Scripture: Exodus 1-2 and Matt. 16: 13-18a Nigel Bunce
This week we read foundation stories about Judaism and Christianity. Moses and Jesus; two great religions. The story of Moses in the bull-rushes initiates the long Exodus saga for Judaism. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is the essence of Christianity.
The Gospel: Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah is one of Christianity’s foundation stories
Two weeks ago, we heard the story about Jesus walking on the water. That passage ended when the disciples told Jesus, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Today, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” I imagine everyone foot-shuffling and looking at the ground. Like in high school or college when the teacher asks the class a question. Eventually someone mumbled, “Well, maybe John the Baptist, or maybe Elijah, or some other prophet.”
But Jesus pressed them. “But who do you say that I am?” Peter jumped in feet first. “You are the Messiah.” Two weeks ago, we heard the story when Jesus walked on the water. That passage ended when the disciples told Jesus, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” Is today’s Scripture an unnecessary repetition of the walking on water story. I think not. Matthew needed to remind his community (and us) over and over again who Jesus was.
What is “Church”?
Then Jesus told Peter, “On this rock [meaning you] I will build my church.” Peter is literally a foundation story. If we call someone a rock, we mean that they are reliable and trustworthy. But how could Jesus trust Peter to be a rock on which to build a church? Peter was a Jew. His world was that of Temple and synagogue.
The whole idea of the church, with its bishops and priests, monks and nuns, didn’t exist till long after Jesus lived and died. Alyce McKenzie, an American Bible scholar, points out that the Greek word used here [ekklesia] means “community” or “people of God”. It isn’t Church with a big C, as in Anglican Church or Presbyterian Church.
So, when Matthew wrote about “church”, he meant the “community” of disciples and other followers. They have kept the faith and stories of Jesus alive long after he has gone. We at St George’s, two thousand years later, are part of that small-c church, the community of the people of God. We keep the faith alive by retelling the stories of Jesus week by week.
Foundation stories, the Exodus and the “Israelite problem”
The Exodus is one of the most important foundation stories in Israel’s sacred history. Jews remember the escape from Egypt every year at Passover. The Egyptian Pharaoh noticed that his Israelite slaves threatened to outnumber the native born Egyptians. Sounds a bit like nativist sentiment in modern Canada – or, worse, the US. Nativists want to restrict immigration. Too many outsiders.
To solve the “Israelite problem”, Pharaoh gave orders to kill all baby boys by drowning them in the River Nile. It was genocide, pure and simple. This story seems all too familiar. Our world has witnessed the Nazi Holocaust, the Soviet gulags, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Syria.
Of course, it would have been a better plan to kill the girls. But that would have spoiled the story.
Civil disobedience and nobodies
In Israel’s sacred history, two midwives took the initiative. They disobeyed Pharaoh and let the baby boys live. They fobbed off Pharaoh’s officials with a crackpot tale. Israelite women gave birth so fast that it was all over before the midwives could arrive. The baby boys had already disappeared. They couldn’t face off Pharaoh’s officials by force. So they practised civil disobedience.
The Israelite midwives were nobodies, but they changed Israel’s sacred history. One boy they saved was the infant Moses. Very improbably, Pharaoh’s daughter rescued and adopted him. The adult Moses led the Israelite people out of slavery in Egypt. Eventually to the border of the Promised Land that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In modern times, Rosa Parks practised a similar kind of civil disobedience in 1957. Like those Israelite midwives, she was a nobody. A black woman from Montgomery Alabama, she refused to sit at the back of a segregated bus. Rosa Parks is famous today because she changed US history. She catalysed the US Civil Rights movement. But not by overt force. That would have been impossible.
The Israelite midwives were nobodies, like Rosa Parks. They changed Israel’s sacred history. One boy they saved was the infant Moses. Very improbably, Pharaoh’s daughter rescued and adopted him. The adult Moses led the Israelite people out of slavery in Egypt, and to the border of the Promised Land. The land that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Jesus, the “New Moses”
The point of the story of Moses in the bullrushes is not whether it is literally true. It is that God’s providential power saved one baby boy, and changed Israel’s sacred history. It is also a back-story, or precedent, to the Christian story.
Like Pharaoh, King Herod ordered the killing of all baby boys. A dream warned the Holy Family to flee to Egypt till it was safe to return to Galilee. That saved Jesus’ young life. Matthew reported, “Out of Egypt have I called my Son” [2: 15]. In other words, Jesus is the new Moses. Moses and Jesus are foundational figures in Judaism and Christianity respectively.
Moses became the leader of the emerging Israelite nation. The midwives seem like just a footnote. Martin Luther King became the great civil rights leader and orator. Rosa Parks seemed like a minor player. Yet in each case, the minor player lit the match that started the bonfire. Peter, a mere fisherman, another nobody, declared that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.
Maybe a tiny something might change another person’s life. Or perhaps indirectly, that something might even change the whole world. It is an awesome responsibility. But that is why we are called ekklesia. Not big-C Church, but the people of God.
To sum up
I started by saying that this morning is about foundation stories. Jesus called Peter a rock on which to build an ekklesia. Foundations have to be solid. It’s true of buildings. There’s a large condo building under construction not far from where I live in Guelph. The hole for the foundations must be 30-40 feet deep. They go down to bedrock.
You probably remember that Jesus once compared a house built on a rock with one built on sand [Matthew 7: 24-27]. The one built on rock withstood a flood, but the one built on sand washed away. It’s also true of relationships. Friendships. Marriages. A single fight breaks a lifetime friendship. A single act of dishonesty destroys a marriage. Perhaps those relationships could have survived with stronger foundations.
And true of parishes. Right now, we have to wonder which parishes will survive COVID19. Which congregations have strong enough foundations to withstand that storm? I’ll guess that it’s those that answer Jesus’ question to the disciples the same way as Peter. “You are the Messiah, Son of the living God.” That’s the imagery in the hymn Christ is made the sure foundation. “Christ [is] the head and cornerstone” of the ekklesia. Amen.