In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus announces the foundation of the church that will be built because of his witness. His proclamation comes after Peter’s confession. For some Christians, therefore, the foundation is Peter’s proclamation; for others, Peter’s own person because Jesus names him “the rock.” We know that buildings are built on foundations as strong as rock, and so it is natural to think that “rock,” that human being, Peter, is the foundation. Which is it?
Determinations over Jesus’ meaning in this passage has split the Christian community over the centuries and influenced the shape of Christian witness. Sara Webb Phillips addresses the question how we are to understand what Jesus meant by the “foundation” of the church. She offers a helpfully ambiguous interpretation.
Though Peter does not realize the implications of his words, he confesses Jesus as Messiah and as Son of the Living God. . . Upon this “fickle follower,” Jesus promises to build his church. Peter eventually gets hold of the vision of God's future, which leads him to live as becoming the name that Jesus gave him: “the Rock.” The “keys” he is given likely refer to Isaiah 22:15–22, where Eliakim is given the “key to the House of David.”
The importance of our beliefs varies in direct relationship to the potential consequences of what we believe. What coffee mug we select in the morning is not of consequence normally. But if we are sitting down to table with a six-year-old who made a picture mug for us, a gift the child invested with love, the choice of mug is significant and the consequence is joy.
When it comes to our belief in Jesus as savior, what we believe does things to us and causes us to do things. In Peter's case, he declared his belief, and eventually was so formed by it, that he preached throughout the Mediterranean world, dying a martyr's death.
– Sara Webb Phillips
Phillips refers to the “vision of God’s future” Peter finally grasped. Considering what that vision is today may offer a way for the preacher on this Sunday to lift up the promises, the compassion, and the impossible-to-comprehend mercy God intends for the church to show the world.
Isaiah prophesies: “the heavens will vanish…” “the earth will wear out…” but “my salvation will be forever…” Here is a concise description of today’s own relationship with creation. We face huge questions about planetary survival. And, in the face of possible dire circumstances for many creatures and people, God’s promise is salvation, deliverance, joy, and gladness.
Speaking to those in exile, Isaiah offers words of comfort and hope. He reminds the righteous from whence they came, he exhorts them to remember God's faithfulness. God will restore Zion. Yet deliverance will come through God's power, and it will come to all (including the gentiles). The people have but to look at the wonders of creation, and whatever may change, trust that God's plan will continue to unfold.
This word gives comfort and hope even today as we hear an inclusion of the natural world along with salvation for God's people. The waste places will be restored. Perhaps God is working through the ecological movement as a sign of grace.
– Sara Webb Phillips
Consider Peter’s vision of God’s great goodness in light of Isaiah’s assurance that despite the transitory and fragile nature of this world, God’s salvation does not end. How does that promise speak to our relationship with creation?
One helpful way to link all of the Revised Common Lectionary texts in a sermon (rather than talking about each in turn) is to look for their common threads. In the Gospel text and in Isaiah, we see a common proclamation of God’s power to transform the world. Peter proclaims the Messiah; Isaiah proclaims the eternal vigilance of God in contrast to the transitory nature of creation.
The Epistle text––written to the churches our ancestors formed––offers a glimpse of where the church, even today, ought to train its vision. Situated in a time of great environmental jeopardy, when coastlands are pleading with humanity to attend to their health and the earth in many places is, in fact, wearing out, we may hear this appeal to the Romans as an appeal to ourselves: Take your many and varied gifts and use them to be transformed so that the renewing of our minds might heal not only ourselves but our home on Earth.
There is a shift in Paul's letter to the Romans beginning with chapter 12. The first eleven chapters have a dogmatic focus, and chapters 12—16 have an ethical one. However, each is woven together. The “new life in Christ” spoken of in these verses highlights “living sacrifice,” transformation by “renewing of minds,” and the variety of gifts.
Paul emphasizes that diversity of gifts is normal and necessary for the vitality of the church. Each gift is important. Thus, the whole body is to discover, value, and use the gifts to glorify God. Al Carmines captured Paul's intention well with his hymn text, “Many gifts, one Spirit, one love known in many ways. In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise, one Giver, one Lord, one Spirit, one Word” (The United Methodist Hymnal [Nashville: UM Publishing House, 1989], 114).
– Sara Webb Phillips is the pastor of North Springs United Methodist Church, Sandy Springs, Georgia. She served for many years as co-editor of Liturgy.
Homily Service 41, no. 3 (2008): 167-177.