+ A dear pastor friend of mine recently shared some distressing news with me. He announced to me that he is leaving ordained ministry. Hearing this, I have to admit, struck me to my core. Now, I know he, like me, has had some issues with the Church. We’ve both been kind of mavericks in the Church—sometimes flying above the radar. And, like me, he has had had his wrists slapped a few times for doing so. So, maybe I wasn’t all that surprised, when I asked him why he was leaving the ministry, he was blunt.
“I can’t work in the Church anymore,” he said. “I don’t think the Church, with all its rules and canons and its severe punishments for trying to do the work of God, is what Jesus intended the Church be. Besides,” she went on, “Christians can be horrible to serve sometimes.”
He finally summarized his decision in this way.
“I asked myself, what would Jesus do in this situation. And the answer was clear: he would leave the Church.”
I’m not certain if I believe that last comment, but probably most of us here would say we have felt the somewhat same way about the Church at times. There are days when we all groan when we see or hear other Christians get up and speak on behalf of the rest of us. There are days when we are embarrassed by what some Christians say or do on behalf of Christianity. There are days when we get frustrated when we hear clergy or other authorities pronounce decrees that, in no way, reflect our own particular views or beliefs. And there are times when we get downright mad at the hypocrisy, the homophobia, the misogyny, the ambivalence, the silence in the face of oppression and evil and war, the downright meanness we sometimes experience from the Church.
Most of us—idealistically, naively maybe—wonder, like my pastor friend: wait a minute. The Church isn’t supposed to be like this. The Church is supposed to be a place of Love and Compassion. It is supposed to be a place where everyone is welcomed and loved.
Knowing that and comparing the ideal view of the Church with its shortcomings only make us feel more helpless, listless, angry, and disgruntled. And sometimes we might even find ourselves admiring those people who aren’t Christian, who aren’t a part of the Church or those Christians who have simply fled the Church.
I don’t admire my friend for leaving ordained ministry. I love ordained ministry. But there are days… Let me tell you: there are definitely days. And if I am envious of anything he is doing, I am envious of the fact that he doesn’t have to deal with all those church politics and rules anymore. There have been times when we’ve all wanted to just run away from Church and everything we find in it, especially when church politics get heated.
And that’s all right. I personally think that’s a somewhat healthy way of looking at the Church. Because we have to remind ourselves of one thing: What my friend is turning away from and what we are often tempted to run away from is not God. What we are running away from is a human-run, human-led organization. We are running away from a celestially planned treasure that has been run (and very often mis-run) throughout two thousand years of history by fallible human beings.
In today’s Gospel, we find this wonderful interchange between Jesus and Peter. Peter, when asked who he thinks Jesus is, replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”
That’s a good answer.
But, Jesus responds to this confession of faith with surprise. He responds by saying, “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.”
Of course, as you might know, Jesus is playing a little word game here with the words “Peter” and “rock.” In Jesus’ own language of Aramaic he would have said, “You are Kepha (Peter is also called Cephas at times in the Gospels) and on this kepha (or rock) I will build my church.” Now, depending on who you are, depending on your own personal spiritual leanings, this reading could take on many meanings.
If you’re more Catholic minded—and especially if you’re more Roman Catholic minded—it certainly does seem that Jesus is establishing the Church on the Rock of Peter—and of course in that tradition Peter at this moment becomes essentially the first Pope. I don’t hold to that view, personally.
On this one, I’m a bit more Protestant or Reformed minded. For people like me, it could be said that the Church is being established not on Peter himself, but on the rock of Peter’s confession of faith.
Either way, Jesus is commending the Church to Peter and to his other followers. And this is important, especially when we examine who Peter is. Jesus commends his Church to one of the most impetuous, impulsive, stubborn, cowardly human beings he could find. Peter, as we all know, is not, on first glance, a wonderful example for us of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He is the one who walks on water and then loses heart, grows frightened and ends up sinking into that water. He’s the one who, when Jesus needs him the most, runs off and denies him not just once, not twice, but three times, and even then cannot bring himself to come near Jesus as he hangs dying on the cross.
But Peter is maybe a better example of what followers of Jesus truly are than we maybe care to admit. Yes, he is a weak, impetuous, cowardly, impulsive human. But who among us isn’t? Who among us isn’t finding someone very much like Peter staring back at us from our own mirrors? And the thing we always have to remember is that, for all the bad things the Church has been blamed for—and there are a lot of them—there are also so many wonderful and beautiful things about the Church that always, always, always outweigh the bad.
Obviously most everyone here this morning must feel that same way as well to some extent. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here this morning. Most of us are able to recognize that the Church is not perfect.
And I think that, when Jesus commended his Church to people like Peter, he knew that, as long as we are here, struggling on this “side of the veil,” so to speak, it would never be perfect. But that, even despite its imperfection, we still all struggle on. Together.
I love the Church and I love the people who are in the Church with me, even the ones who drive me crazy. And I even love the ones with whom I do not agree. Why? Because that’s what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That is what it means to be the Church.
I am here in the Church because I really want to be in the Church. I am here because the Church is my home. It is my family. It is made up of my friends and Jesus’ friends. I am here because I—imperfect, impetuous human being that I am—am part of the Church because I love my fellow Christians, and I don’t just mean that I love Desmond Tutu and all those Christians who are easy to love. I am here because I love even those many outspoken Christians who bombard us on a regular basis with their rhetoric and views that fly in the face of everything many of us hold sacred and dear, even though they drive me crazy and frustrate me and sometimes make me want to leave the Church at times. I am here because I also love the hypocrites and the backbiters and gossipers.
I love them because, let’s face it, sometimes we are those same people too. Sometimes we are the ones who drive people from the Church as well. And sometimes we ourselves drive our own selves away from the Church.
But as long as we’re here, as long as we believe in the renewal that comes again and again in recognizing and confessing our shortcomings and in professing and believing in and what it means to be a baptized Christian, then we know it’s not all a loss. As long as I know that I am struggling and working not to be the hypocrite or the backbiter or the gossiper (and often failing and starting over again), then it’s going to be all right. As long as I struggle to not be the person who drives people from the Church, but works again and again in my life to be the person who welcomes everyone—no matter who they are and where they stand on the issues—into this Church, then I’m doing all right.
Because the Church Jesus founded was a Church founded solidly on the rock of love. The Church’s foundation is the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God and the message to us as followers of this Son of the Living God, the Messiah—the bringer of freedom and peace—is that we must love God and love each other as we love ourselves. But the Church that is firmly founded on the Messiah, the Son of the Living God—when it founded deeply on that balanced love of God, of each other and of ourselves—then it truly becomes the Church Jesus founded and left to us. If we are the Church truly built on a love like that then, without doubt, the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
And as long as I’m here, and you’re here, we are going to make the Church a better place. It will be a place where people like my pastor friend will be forced to reconsider his view of the Church. He will be forced to realize the Church does not have to be this way. We need to be the Church from which no one wants to leave.
So, let us be the Church we want the Church to be—because that is the Church that Jesus founded. Let us be the Church that Jesus commended to that imperfect human being, Peter. In those moments when we find ourselves hating the Church, let’s not hatred win out. Let love—that perfect, flawless love that Jesus preached and practiced—eventually win out.
We are the Church. We are the Church to those people in our lives. We are the Church to everyone we encounter. We are the reflection of the Church to the people we serve along side. So let us be the Church, and if we are, we will find ourselves in the midst of that wonderful vision Jesus imagined for his Church. And it will truly be an incredible place. It will truly be the Kingdom of God in our midst.