100 days by their neighbors who were members of the Hutus tribe.
Just like the failure of the Christian Churches to mount an effective resistance to the Nazi ideology in 1930s Germany, Rwandan Christianity is overwhelmed by a tribal vision that leads to genocide. As Lee C. Camp puts it in his book, Mere Discipleship, “The Western Christianity imported into the heart of Africa had apparently failed to create communities of disciples….The Jesus who taught his disciples to love your neighbor went missing when young men were hacking [their neighbors] to death simply because their neighbors were ethnically different.”
There were Christian martyrs from both tribes who died resisting the madness, but these were a minority, which “has led critics to suggest that the ‘gospel’ imported into Rwanda failed to ever challenge the ethnic identities of its converts—they became Christians, but many remained first and foremost a member of their tribe.” Ibid
Of course we modern sophisticated folk look down on those who still live in tribes without realizing our ancestors did the same thing, with our Jewish, Irish, Polish, Japanese, and English tribes, to name only a few. Today we also know our tribe by which cable news channel we watch: Some belong to the Fox News Tribe, while other belong to the MSNBC Tribe. Some belong to the Tea Party Tribe and others to the Progressive Tribe.
And many of us belong to the American Tribe and believe it is superior to every other nation and is incapable of mistreating minorities, like Native Americans or of starting a bad war.
Throughout history Jesus is often not Master and Messiah, but only an acolyte in service to the gods of blood, soil, slavery, ethnic identity, and “our way of life”.
In today’s gospel Peter proclaims Jesus is the Messiah, who is bringing into human history the only way human beings can escape the horror of tribal hatred and violence.
Nothing less than this is at stake in our gospel reading today: We are asked a stark question: Is Jesus Christ our mascot or our Master
Jesus the mascot will support more hatred and violence, if we feel afraid.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, “It is impossible to follow Jesus and still cling to a world of lies and violence designed to hide our sins from us.” Brazos Commentary on Matthew, 147
Jesus the Master leads us out of this darkness and into the light of self-awareness that heals our inner demons of hatred and violence toward the Other.
We will see next week that Peter does not fully understand what following Jesus means, but Peter on this day in Caesarea Philippi commits to Jesus as his Master, by naming him as God’s anointed to save this world from hatred and violence. Peter is willing to follow Jesus in order to receive the difficult transformation from a tribal racist into a universal lover.
We see Peter’s on-going transformation in Acts 10: Peter is hungry and as his meal is being prepared he has a vision of a large sheet descending from heaven with every kind of animal on it—both clean and unclean according to Jewish Law—and he hears a voice telling him to “rise up, kill and eat!” But Peter refuses, saying, “No Lord! I will not eat anything unclean.” This happens three times, until the voice from heaven says, “what God calls clean you must not call unclean.”
Peter first sees this as a revelation about food, and it is, but as he preaches to the pagan Roman centurion Cornelius and his household the Spirit falls on all everybody so that Peter now knows Jesus means to pull Peter and his followers out of the Jewish Tribe and into the tribe called Human.
This is why Paul calls us today not to be conformed to this present evil age with its tribal divisions, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds through the presence and Power of Jesus Christ and his vision of a new way to live…in forgiveness and faithfulness.
It is the call to drop the vision you grew up with and taken on the vision of Jesus and the Kingdom.
The Parish of All Saints’ in Smyrna Tennessee listens to Jesus the Master call them to live as a community embracing people who look, speak, and act differently. It is an inspiring story told in a straightforward manner. I hope you’ll consider watching it and if you do, stay for the credits so you can see pictures of the real church.
The movie makes us wonder how is it that some people will follow Jesus into the creation of the Beloved Community; while others only see Jesus as the mascot for their tribe?
What makes All Saints, Smyrna different from other churches that refuse Jesus’ vision?
It’s not so much what they have as what they don’t have: the church in Smyrna doesn’t have any hope. They have descended to the place where the ego’s dreams for success have all died. They don’t even have one another since there are painful divisions among the few remaining members. They had tried living with Jesus as their mascot and now all they have is a valley of dry bones, bleached white in the noonday sun. And a few memories of the good old days.
In short they have nothing….which is to say, they are in the perfect position to surrender to the Master’s Cross and Resurrection and vision of new life.
That’s the secret! Look at the 150th Celebration logo on the back of your bulletin or on the banner over the lecturn—designed by Trina Teele. Notice the “ladder” on the right side. The gospel is not instructions on how to climb up to God, based on our effort and specialness. Rather, the good news is God has come down the ladder to us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus calls Peter the Rock, but notice he doesn’t tell Peter to build the church! Rather he says, follow me and I will build my church on you….my church that includes not just your tribe, but every tribe.