Today in the Spirit: Proper 16A

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Following the overall structure of the Gospel of Matthew in Year A, we find ourselves coming to the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi later in the season of Pentecost. (In Year C, following Luke, the parallel reading of this event appearing earlier in the Gospel also comes up earlier in Pentecost, Proper 7C). The assigned Collect calls upon worshipers to pray God will both purify (“cleanse and defend”) and preserve (“protect” and “govern”) his church. Out of the assigned Gospel reading from Matthew 16:13-20 we receive the narrative of Jesus drawing out Peter’s confession that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God, and Jesus’ reply to Peter with blessing for him and the church universal on the basis of that faith.

The corresponding OT reading from Isaiah 56:1-6 urges us, the new Israel, to look further back from the rock of Peter’s faith to that of Abraham and Sarah, which also results in God’s blessing. We can recite Psalm 138 this coming week as if it is a response of Peter (and the whole church) to receiving the blessing of the Son of God: The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands (8). And the assigned NT reading from Romans 11:25-36 contains the apostolic promise from Paul that the Jews are beloved for the sake of their forefathers (28)     

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The Collect

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Listen to Me You Who Pursue Righteousness (Isaiah 51:1-6)

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness,
    you who seek the Lord:
look to the rock from which you were hewn,
    and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
    and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
    that I might bless him and multiply him.
For the Lord comforts Zion;
    he comforts all her waste places
and makes her wilderness like Eden,
    her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
    thanksgiving and the voice of song.
“Give attention to me, my people,
    and give ear to me, my nation;
for a law will go out from me,
    and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples.
My righteousness draws near,
    my salvation has gone out,
    and my arms will judge the peoples;
the coastlands hope for me,
    and for my arm they wait.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
    and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens vanish like smoke,
    the earth will wear out like a garment,
    and they who dwell in it will die in like manner;
but my salvation will be forever,
    and my righteousness will never be dismayed.”

This passage is addressed to the Israelites in exile. It looks like an exhortation in two parts each starting with a similar command–Listen to me (1) and Give attention (4). Devotionally, we need to locate ourselves among those who pursue righteousness and those who seek the LORD. Immediately this Sunday we will make the connection between Jesus calling Peter this rock on whom I will build my church and Abraham and Sarah the rock from which the faithful of Israel were hewn.

One interesting parallel in both readings is that as soon the names of the saints are mentioned, the focus changes from the persons themselves to what YHWH in the OT and Jesus in the Gospel is doing through them: Abraham was the one I (the LORD) called that I might bless him and multiply him; and on Peter I (Jesus) will build my church. I wonder if the real exhortation here in Isaiah is to look at the rock so as to perceive the ground on which the rock stands, transforming loose soil into pebbles, then into stones, and then to rock. The change shows on the rock, so we look to the rock to behold the action of God. 

Today, Holy Spirit, we who pursue righteousness heed your command to look to Abraham and Sarah, and observing your transforming work in them, trust you to work the same in us.

You Will Revive Me (Psalm 138)

All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord,
    for they have heard the words of your mouth, 
and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
    for great is the glory of the Lord. 
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly,
    but the haughty he knows from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
    you preserve my life;
you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
    and your right hand delivers me. 
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
    your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
    Do not forsake the work of your hands (4-8).

It is good to declare as in this psalm, All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord. On its own, however, it must be admitted that this sentence is an abstraction, an idea that, however commendable and correct, is outside the consideration of the rough and tumble of everyday life experience. Psalm 138 as a whole, however, is anything but an abstraction. It is from beginning to end “David’s” personal (note “I” all the way through) song of thanksgiving, pronouncing both the remembrance of God’s deliverance in the past (On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased) and the hope for his help in the present (Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me NASB).

Devotionally, the trick is to let fly with the lofty thoughts about God the Holy Spirit feeds into our hearts, even as they are filtered through the pain of adversity before going out through our mouths into the open air. Yes, the lesser gods be damned, and the kings of the earth beware, I am here to proclaim even through life’s many storms, the glory of the LORD is great.  

Today, Holy Spirit, work in me the faith of David to discern clearly your greatest and highest thoughts of Jesus and hold onto them for dear life through many trials.

I Do Not Want You to Be Unaware of This Mystery (Romans 11:25-36)

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion,
    he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them
    when I take away their sins” (25-26)…
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (33).

Paul has been gifted with such a fertile mind for understanding the OT scriptures. In a way my seminary professors would have considered highly suspect if I did it, he pieces together the above passages (25-26)–scattered phrases really–from Isaiah and Jeremiah to articulate what the Holy Spirit has revealed to him about the present hardening and future salvation of Israel. Paul does not want the Roman Christians to be unaware of this mystery, and God by preserving what Paul has written in Holy writ determines the whole Church should know it too. God by his own counsel reasons that there are many mysteries we do not need to know–but this one we do.

For making these choices, what we need to know and what we don’t, God deserves our praise. And so Paul gives us doxology (maybe quoting a hymn of the early church) over the wisdom of God: Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

Today, by the Spirit who inspires Paul to write on mysteries, and us to hear them, we give thanks for the wisdom of the Father and the Son to reveal what we know to survive and to thrive as a holy people. 

On This Rock (Matthew 16:13-20)

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

About this text, let’s start with the assumption that it is on Peter’s faith confession of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God that Jesus will build [his] church. To the more Reformed-minded among us, myself included, this comes across as far more palatable than making Jesus’ rock a man, especially this man who becomes the first bishop of Rome. It should occur to us, however, that the confession of a person is no more rock solid than the person him or herself. Certainly, Peter had come a great distance from his earliest claims, in concert with the other disciples, made out of pure enthusiasm that Jesus was the Messiah (John 1:41,45,49). His daring to consider walking on water (remember the Gospel reading two weeks ago) certainly represents a deeper faith. But even from Caesarea Philippi and beyond, Peter’s performance in living up to his confessions of faith is still inconsistent at best, his denials being the greatest evidence of lingering internal weakness. It will require the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to really move Peter’s faith from word only to deeds.

Devotionally, the point is our eyes need to be fixed neither on people themselves or the confessions they make, but on the covenant love of Jesus at work with highly imperfect people to accomplish the will of his Father in the world. In this is love [or faith], not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). We make our confessions and disappoint; others make their confessions and disappoint. The good news is Jesus will take the lackluster declarations of faith from broken stones and build a church made of rock.

Today, Holy Spirit, let my confidence for good and right outcomes rest on you, not on the consistency of people and their confessions.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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