Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2017
27 August 2017 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Ralph Godsall, Priest Vicar
At Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee is the Church of the Primacy of Peter. The venue of the church is quite spectacular. Located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, it is under the control of the Franciscans who are the custodians of the Holy Places in the Holy Land. The church was originally built in the fourth century by the Byzantines. It then fell into ruins and was rebuilt by the Franciscans in 1933.
It is at this place that pilgrims to the Holy Land today remember Simon Peter’s Great Confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” and Jesus’ response, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” At Tabgha there is a wonderful outcropping of rock that provided the Byzantines with the rock, the petros, on which to build their church.
But the observant this morning will have noticed that the opening verse in today’s Gospel (Matthew 16.13-20) reads: ‘Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi.’ Caesarea Philippi is some 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. The site associated with the city of Caesarea Philippi is Banias, a place that is remembered for the worship of the Greek god, Pan. At Banias there are sheer rock cliffs which were an ideal place for Jesus to make his historic announcement, “On this rock I will build my church.” Peter’s declaration, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” challenges the god Pan and his devotees. So why did the Byzantines build the Church of the Primacy of Peter on the Sea of Galilee?
Almost certainly because they were trying to be hospitable to pilgrims. Banias is an additional two-day walk (or two-hour bus ride today) from the Sea of Galilee. So the Byzantine Church made it as convenient as possible for pilgrims visiting the Sea of Galilee to remember there some of the significant events of Jesus’ life. They provided what we would today call ‘radical hospitality’. There is a wonderful axiom to pilgrimage in the Holy Land: holy places move!
The significance of Banias is that it is the source of the river Jordan. Here a small stream of water emerges from a great cliff. It is the source for Matthew, therefore, both of Christianity and of the Church. For what is Christianity but to make the bold confession that Jesus is the Son of the living God? Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ reminds us where the Gospel and the Church begins: with Jesus' baptism in this same river, where he first announced that the kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, it is baptism that is the transforming, transfiguring force in our lives. And one of the consequences of recognizing and confessing Jesus in baptism is that our vision of the world is transfigured.
Last week in the story of the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15.21-28) we reflected on what it meant in the scriptures to be on the other side of the river, or outside the land of ancient Israel. It is outside the land, in Gentile land, that Jesus now hears Peter’s confession. It is outside the land that Jesus tells Peter that it is on this rock that he will build his Church.
The prophet, Isaiah, in reminding the people of Israel of the rock from which they were hewn, states once again that the Lord’s justice will be a light to the nations beyond Israel (Isaiah 51.1-6). And the apostle St Paul in this morning’s epistle states emphatically that the vocation of the Church as the new Israel of God is to be inclusive and to live beyond the boundaries of race and culture. ‘By the mercies of God’, the apostle St Paul states emphatically in this morning’s epistle, ‘do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you discern what is the will of God’ (Romans 12.2).
What is so incredible for me about Peter’s Great Confession and Jesus’ founding of the Church is that both events take place ‘outside the land’ - at a Greek pagan religious site, home of the Greek god Pan. Jesus left the Jewish territory in which he lived in Nazareth and Capernaum and he went into the Gentile, non-Jewish, world. He went into the unknown. He left his ‘comfort zone’ to establish his church, his community of believers, on the other side of the river among the Gentiles.
This text challenges our comfort zones. It is easy to minister, to reach out to those we love and care for and those who love and care for us. But the Gospel challenges us to leave our comfort zone, to go to the other side of the river, to get to know the unfamiliar, to work well beyond the boundaries of those who love and worship the Jesus we recognize, even those who are possibly worshipping in the sanctuary of Pan. The Gospel challenges us to dialogue, to conversation, to seek another face of Jesus that is authentic, and as real as our own, in those who inhabit different cultures and traditions.
Let me illustrate what I mean through the ministry of one of the Abbey’s priests vicar. In January 1999, the Anglican Communion’s Compass Rose Society visited Kaduna, a city in northern Nigeria that had experienced religious tensions between Christians and Muslims for over thirty years. The bishop in Kaduna at the time was Josiah Idowu-Fearon, now Secretary General of the Anglican Communion and a priest vicar here. Josiah introduced the members of the Society to James, an Assembly of God pastor, and Ashafa, an imam. They were the co-directors of the Muslim-Christian Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna.
Both men had led opposing, armed militias, dedicated to defending their respective communities as violence broke out in northern Nigeria. In pitched battles, Pastor James had lost his hand and Imam Ashafa’s spiritual mentor and two close relatives had been killed. Neither man trusted the other, but each decided to take the risk of working together because in his heart James remembered the commandment “Thou shall not kill”, and Ashafa’s holy book, the Quran, taught him that it is better to turn the evil wound into that which is good. In order to be a true embodiment of the prophet Mohammed, a Muslim must forgive the persecutor.
Both holy books call for forgiveness. Could the gulf between revenge and reconciliation in that part of Nigeria be resolved? At first it was not easy, barriers had to be overcome, but as the two religious leaders came to know each other, trust grew between them. They recognized that peace, not violence, lay at the heart of their religious traditions. The story of their remarkable transition is told in the documentary they made entitled, The Imam and the Pastor. It can be viewed on line. James and Ashafa each made a bold confession of faith. They have a lot to teach us about how to cross to the other side of the river and live beyond our comfort zone.
There are vast differences and endless diversity in God’s family. But the apostle St Paul calls on us this morning to ‘present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God’ (Romans 12.1). Peter’s bold confession would lead him (as we shall hear next week) to the Cross. This is how the Gospel challenges the baptized to live. It is no wonder that stepping out of our comfort zone is so frightening. But in doing so, we are entering more fully into lives through which God makes manifest His boundless mercy and love for all.