Sermon February 10, 2019 Rev. Jenna Heery
Prayer of Illumination:
Guide us, O God, by your Word and your Spirit,
that in your light we may see light,
in your truth find freedom,
and in your presence discover peace;
through Christ our Lord, Amen.
Listen for a word from God.
5Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.
8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
The word of God for the people of God.
In the Basilica in Vatican City, there is a statue of Saint Peter with no toes. Don’t get me wrong – Peter must’ve once had toes! However, over the course of time, so many pilgrims have bent down to kiss the feet of this statue that the metal has worn away, and his toes have been rubbed down so much that they’re now just little nubs that blend in with the rest of his foot.
Beloved by so many, Peter has long been revered as Christ’s first follower, “the Rock,” the “Prince of the Apostles,” the first pope.
Who was this man? Tradition tells us that after Christ’s death, Peter returned to Rome, and he served as the leader of the Christian community there. Shortly after, the Emperor Nero set fire to Rome and needing a scapegoat he blamed the Christians. A horrific persecution ensued. Peter was arrested and condemned to death. He was crucified. And according to legend, after his death, followers recovered Peter’s body and buried it at the present site of the Basilica.
Named the “Rock of the Church” by Christ himself, this fisher of men helped found a religion that has lasted over 2 millennia and now claims 2.18 billion followers worldwide. That is 31% of the Earth’s population!
Trouble in the Text
And yet, even the most papal-loving, foot-kissing follower would never declare Peter divine. A great leader, yes; but a Lord? Never. Peter the Rock, Peter the Prince, Peter the Pope – yes, yes, and yes. But – this is important – Peter was never considered Jesus’ successor.
No, Peter was all too hopelessly human. Mark portrays him as inept. Paul finds him shallow and unconvincing. John respects him but places far more importance on the Beloved Disciple (who, of course, is probably John).
Peter often doesn’t understand Jesus’ parables. He tries to walk on water and nearly drowns. He chops off a man’s ear. He commits the ultimate betrayal and denies Jesus three times. And then, after Jesus’ death, Peter even gives up, he forgets his calling, and he goes back to fishing. For fish.
This is the Rock? The Prince? The Pope? Even here, Peter falls down at Jesus’ knees and declares, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am just a sinful man!”
This presented a serious problem. How can you lead a movement with no clear successor? How could the Church possibly be led by such fallible followers? It could’ve been a fatal flaw.
All we have to do is look to our Sunni and Shiite Muslim brothers and sisters to see just how real this threat of division truly was. The question of who was to succeed after Muhammad (PBUH) was – and is – the central issue that split the Muslim community into several divisions. And still, even centuries later, these divisions have not been healed. Still, even centuries later, these divisions between the Sunnis and the Shiites often violently wage.
Following Jesus’ death, our own early Church also divided into various factions. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth,
My brothers and sisters, I have been informed that there are quarrels among you…One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Peter”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
During this time of transition and division, the truth is that the Christian Church may have never become Christ’s Church.
Trouble in the World
Division is still a threat to Christ’s Church. According to estimates from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, there were 34,000 denominations worldwide in 2000. This number rose dramatically to an estimated 43,000 by the year 2012. Take that number in…
Just within our North American context, not including our Presbyterian brothers and sisters worldwide, in the Presbyterian Church alone you have us (the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and then you also have…
- the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
- the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC)
- the Bible Presbyterian Church (BPC)
- the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC)
- the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America
- the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)
- the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO)
and on and on and on…
The Presbyterian Church has split over the issues of slavery, revivalism, evolution, women in ministry, the Civil Rights Movement, and most recently over gay marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ ministers.
Friends, we know all too well that the threat of division hovers over any time of transition in a church. This threat of factions rising and divisions forming is a great fear during any transition period in a congregation. We worry church attendance may drop. Pledges may decline. The momentum may slow. Power shifts. No doubt, in this interim period before the Interim Pastor is found, in this time of transition and change, this may be our own fear. Maybe it is your fear this morning.
Hope in the Text
No, Peter was not Jesus’ successor. Nope, he was flawed and he was a fallible follower – a fisherman with no toes. And he went on to lead a flawed and fallible church. And that, my friends, that is precisely Peter’s power!
I don’t know about you, but I find great hope in the fact that those first bearers of this faith that I hold so dear never divinized Peter. He was one of them; he is one of us. He was no god; he was just a fisherman. Just a fisherman trying his very best to follow Jesus.
Peter’s humanity is ultimately Peter’s power. It is a leadership by grace – a grace that always, always, always turns back to Christ, back to God. It is a leadership that sets us free.
There is a line from John Calvin that I love, and I am reminded of it every time that I step into the pulpit. He says, “It is the Word itself which is preached, and not the minister, that preaches; for even if a minister was evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word remains still good and true.”
How liberating is that?! Who knows – you may be thinking to yourself, “Pastor Jenna’s nice and all, but her sermons are a little shallow. And unconvincing. She’s definitely inept! And maybe even a little bit evil.” To that I readily respond, “Yep! I am just a sinful woman!” And that is okay! I hope that you hear the Word of God anyway.
Hope in the World
When he had just been newly elected, almost 6,000 journalists gathered at the Vatican to attend an audience with Pope Francis. And now, as one of the most powerful men in the world – who in the Catholic tradition now holds the mantle that Peter has handed down from pope to pope to pope through the ages – Pope Francis said,
“The Church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails… the Church is the People of God, making their way to encounter Jesus Christ. It is Christ, (not the Pope) not the successor of Peter, who is at the center. For without him, Peter and the Church would not exist or have reason to exist.”
That, my friends, is the answer to our fear this morning.
Yes, factions may flare. Power may shift. And the threat of division may stand between us. That may happen. Who are we kidding – that likely will happen. After all, we are all just flawed and fallible followers. We too are all just fishermen (fisherwomen? fisherpeople?) doing our best to follow Jesus.
But that is the answer – we are following Jesus. We are following Jesus.
Friends, I want you to do something a little bit weird with me this morning. As you are able, I want you to stand and stretch across the aisle…. Bear with me. I know that many of you are now definitely convinced that I may be a little bit evil. And I am okay with that…. Hold hands with the people beside you…. Come on, be brave….
Do you feel it? Do you feel that power?
Standing together, we are no longer the center of our own universe.
Standing together, we are no longer alone.
Standing together, Christ is here among us.
Standing together, Christ is at the center.
Not us, not the pastor, not this pulpit or these pews, not this building – Christ is at the center.
Christ is the Rock, Christ is the Prince, Christ is Head of our Church.
Christ is the center of this church.
And if we remember that, if we promise ourselves and promise each other that we will seek to put Christ at the center of this church in every decision that we make and in everything we do, then we will be transformed by that grace.
We can and we will unite together even in the face of fear.
Friends, do you feel it?! This is the power that led Peter, just a fallible fishermen, to help found a church that spanned over 2000 years and has more than 2 billion followers.
Standing together, united by the power of Christ, who knows what we are capable of?!