Alt- Empire

September 4, 2017

A sermon delivered August 27, 2017 at Parkwood Presbyterian Church, Jenison MI.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Romans 12:1-8 NRS

 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Matthew 16:13-20


It’s a familiar quote, isn’t it? Who do you say that I am?” Often it’s used in evangelism to push for an answer, a decision. We ask it presuming there is a right and a wrong answer. We use it assuming this story in Matthew is simply about being able to correctly identify Jesus.

That is part of the story but there is much more going on here as well. I’m always amazed at how much the Gospel writers can pack into 8 verses! I want to spend a little time looking closely at these verses.

The first thing to notice is the location. For those of us who have not been to the Holy Land, it is easy to overlook where things are in relation to each other and what the locations contribute to the story.

Remember that Jesus and all the Jews lived in a land occupied by a foreign power, the Roman Empire. And the empire brought and imposed its laws, customs and religion. Caesarea Philippi was a town that was renamed by Herod the Great after he built a temple there to Caesar Augustus. In the Roman Empire, by this time, Emperors were declared to be gods either shortly after their death or when they were still alive and in power. Worship of the emperor,the emperor cult, was a real religion and was real politics as well.

Politics and religion were not held apart, they were inseparable.- for both Romans and Jews. It’s important for us to remember that.

Jesus and the disciples are, metaphorically if not literally standing in the shadow of the emperor’s Temple when Jesus asks a couple of questions.

The first, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  He is not asking about issues of personal piety.

The response?  The people believe he is a prophet. Remember prophets tell the truth about who is actually in charge of the world to those who mistakenly think they are in charge.

Prophets confront, prophets call to account, prophets bring the word of the Lord to the people and their rulers. Notice the response isn’t Jesus is like John the Baptist, or like Elijah, or like Jeremiah. The people say Jesus is John the Baptist, or is Elijah or is Jeremiah.

So “the people” have an interesting and high opinion of Jesus. They see him as a resurrected prophet. But as high an opinion as this is, the people don’t have it quite right.

So then Jesus asks the disciples. “But who do you say that I am?” and the “you” here is plural. In the gospels, when Peter speaks or acts, he is often speaking or acting on behalf of all the disciples. Peter answers, for all of them. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

This is of course a statement of faith. Interestingly, it is not the first time in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is identified as the Messiah, the Son of God. At Jesus’ baptism the voice of God reveals Jesus to be God’s son. And after Jesus walks on the water, the disciples worship him and say “Truly you are the Son of God.”

As my seminary professor used to tell us, “If it’s repeated, it must be important. If it’s repeated, it must be important.” So what’s happening with this declaration?

Why is it repeated?

It’s important we don’t stop reading here. Jesus has more he wants the disciples and us to understand. We need to look closely at what comes next.

First, this knowledge given to Peter about Jesus isn’t from human knowing. It was revealed by God.

Then the word play, you are Petros and on this petra I will build my church. For your Bible fun fact today, Peter was not a person’s name then, as it is now. People weren’t called Peter either in Greek or Aramaic before this.  It’s an uncommon, even a new name.

But more important remember than when God changes a person’s name that means something significant is happening. Abram/Abraham,  Sari /Sarah, Jacob/Israel,  Saul/Paul…

The word “church” is interesting as well. Notice Jesus doesn’t say Synagogue, a word he could have used. He says church. The Greek word is ekklesia which means “called out”, an assembly, as in a civil, political gathering. These were often events to reinforce the Roman political and social status quo. Saying that he is building an ekklesia, positions Jesus and the church in distinction to the Roman Empire. He’s not setting the church in opposition to the synagogue but to the empire.

What is Jesus building?  Sounds like a counter empire? We might call it, in today’s terms, the alt- empire.

Then Jesus tells us some things about this alt empire, the ekklesia, using images and idioms of the time.

One, it will be involved in struggle, we don’t avoid the power of Hades, but that power will not win, it will not prevail.

By the way, Hades was mostly not understood to be a place of punishment, it was realm of the dead,- where dead people were. But Jesus may also be referring  to gates/portals of underworld where powers of evil/devil could emerge.

And then there is the part about the keys. The one who keeps the keys is not doorkeeper to heaven. We need to read carefully- It’s not the keys “to” the kingdom, but the keys ‘of’ the kingdom. Traditionally the keeper of the keys had authority as administrator and teacher.

