Thinking Through the Scriptures each Wednesday in the Chapter Room with the Bible and the Otago Daily Times - and just chatting with anyone who comes to share, it's a discipline and a joy. It always surprises me what connections emerge and what insights are given. All are, of course, welcome ...
(21st Ordinary Sunday. Readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10; Rom. 12:1-8; Mt. 16:13-20.)
One of the problems that I have with St Paul’s epistles is that they are so ‘preachy’! Either they take me into some complex argument or they present me with a challenge on how to live – with the result that one instantly becomes defensive! Perhaps this morning’s reading from Romans illustrates the point; (Romans 12:2) the apostle says: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.’ That’s great teaching; a bracing thought; a way to live; but does it lure us into the Christ life that Paul writes about? I think the trouble is that it connects with our heads more than with our hearts.
But compare what happens when we read the story of Moses as it unfolds in Exodus. This is a story that draws us in! A great story (ancient but, oh so contemporary) of genocide and horror, life and death, human courage and wit – and, running through it all, against the odds, for those who look, the thread of God’s steadfast purpose. But why the story, how does it happen? It happens because of a great disconnection caught in a few words: ‘Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph’. It appears there has been a huge cultural or political shift and with it has gone the knowledge, the connections, the memory that had glued the peoples and cultures together and the space created by that absence has instead been filled with fear and distrust … with terrible consequences.
This is a story of a previously connected society losing the things vital for its cohesion; losing its shared history or narratives; and its rapid unravelling into disconnection, inequality and violence. This is a story that resonates with what we see happening in the Middle East, Gaza and ISIL at this time but it can also resonate far closer to home, and it can speak to New Zealand life today. What about that New Zealand vision of the common good that was once taken for granted but which now seems almost lost as inequality, child poverty, homelessness and dirty politics divide this nation?
Now think about what happens in the gospel story, we only have a fragment of the story this morning but it is a turning-point, a crux. It comes in the form of a question: initially a general inquiry about the identity of the promised ‘Son of Man’ but then it turns into a direct question “But who do you say that I am?” That question is the turning-point for Peter – there can be no evasion. It has to be answered. Peter, almost without thinking – and I suspect working from the heart – responds “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
The old evangelical language, the old language of the revivals and tent meetings, would describe this as ‘a decision for Christ’ – which indeed it is. That recognition and response takes many forms but always, whether it is a St Augustine or a C.S. Lewis, or any one of us, the response to Christ continues to change the way the world is seen and the way we live: which is, of course, what Paul had in mind when he spoke about being ‘transformed by the renewing of your minds’.)
Note also what happens when Peter ‘decides for Christ’: at the very moment of that connection he also finds out who he really is! Peter makes his confession of faith only to discover that Jesus also has faith in him – and a work for him to do. He now sees himself differently; he cannot go back to what he was before; now he is the one whose work will be to uphold the church that has still to come.
There are implications here for all of us. We gather at the Eucharist to reconnect with Christ and to reconnect as a people of faith. Together we remember the great story of faith that holds us together. We also remember our response to the question Christ always asks us, “But who do you say that I am?” As he did with Peter, so Christ does with us. Christ believes in us and that means that you, you and you – and all of us are the rocks on which Christ builds his church.
It reminds me of a tagline from the film that won Robin Williams his Oscar (Good Will Hunting’): ‘Some people can never believe in themselves, until someone believes in them.’ Christ believes in us and we are the rocks on which he builds.