by Ernest Thompson, Wilmington, NC
Gospel: St. Matthew 16:5-12
When we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ (on Easter), we looked at the story of Mary, at her grief over being separated from Jesus, and her great joy over being reunited with the risen Christ.
But that reunion was not the end of the story. Jesus tells Mary that she can’t keep clinging to him, that she has work to do – she needs to go and spread the good news, to share with others what has happened.
Leslie Newbegin says that every story of the resurrection in the New Testament ends with a call to mission. The good news is never something we can keep to ourselves. It is always something to be shared.
This leads to a question though – does God really send you and me to share the good news, and to carry on the work of Christ?
Couldn’t God send someone a little bit more qualified, someone a little more eloquent, someone a little more gifted? Does God really entrust the good news of the gospel and the work of his kingdom to ordinary people like you and like me?
In some ways this is a question about the church. Is this human institution, made up of ordinary people like you and like me, really able to carry on the work that Jesus began?
Our Scripture lesson this morning shows us the disciples at their best and at their worst.
In the first half of the lesson, they completely miss what Jesus is talking about. And then in the second half of the lesson, Jesus calls Peter the rock on which he will build his church.
There is a certain comfort here. We see that those first disciples were ordinary people like you and like me. And there is also a challenge here – a challenge for us to live out the true meaning of Easter.
1. Our lesson starts with a misunderstanding. Jesus has just performed two extraordinary miracles.
He was looking for a little time away. But the crowds found him, and they gathered around him, and he had compassion for them, and so he began to teach them and to heal their sick.
When evening came the disciples told Jesus to send the people away so that everyone could buy food for themselves. But Jesus said “No. They need not go away. You give them something to eat.” The disciples think that Jesus must be crazy. They hardly have enough for themselves. They can’t begin to feed this crowd.
But Jesus takes what they have, he gives thanks for it, breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples, who then give it to the people. Everyone eats, and everyone is satisfied, and there are twelve baskets of leftovers.
And then, maybe just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, or maybe to show something about the wideness of God’s mercy, Jesus crosses over the lake into the Gentile territory, and he does the same thing over again.
Another crowd gathers, and Jesus again tells his disciples to feed them. The disciples, who are either very forgetful or just slow to believe, say “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed all these people?”
Jesus again takes what they have, blesses it, and gives it to the disciples. Everyone eats and is satisfied, and there are seven basketfuls left over.
We haven’t even gotten to our lesson yet, but there is already a pattern emerging.
The disciples don’t seem to be a very impressive group – not exactly the best and the brightest. They seem to miss some obvious clues. And yet Jesus uses them anyway.
Jesus could have recruited a new group of disciples. He could have handed out the bread himself and by passed the disciples. But instead Jesus gives the bread to the disciples, and they pass it out to the people.
In our lesson Jesus gives the disciples a warning. “Watch out” he says, “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”
The Pharisees and the Sadducees are Jesus’ antagonists throughout the gospels. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were influential religious leaders, but Jesus thinks they have missed the point of God’s instruction.
Dale Bruner calls them the “Serious” and the “Sophisticated” – and says that what unites them is their pride. The Pharisees are proud of their moral behavior, and look down on anyone who is not as holy as they think they are. The Sadducees are proud of their position. They were the rich and powerful who worked closely with the Roman government.
So you have the Pharisees and the Sadducees both missing the point – missing God’s grace and God’s love and God’s mercy.
Jesus tells his disciples to be careful of the yeast of the and Pharisees the Sadducees– be careful of the way that the teaching and the pride of the Pharisees and Sadducees can creep in and distort the good news that Jesus has been teaching them.
The disciples hear Jesus words, and they nod thoughtfully.
Then they lean over to each other and say, “I think Jesus may be upset that we did not bring any bread with us – I think that’s why he’s talking about yeast – you know you use yeast when you make bread – and we don’t have any yeast or any bread.”
Jesus hears their whispering and says, “What are you talking about? Why are you talking about not having any bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember?”
.. You can tell that Jesus is a little bit frustrated, because the disciples are just not getting the point.
2. This is not first time or the last time that the followers of Jesus will be clueless and miss the point of what Christ telling us. It happens over and over again. I was with a group of pastors recently, and one of them told us about his best sermon ever. It was on Psalm 30 – it was powerful and compelling he just knew that he had transformed lives that day.
He got a call from one of his members on Monday morning who said she just had to talk with him about yesterday’s service. He smiled and thought I bet she just wants to thank me for that sermon. But instead she asked, “I just have to know who put the rose bud on the piano yesterday instead of where it usually goes? It was all I could do not to come forward and move it during the service, I was just so worried about it leaving a water mark on our new piano.”
The pastor told her that he would certainly look into it and make sure it never happened again. Then he hung up the phone, and told his secretary he was going home.