Remember the crowds exclaiming that Jesus taught as one with authority? This was an important claim. Binding and loosing is rabbinic language for authoritative teaching. Jesus is sharing, passing on his authority to interpret and teach.  

Rabbis taught Torah but they also interpreted Torah, helped people live faithfully in their particular time and situation. Similarly,  in Greek political life, while laws and rules could not be abolished, they could be changed to adapt to new circumstances.

And then, heaven and earth. In ancient world, heaven and earth mirrored each other. Heaven was not where the good people go after death. Heaven is where God/gods live. What happened on earth, happened in heaven and vice versa. That’s what’s going on when we pray “on earth as it is in heaven”. These are parallel and in the future connected, interlocking realms.

Having the keys of the kingdom of heaven and authority to bind and loose have to do with teaching and interpreting and enacting life in the reign of God.We might imagine Peter’s keys keeping the gates of heaven open for God’s reign to be manifest on earth. And- make no mistake- everyone in Jesus time understood this was in opposition to the reign of Rome.

God’s reign originates in heaven, is made manifest on earth and built by Jesus on the foundation, the rock, of the disciples-church.  

Not a text as we sometimes think, about who gets into heaven, and who decides who gets into heaven. This is a text about who knows the real truth,who teaches the real truth- it’s not Rome and it’s not Rome’s truth.

It’s God’s truth.

We commonly think of “birth” of church occuring in Acts, but I suspect we also find it here. Jesus gives a name, a blessing, and authority to Peter/disciples. At this point they are not yet quite ready to be church – hence the don’t tell anyone. But they are given a clue, important information about what they are supposed to be becoming.

That seminary professor who use to say, If it’s repeated…, also used to say, “So what?”. This is all very interesting but so what? What do we do with this? Author and pastor Eugene Peterson suggests we ask, “How do we obey”? Does this old story have anything to do with us?

Last winter, a colleague of mine in campus ministry wanted to avoid becoming “political”. But, you know, as I reminded him, the gospel is political. (It’s not partisan, but it is unavoidably political)

What folks in the ancient world knew, what our society tries not to know and we Christians often forget, is that all reality, everything, is also spiritual. There are not two states of being, the physical and the spiritual- distinct and unconnected.  Politics is not only physical. The church is not only spiritual. They don’t belong to different realities. There is just one reality. The physical and the spiritual are aspects of that one reality.

Our world of politics, and business, and technology doesn’t typically acknowledge this. In fact they typically deny the spiritual.

But that’s not the worldview of the Bible. And that’s not to be our worldview. The spiritual is everywhere and part of  everything.  Churches, certainly, but also our schools, Grand Valley, Kendall College of Art and Design, GRCC, our banks, our gas stations our grocery stores. Microsoft and Apple. GM and Con Agra. The cities of Grand Rapids and Jennison. The state of Michigan. The United States Congress and the presidency. All have both spiritual and material aspects.

I’m not naming those spirits as good or bad, I’m just reminding us that all these “real” things also have a spiritual component.  Theologian Walter Wink, who we have a quote from in the bulletin, names that spiritual dimension the Powers.

We do commonly acknowledge their existence. We talk about economic powers and forces. The power of the market is not a material thing but it has material outcomes and effects. Political power is not a material thing but it has real, physical effects.

Peer pressure. Crowd dynamics. Have you ever found yourself at a game cheering for a team, when actually you weren’t particularly a fan? Or get caught up in the mood  at a concert?  We talk about groups and organizations being a force for good. The idea that the spiritual is in and around everything shouldn’t really be a novel idea. Particularly for Christians.

If the Powers are created by God, as everything is, then they have a divine purpose, a divine vocation. But they can forget that, the powers can lose sight of that vocation.

We know that powers can be good or bad, or more likely a mixture of both. And the good news is that powers, as part of creation, just like people, can be redeemed.  And that is the task of the assembly ekklesia that Jesus builds-  that’s our task recalling the powers to their divine vocation.

These are challenging times, and it is easy to become overwhelmed, paralyzed by the amount and complexity of the problems in the world. Reading the news is often frightening. It can lead us to despair.

It is easier to distract ourselves with video games, and TV and sports, shopping, eating, and whatever.  (Not that these are in and of themselves bad things- but they also have powers too, for both good and bad)

What is the ekklesia to do? What are we as members of the ekklesia to do?

This is where Paul, writing in Romans (and other places) offers a picture of how this works.

We are members of one body. And by members Paul doesn’t mean participants, like members of a club. He means members like body parts. A hand, an ear, a foot. That is how closely we are connected to Jesus and to each other.

