One of the journalists I’ve followed for years is Nicholas Kristof, who, in 1989, was in
China, at Tiananmen Square. It was during a time of protest, followed by a massacre and ending
with a military crackdown. Much about that time in China is still unknown. What is known is
what was broadcast on TV throughout the world.
Those moving pictures were of someone who came to be called “Tank Man.” The video is
now one of the most iconic images of all time. It shows a man, the day after the massacre,
bravely standing in front of several tanks, all moving toward him, You can see him shifting his
stance, back and forth, in order to obstruct the tanks’ procession. “Tank Man” took a stand and
kept on taking it - resisting violence, supporting freedom.
An icon or image, like Tank Man, is a symbol, a metaphor for something else. All
images, all icons, all symbols, slip. They can’t capture everything about something. But a good
image can last a long, long time. Take the image in our Gospel story today. It’s an image, a
symbol, that Jesus created to describe the church.
Actually, the word “church” - ekklesia in the Greek, from which we get our word
ecclesiastical - is found just two times in all the Gospels. Only Matthew uses the word “church.”
One of those two times is in today’s passage. Jesus says that Peter is a rock . (That’s an image -
and a pun. The Greek word for rock is “Petros.” You could call him “Rocky.”) Jesus goes on to
say, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
Images, icons, symbols: they’re all over the place today. We sang, first as our opening
hymn, and later, as our closing hymn, that “the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her
Lord” (Hymnal 1982 #abc). Jesus is our foundation. He’s also our rock. Remember that old
hymn: Rock of ages? Elsewhere in the Bible, Jesus is called the cornerstone of the church
(Ephesians 2:19). Simply put: No Jesus, no church.
Peter was also a rock, a smaller one, and yet, the one on whom Jesus says he will build
the church. Since the Catholic Church was, at first, the only church, Peter was also the first
Pope, the papa, father of all the first Christians. Pope Francis is Pope #266, although there’s a
lot more to the story of “apostolic succession.” In our own story, the history of the Episcopal
Church, we’re a child of the Church of England, which left the Catholic Church in the 16th
century. We have Presiding Bishops. Michael Curry is #27.
Today, we hear how Peter rose to the occasion. Next Sunday, we’ll see him fall. Popes,
Presiding Bishops, priests, all God’s people - we aren’t perfect. We don’t have a perfect
understanding of who Jesus was, who Jesus still is, who Jesus might come to be.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They had many
replies, probably based on the religious groups they represented. Today, they might say, “Here’s
the Evangelical take on who you are. Here’s what Methodists think.” Jesus asks them again, but
now he makes things personal: “Who do you say that I am?”
Yesterday I presided at a funeral for the folks at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. They
don’t have a priest, so when their senior warden contacted me, I said yes. The woman whose life
we celebrated was Mattie Lee Woods, who retired after nearly fifty years of public school
teaching. She was 88 years old. The Gospel reading was the one with the image of Jesus as
Good Shepherd. Teachers are like shepherds, I said, because they symbolically lay down their
life for their students - now, sometimes, even literally.
We sing today about Jesus as the church’s one foundation, the rock of ages. We hear
about Jesus as the Son of the living God, as Peter puts it (Matthew 16:16). But who is Jesus for
us, now, today? Who do we say Jesus is in 2023?
The journalist I mentioned earlier, Nicholas Kristof, just published a story called
“America is Losing Religious Faith.” He writes, “For the first time in Gallup polling, a minority
of adults in the United States belong to a church, synagogue or mosque.” Kristof quotes from a
book called The Great Dechurching, in which the authors say “we are currently experiencing the
largest and fastest religious shift in (our) history.”
That religious shift has been caused by many things, including the pandemic. I believe it
means that, we who call ourselves Christian, we who follow Jesus - we need to consider a new
question. I suggest that, in 2023, the question Jesus asked those original disciples: “Who do you
say that I am?” may not be his last question. Even if we have answered that question, all our
lives, it can’t be our final answer - or our final question.
For more than two thousand years, all answers to that question, all the images and ways
Christians have understood who Jesus was…They’re all true. Jesus is our Lord, our Savior, our
rock, our one foundation, the man who took a stand for us. God in Jesus is pure love. Some
answers are the ones we might give today. They’re all good answers. But I think those answers,
those questions, all together, don’t go far enough.
Jesus asked two questions about himself: “Who do people say I am?” and, “Who do you
say I am?” The question he did not ask his disciples, the question he might have asked…the
final question he may be asking us now, is: “Who do you say you are?”
Let me be clear. This is not the question someone asks when they’re angry: “Who do you
think you are?” It’s “Who do you say you are? Who do you say you are?” It’s the kind of
question organizations are asked to consider when they create a mission statement. It’s an
identity question, a question some people hate to be asked.
But it’s a question for us today: “Who do we say we are, as Episcopal Christians, as All
Saints’ Episcopal Church?” One answer, inspired by the man who led the March on Washington
60 years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, is “We are becoming God’s beloved community.
We are becoming the church.” We are more than an image.
Next Sunday, in the next part of Matthew’s Gospel story, we’ll hear about some of the
challenges of being and becoming a 21st century church. For now, let’s pray: Jesus, help us to
become, more and more, your church, your beloved community.
~ August 27, 2023
The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg, Vicar
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
1508 South White Station Road
Memphis, TN 38117