Jesus gives us good news that will transform lives, and we wonder about the rose bud on the piano.
Jesus calls us to be the light of the world, and we worry about whether the service will be over by noon.
Jesus gives us words of wisdom and words of life, and we hear the words, but miss the meaning.
And sometimes it gets worse.
Sometimes we are not just clueless or distracted. Sometimes we are arrogant or boastful or rude. Sometimes the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees creeps into our own faith.
I hate to imagine all of the terrible things that have been done in the name of religion, and all the people who have been kept away from faith because of the failures of the church.
In his book, The Reason for God, Timothy Keller talks about the seven toughest questions Christians face. These seven questions come from his conversations with young skeptics in New York City.
Most of those questions are what you might expect – things like why does a good God allow suffering?
But one of his questions took me by surprise. It’s not a question about God or about the Bible or about Christ. It’s a question about the church, about you and about me. Keller says that one of the questions many people are asking today is whether the church does more harm than good.
.. We who follow Christ sometimes miss the point of his teaching, and sometimes we look more like the Pharisees and the Sadducees than we do like Christ.
3. Jesus was frustrated with his disciples then and I’m sure he is often frustrated with his disciples today. And yet – in the very next story Jesus says something extraordinary to these very same disciples. Jesus has asked the disciples who people say that he is.
And the disciples give him a few of the theories that are being circulated around.
Some say he is John the Baptist. Others say he is Elijah, and some say Jeremiah.
Then Jesus asks a far more difficult question, a far more personal question. “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?”
And finally Peter gets something right. Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
And Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
It’s an amazing contrast.
How can we go from the clueless disciples who have no idea what Jesus is talking about, to Peter being described as the rock on which Jesus will build his church, a church so steady that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it?
How do you get from here to there?
I think you get there through Christ.
Jesus does not say, “You are Peter, and you are so wise and holy that you will build my church.”
Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my much.” I will build. I will build my church.
We get from here to there because Jesus does not leave us.
Jesus continues to stand beside us.
Jesus continues to pray for us.
Jesus continues to hand us the bread of life, and we just pass it on to those are hungry.
We have celebrated Easter – and part of what Easter means is that Jesus does not leave us alone.
Jesus continues to stand beside us.
When we get into trouble, as individuals and as a church, is when we think we can do it on our own, when we forget how much we need the risen Christ to stand beside us.
Timothy Keller draws a helpful distinction between religion and the gospel.
Religion he says is what we do. It is our effort to win God’s favor with our own good behavior – and that is the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
The gospel, Keller says, is the good news that God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The gospel is the good news that God forgives us and transforms us through his son Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Religion, Keller says, breeds arrogance and insecurity.
It breeds arrogance because if we think we have saved themselves, whether it is by our good works or by our correct beliefs, we will also look down on those who are not as good as we are, and on those who don’t believe all the right things like we do.
But religion also brings insecurity, because in our heart of hearts we know that we are never quite as good as we think we are, or as good as we know we should be. We know that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Sometimes the only way to hide this insecurity and feel better about ourselves is to find someone else that we can criticize and look down on.
Religion breeds arrogance and insecurity, but the gospel brings a strange combination of humility and confidence.
The gospel is a source of humility because it tells us that we need to be saved, and that we can’t save ourselves, no matter how hard we work at it. The gospels says that God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and that is profoundly humbling. We can never look down on anyone else, because we truly recognize, there but for the grace of God go I.
But the gospel also gives us confidence – not confidence in ourselves, but confidence in the love that has redeemed us. If our salvation is not our own achievement, but the gracious gift of a God who loves us unconditionally, then we can relax and live with confidence and joy.
.. We may sometimes be clueless. We may often miss the point. But still God loves us. And still God invites us to be a part of his kingdom, and a part of the work that he is doing in the world. God doesn’t just call perfect people – mostly because there are not a whole lot of perfect people around. Mostly there are people like us, people who may not be perfect – but who have received God’s blessing, and who can share that blessing with others.
Sheldon Vanauken once wrote,
The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness.
But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians--when they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.
I know the church is a fallen, sinful institution.
I know that we often miss the point. I know we often let Christ down.
And so the critics of the church have a point. We ought to listen to our critics and learn from our critics.
But I also know that this is not the whole story.
I know that churches like ours do an incredible amount of good, not only for our own members, but also for the community and for the world.
There is no way to measure how many lives have been touched, how many souls have been feed, how many blessings have been given, through the life and work and witness of First Presbyterian Church – not just what we do together but also what we do as individuals out in the community.
The church is not perfect, and we are not perfect. But the good news is that it’s not our church. It is Christ’s church.
As long as the risen Christ is with us, we will be a church that shares what we have received, and invites others to receive the joy that we have found.
As long as the risen Christ is with us, we will be his witnesses, here in Wilmington and to the ends of the earth.
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