And that living sacrifice part- isn’t about death and destruction. In the ancient world offering a sacrifice meant offering God your very best. We’re to offer God our best selves, our transformed selves. Not in an arrogant, boastful way but with sober judgment. With wisdom about what is good and acceptable and perfect. About what is God’s will.

We can’t each take responsibility for all the powers. I can’t fix everything and neither can you. In most places I have essentially no influence,  in some places I have a little,  a few places I have a significant amount. As do you, both as individuals and as Parkwood Presbyterian Church.

Our ongoing task is to identify those powers and spirits in our day to day encounters and to discern how we should interact with them and then bring our living sacrifice, our best efforts to this work.

God’s work can  certainly be dramatic, but mostly God seems to work with daily matters, daily bread, raising babies, feeding hungry people, healing sick people, respecting all people. God works with our daily lives, at work, at school, at home. The day in day out stuff of life makes up our daily following  of Jesus  

Part of what today’s gospel story tells us is that what we do matters.  It really does.Our day to day lives matter. The mundane, the ordinary, the regular stuff of life. Our task/calling to live into reign of God. To work toward it. To live it into reality.

We, like the first disciples, are called to be about the work of Jesus. What being a disciple looks like for you all here, I wouldn’t presume to tell you- other than to remind us all of the basics. How these get worked out here in this church in this community, you need to discern. That’s part of the task of being the church. You may well end up being  told you are being political.

Because like the disciples and the great cloud of saints and witnesses that came before us, being about the work that Jesus calls us to will place us in opposition to the Powers. We will struggle with the powers but they will not ultimately prevail.

So what does being a disciple look like here? What does the ekklesia, the church look like here? What thing is God calling you to? What makes your heart break? What makes your spirits soar?

Some of you are marchers, some letter writers, some of you feed people, some heal people, some teach, some listen.

Some of you listen very well. Ask the people who show up every week at the Listening Post at GVSU. They have some wonderful stories to tell you.

I can tell you my own stories from the Listening Post at GRCC.  The very first student I listened to talked about the biopsy results she was waiting for and how hard it was to wait and that she didn’t have anyone to tell that to.

We’ve been the practice audience for speeches and oral reports, giving feedback and encouragement. We’ve talked about mental illness and racism. I listened to a young man whose brother had recently died. We hear about good grades and new jobs and new relationships too.

Your presence at GVSU is a blessing to that community.

Why do you listen so carefully and well? Because you believe Jesus when he says that all people matter. You don’t believe the powers, that try to tell us some don’t matter, that tell us some are a threat.

You have listened to Jesus . You thought about your gifts. And you considered where you could be agents of transformation. The transformation that happens one person at a time as they are seen and heard and respected.

Honestly, I don’t know what else you all do here. I don’t know this place that well. And it’s not my job to tell you what to do.

I’m here to ask, What does being a disciple look like here? What thing is God calling you to? What makes your heart break? What makes you spirit soar? How are you the rock on which Jesus builds his ekklesia, his church here in Jenison?


Stay In Or Get Out

August 13, 2017

A sermon delivered August 13, 2017 at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Grand Rapids MI.

 Immediately he [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,  but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.  And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind,he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”   The Gospel of Matthew 14:22-33 NRSV

This is a familiar story isn’t it? It’s one of the stories that even the not very Biblically literate know. And for Christians, most of us have lost track of how many times we’ve heard it. And I bet you’ve heard more than one sermon on it too.

The common interpretation of the story focuses on Peter, his faith in getting out of the boat and his lack of faith that causes him to sink. How often have you heard someone say, “Oh ye of little faith.”?

I’d like us to spend a little time looking closely at this story. Because this is a familiar story, we might forget to notice how carefully written it is, how it recalls and echoes Torah and the rest of the Gospel of Matthew.

As the Eugene Peterson quote in the bulletin, says these stories invite us into them.

One of the characteristic marks of the biblical storytellers is a certain reticence. There is an austere, spare quality to their stories. They don’t tell us too much. They leave a lot of blanks in the narration, an implicit invitation to enter the story ourselves, just as we are, and discover for ourselves how we fit into it.    (Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book, 42)

If we are willing to go.

To set the scene, Jesus has just fed the 5000 men plus women and children. Then immediately he makes the disciples  go . This “makes ‘ is as in “compels”. It’s a forceful word. They are in a boat, which from the earliest times has served as a symbol of the church.  Here the disciples are, without Jesus in the boat, alone, far away from land and safety,  battered by waves.  The last time something like this happened to them, Jesus was in the boat with them.

