[Given on the Fourth Sunday of Eastertide, April 4, 2015, by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, Missouri]
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them… “let it be known to all of you… that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth… whom God raised from the dead.”
Acts 4:8, 10
In the name of our creating God, our risen Lord, and our abiding Spirit. Amen. +
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
[The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!]
I have been given the task of standing before you to continue our sermon series on “A Critical Conversation – Exploring the Church’s Harsh Reviews” where we raise up some of the most difficult criticisms hurled at the Church and reflect on them in light of Gospel of Jesus Christ. That task is made especially delicious this morning because I get to engage the thought that “Churches are full of pretentious hypocrites.” I get to talk about hypocrites in church and then hop on a plane to Europe. I couldn’t have planned this any better if I had tried.
I do want to state emphatically that this statement could not be further from the truth because the word “full” insinuates that there isn’t room for anymore. There are indeed pretentious hypocrites in Church and the good news is that there is always room for one more.
I say this in jest, but there is truth underneath it. You see, contrary to how others may see us or even how we may want so badly to see ourselves, the Church is not a club for saints, but a support group for sinners. We don’t claim holiness because we are perfect, or because we are worthy, or because we are right, or because of anything else that we have done. We can claim that we are holy only inasmuch as we claim “the presence of Jesus among us and within us.”
Too often the vulnerability of this statement gets lost in translation and many would-be disciples get lost by the roadside, unable or unwilling to enter the community gathered around the Risen Christ because they don’t feel worthy, because they are not perfect, because they are not “right.” If we are to be the Church of the 21st Century, we must tell this truth – none of us is worthy, and yet the fathomless love of God invites us still.
God’s gracious invitation is not new. God’s been inviting us to friend Him since before Facebook. God’s been inviting us to follow Her since before Twitter. God’s been inviting us to a party since before Evites. God has always invited people – imperfect as we are – into relationship with one another and with God’s self. God specializes in creating community out of individuals and blessing those communities with Her promise and presence.
Read through the book of Genesis and you’ll see this pattern slowly emerge where God repeatedly invites humanity into relationship with one another and with himself over and over and over again. God is the preeminent and primordial community organizer – building relationships and drawing people together. God called Adam and Eve. God called Abraham and Sarah. God called Isaac and Rebekah. God called Jacob and Rachel and Leah. God called Moses to get get a bunch of slaves. Over and over again God was calling imperfect humans into relationship. God throws open the doors to fellowship and runs through the streets gathering up the riffraff. That’s just what God does.
Finally, one night God’s call to community put on flesh and dwelt among us, and to show us the wideness of God’s mercy and love, Jesus, God’s “call made flesh” called upon a ragtag bunch of nobodies to follow him and to bear witness to this call to community. He called Pharisees and Zealots, tax collectors and fishermen, rich young rulers and lepers. It was into these frail human hands – hands that had reached up to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and brought sin into the world, hands that grasped the hilt of a sword and slew a brother, hands that were extended towards a golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai even as God swirled in the clouds at the summit, hands that abuse one another, hands that take too much, hands too often closed to generosity and gentleness, hands that would ultimately lift the savior of the world upon the hard wood of the cross – into these frail, human hands God placed the Church.
Either God trusts us too much, or we trust ourselves too little.
Take Peter for example. When we first encounter Peter, we come to know him as Simon. Simon from the Hebrew “Simeon” which means “hearing.” Simon was a nondescript fisherman until he heard the voice of Jesus and came to be one of his disciples. The record suggests that upon meeting Simon, Jesus decided to give him another name. Simon did not fit where he was going. Simon was too small. Simon was too limiting. Simon was too confining. The Gospels don’t agree as to when this took place, but somewhere along the way after Simon recognized who Jesus really was, Jesus began calling Simon, Peter. Jesus wasn’t just (epistata) rabbi or teacher as Simon thought in the beginning. But after Jesus told Simon to cast his net on the other side of the ship and the net was so filled with fish that it almost broke, after Simon fell on his face and call Jesus (kurios) “Lord,” Jesus changed his name to Peter meaning “rock.” Peter was bigger. Peter was more suited for the mission and the mandate to which God had called him. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” Jesus looked into Peter’s destiny and called it by name – you are a rock!
And Peter would spend the rest of his life living into his new name.
Even when Peter foolishly set his mind on earthly things and not on things heavenly and was rebuked by Jesus, he was still a rock.
Even at Gethsemane when Peter raised up his sword against the high priest’s slave, he was still a rock.
Even when Peter followed behind Jesus at a distance and denied him three times, he was still a rock.
And even when Peter and the other nine disciples were barricaded in the Upper Room after news of the Resurrection had broken, he was still a rock.
Beloved, Peter was still a rock because once God places the divine seal upon you, once God calls you “beloved,” once God calls you a rock, you can’t be anything else.
It was this Peter, this rock, who would stand before the authorities and boldly profess the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s no wonder Peter quoted that often used Psalm “the stone that the builders rejected… has become the cornerstone.” Jesus is a rock. Peter was a rock. Each and every one of us is a rock, even if we fail to live into it.
And it is precisely because we will fail over and over again that we need the Church. It is only though our interaction with the Risen Christ and one another that we learn how to love, how to believe, how to live. It is only in Christian community that we learn how to be Christ-like. I need you. You need me. We all need Christ. And that’s why we are here. That’s why we are the Church.
We are the Church, built upon the cornerstone of Christ, boldly professed by imperfect women and men throughout the ages.
We are the Church, “a moment in time when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.”
Rachel Held Evans even suggests in her book Searching for Sunday, that:
This is the Church. Here she is. Lovely, irregular, sometimes sick and sometimes well. This is the body-like-no-other that God has shaped and placed in the world. Jesus lives here; this is his soul’s address. There is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. She has taken a beating, the church. Every day she meets the gates of hell and she prevails. Every day she serves, stumbles, injures, and repairs. That she has healed is an underrated miracle. That she gives birth is beyond reckoning. Maybe it’s time to make peace with her. Maybe it’s time to embrace her, flawed as she is.
Look around dear friends. We are the Church. We are a sacrament of the Kingdom of God, and outward and visible sign and the inward and spiritual grace of divine union, gracious welcome, and radical hospitality, of God throwing open the doors and gathering up the riffraff. We are imperfect, flawed, broken, unworthy, and too often ungrateful, and yet God has the nerve to call us beloved, to call us family, to call us holy.
 Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday, 132.
 Ibid., 132.
 Ibid., 168.