August 27, 2017 – It Literally Takes All of Us
Matthew 16:13-20; Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 12:1-8
Have you ever used the phrase, “I am literally going to starve if I don’t eat soon”? Or how about “He was so mad he literally went crazy”? We use the word literally so often that we literally act as if we don’t know what it means. I’m sure you are literally thinking people who correct others’ grammar are the worst kind of obnoxious.
I heard the word literally once on my trip to Europe this past week that caught my ear. As we were moving past a skyline of gorgeous old buildings and sky-scraping steeples, a person uttered, “it’s sad how those buildings are literally empty.” Anyone coming into our building on a Tuesday afternoon would think this church is empty, too.
It’s true that church attendance is in decline in much of Europe, and that is also true here in the States, but that does not mean God is absent. Many of the crew members on the boat told us that working in travel is special to them, because travel is how we meet other people, make connections, and learn that our differences do not matter as much when connect with a person rather than an identity or ethnicity. Travel proves we are all simply people, or as we see it here, children of God.
The great shadow of the unknown foreigner really changes when you share a meal and tell stories. My identity was not my nationality nor my religion – it was my kindness and the fact my and my brother’s beards caused a rumor amongst the Australians that we were Amish.
The oneness of all peoples regardless of race, creed, or tribe is the cornerstone of the belief that God has children and God loves them and needs them. In the passage read earlier, Jesus asks his disciples who he is. They want to get the right answer so they hedge their bets and say a lot of things. After Peter nails it, Jesus tells them why the question is important.
Peter’s name comes from the Greek petros, where we get petrified. It means solid or rock. When Jesus equates Peter to the church’s foundation, he is saying he needs a solid person. Many of the churches we saw in Europe were made of large, heavy rocks placed together. We saw city walls made of stones from the Roman era that would have been present when Jesus uttered these words. Jesus wants solid people to be the foundation of the church of the anointed Son of God. Solid is a matter of character, not where we come from or what we look like.
This story is one of the most famous in Christendom, when Jesus first declares that there will be a church out of his movement, but it isn’t the only time God has needed people to be the ushers of heaven to earth. Another example comes from Romans 12. Paul tells the church in Rome that they all are of one body:
“I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature… be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. 4 We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. 5 In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other.”
The early church leaders already knew that they had to work together to build Christ’s church. God doesn’t call us to be individual keepers of “my personal faith.” Nowhere in the Bible will you find a passage that affirms a single person’s faith without pointing it to God’s people. And yet that is what we do – we choose our individualism over the collective. Did God call you to practice your faith in private? No, we worship and work together for the kingdom. We are all needed to build up the church.
When Paul tells the members of the church in Rome that they are of one body with many gifts, he literally meant they are a system of working parts. Everyone is necessary in that system. We know that because he tells them all were given a measure of faith to complete their task. Their faith belongs to the whole. Every bit of that measure is needed if we are to succeed. Literally. Every part is needed. That is why churches are failing across the country and the world – people are not doing their part. They see their participation as optional or when it’s convenient.
But as I said earlier, a lack of attendance in church doesn’t make a person bad nor does it mean God is absent. I heard many wonderful examples of faith in goodness and love and mercy from devout Christians, cultural Christians, and non-practicing Christians. I heard agnostics say beautiful things about commonality. Good is in the world, therefore God is in the world. That is why these buildings stand – there is enough support between individual givers and governments and private grants to keep these splendid cathedrals alive and well. God’s presence is situated atop foundations of those who wanted to offer what they could to honor God.
But God doesn’t want us to stop at holding up our institutions. God wants us to make disciples. To save lives. And that comes from the beginning of the faith.
In Exodus 1 and 2, we read about the story of Moses. Pharaoh declares that male babies of the Hebrew people are a threat and demands they be killed. That’s a familiar story to us. To make sure some are saved, all the Hebrew midwives get together and come up with a plan to save some of the male children. God literally worked through them so that their savior Moses could be born and kept safe and made to live within Pharaoh’s own house. That is how he had the credit to get God’s people out of Egypt.
Last week, Brad told you that doing nothing changes nothing. There is far too much nothing happening in the world in terms of good people. We choose to literally let our faith be a Sunday thing or a guiding principle but not let it change us. We figuratively keep faith at arm’s length.
Do you know the history of the major cathedrals in Europe? Many were built during the darkest hours of humanity – the age of plagues and wars. They were built as glimmers of what heaven could look like. Now, that money really should have gone for food and shelter, but since we have them, we should use them as touchstones for the greatness God wants us to achieve. Most of them were built by builders who would never see them finished due to the time it would take. They were willing to work towards a goal they themselves would never finish. And yet we give up on a TV show if commercials run too long. I didn’t read the morning news on the boat, not to disconnect, but because it took too long for my iPhone to load the page. I hope that I will always have the patience to continue doing God’s work even if I don’t see it finished.
Do you literally believe that God is calling you to greatness? Do you literally believe there is good in the world and your job is to help make that goodness useful for all people? Or are you misusing the word to mean figuratively? Because God literally wants all of us to own our faith and use it to bring about love, wholeness, and goodness to our bitter, judgmental, elitist, racist world. God wants us to offer the kingdom of heaven so that all of that is eradicated from the hearts and minds of all people.
Brad offered a prayer from St. Teresa of Avila last week. Quiet your heart, close your eyes, and listen to the words of the saint:
Christ has no body but [o]urs,
No hands, no feet on earth but [o]urs,
[O]urs are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
[O]urs are the feet with which he walks to do good,
[O]urs are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
[O]urs are the hands, [o]urs are the feet,
[O]urs are the eyes, we are his body.
Christ has no body now but [o]urs,
No hands, no feet on earth but [o]urs,
[O]urs are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but [o]urs.