Remember in the Bible, water, big water, seas are dangerous places – In Genesis God tames and parts the waters of chaos. Out on the big sea  a sea creature swallows Jonah. Paul is shipwrecked. We are supposed to remember all this about water when we hear this story.

If you have ever been on  water with big waves in a smallish boat it’s unsettling. Scary even.   Now picture yourself in the boat with the wind and wave and its sometime between 3 -6 am. If you have ever worked nights, you know between 3-6 can be a tough time, nothing good happens, everything looks bleak.  The disciples are by themselves, in a boat, battered by waves in the darkest part of the night.

Where is Jesus? He sent them away from himself.  Not good.

Think about the symbolism,  Boat and church. Sea and chaos. Without Jesus. And then they see something? No wonder the disciples think they are seeing a ghost!  Someone is walking on the water? Who can do that?

Sometimes I ask the students I work with what is going on here. They usually say this is a miracle and they miss the bigger part of the story.

In the ancient world, walking on water was something only gods did. Not people. In the Old Testament, God is depicted as walking on water several times. God who conquers, who overcomes the sea, the power of chaos, the powers of destruction.  In this story, Jesus is doing what God does.

Then Jesus speaks to them, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”.  Think a little about that. What is translated at “It is I”, in Greek is “I am”, the very name of God. “Do not be afraid”, this is what angels and divine beings tell mortals.

This whole event is a theophany, a divine appearing.

Notice that Jesus is walking toward them, to the boat. The one who stilled the storm, just a few chapters before, is coming to them. All they need to do is wait. Jesus is on the way.

And Peter says an odd thing, when you think about it. “If it is you, command me….”.

“If it is you” – that’s interesting, it echos what the devil says to Jesus in the wilderness, “If you are the son of God”. It echoes what the mockers shout to the crucified Jesus, “If you are the Son of God…”

Peter’s “If it is you, “… what is it? A challenge? A expression of doubt? Even though Peter calls Jesus “Lord”   It’s hard to make it a statement of faith. Regardless, of what it is, challenge, doubt, Jesus’ response is “Come”.

Peter starts walking on the water, notices the wind and begins to sink, crying out for Jesus to save him. And Jesus does, reaching out his hand.

Peter must have been close, eh?

That’s interesting, so close, an arm’s length away and Peter loses his focus. Now astute readers might recall the psalms and prophets where we read about God’s stretching out God’s hand to save.  

And once they’re  back in the boat, Jesus asks, “Why did you doubt?” Doubt here means something like vacillate, waver, not skepticism.

What do you think that refers to?  “Why did you doubt?” Was the doubting when Peter on the water noticing the strong wind? OR was it Peter’s question from the boat, “If it is you…”

Often this story gets used to talk about how Christians, if we had enough faith, would get out of our boats and walk toward Jesus, no matter how impossible that might be. We should walk on our version of water. Faith becomes the vehicle by which we do something spectacular, something amazing. Faith overcomes the world as we experience it.  And by implication, if we don’t succeed, perhaps we lack faith.

But I’m not so sure that’s the only interpretation available to us. Why else might Matthew be telling us this story?

For centuries, a boat has been the symbol of the church.The boat in this story carries all the disciples- the very beginning of the church is right in that boat.

What if they were supposed to stay with the boat, stay together for Jesus to come to them. What if faith meant believing what Jesus said to them,“Take heart, It is I, do not be afraid”? What if this is a story about staying and trusting?

So which was it? A time to step out or a time to stay? What’s this story about? Do we stay in or start walking?

It’s hard to know from the story as we have it. As the Peterson quote suggests we need to enter into it. It’s a parable- like story. It doesn’t give us an answer. Or a rule. We need to enter into the story, put ourselves in the boat, among the waves in the dark of early morning and see a ghost like figure calling to us, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”.  

What do we do? Get out of the boat? Or stay in the boat?

I want to be clear- especially in these times. Make no mistake, this is not a choice between action and inaction. The disciples in the boat were not passive. They are rowing, probably bailing too. They are actively engaged, actively struggling against the waters of chaos and destruction. They are engaged against the forces that want to destroy the Kingdom of God.

This is not a story about action versus inaction.

This is not a story about boldness or timidity.

The question is what kind of action are you and I called to.

I’m not going to give you “the” answer today. Other than sometimes the answer is to get out of the boat, sometimes it is to stay in the boat. Figuring out when to do what is not, as we might hope, simple. It’s not a matter of learning some rules or principles. Knowing what to do requires some discernment, some practice. And the ability to discern emerges out of relationship with the one who speaks to us.

You may have read  William Young’s book, The Shack. Not a theological work on Calvin’s level (which might be a good thing) but it is an interesting exploration of God, who God is and how God is at work in the world.

The main character is Mackinzee or Mack. Tragedy has struck his family and Mack and his family are struggling. Mack gets a puzzling note one day, asking him to return to the shack that was the scene the tragedy.The note appears to be from “Papa” which is Mack’s wife’s name for God. Mack goes to the shack and meets God – in the persons of Papa, Jesus and Sarayu -the Holy Spirit. There is a conversation in the book, between Mack and Sarayu, that I have condensed which might give us a clue about what to do with this story from Matthew.

Mack allowed his oar to turn in his hands as he let it play in the water’s movements. “It feels like living out of relationship- you know, trusting and talking to you- is a bit more complicated than just following the rules.”

“What rules are those Mackenzie?”

“You know, all the things the Scriptures tell us we should do.”

“Okay….” She said with some hesitation. “And what might those be?”

“You know,” he answered sarcastically, “About doing good things and avoiding evil, being kind to the poor, reading your Bible, praying, and going to church. Things like that.”

“I see. ….And how is that working out for you??

He laughed. “Well, I’ve never done it very well. …I just figured I needed to try harder, but I find it difficult to sustain that motivation.”

Mackenzie!” (she chided, her words flowing with affection.) ‘The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus. While words may tell you what God is like and even what he may want from you, you cannot do any of it on your own. Life and living is in him and in no other. My goodness, you didn’t think you could live the righteousness of God on your own, did you?”

“Well, I thought so, sorta…” he said sheepishly. “But you gotta admit rules and principles are simpler than relationships.”

“It is true that relationships are a whole lot messier than rules, but rules will never give you answers to the deep questions of the heart and they will never love you.”…

They continued to move lazily with a current.

“So, will I see you again?” he asked hesitantly. 

“Of course. You might see me in a piece of art, or music, or silence, or through people, or in creation, or in your joy and sorrow. My ability to communicate is limitless, living and transforming, and it will always be tuned to Papa’s goodness and love. And you will hear me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship- a way of coming to be with us.” 

The Shack, William P. Young  excerpts from pages 197-198


In Matthew’s story Peter makes, as Peter is wont to do, a quick decision. But a single decision doesn’t tell the whole story of Peter and Jesus. Jesus was in relationship with Peter long before this incident and that relationship continued long afterward. Their relationship wasn’t based on rules and Peter’s getting things right.

God is faithful, and steadfast- whether Peter was supposed to get out of the boat or stay in, Jesus was there with him and for him.

Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.

We live in rapidly changing and unsettling times. Some of us are concerned about national and global politics – North Korea. Charlottesville.

Some of us are unsettled because our pastor has taken a new call and we have to move on without her.

In a couple of weeks I’m going to be meeting incoming freshmen, whose lives are changing in major ways. Moving away from home. Making new friends. Facing the challenges of college level education. 

Some of you are the parents or grandparents sending someone off to school- maybe it’s college, maybe it’s kindergarten.

Some of you are changing jobs, some have health concerns. As they say, the only constant thing in life is change.

Some clear rules about how to navigate life would be nice. Assurance that following the rules will bring us safety and happiness would also be very nice. It’s no wonder we search for rules. It is tempting to read the Bible looking for the rules. But the Bible isn’t a guide book of rules to follow.

Our Book of Order says the Bible is the written word that points us to the living word- Jesus. The Bible orients us to the story of how God is present in the world. The Bible is an invitation to enter that story. To walk alongside Peter and the disciples.

And  walking along side Jesus, we see how to walk into our own story.

We experience the way of love and relationship.

We grow into that love knowing we are loved.

We row and we wait, we stay in the boat, we get out of the boat.

Not with the assurance of rule followers but with a faith like those guys in a boat.

A little clueless.

Often perplexed.

Doing their best.

Learning to trust Jesus, even when it is dark and stormy and Jesus seems like little more than a ghost.

But this Jesus will not let us go, will not lose us, will not abandon us.

This Jesus has his hand stretched toward us.

Listen for him. Listen to him. Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.


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