At the Time Matthew's Gospel..., Proper 4 (A) - 2005

May 29, 2005

At the time Matthew’s Gospel was being written, in the 80s of the first century, the city of Antioch in Syria had become the third most important city in the nascent Roman Empire. But Antioch was sitting on top of a geological fault-line that nobody understood in those days, and it had repeatedly suffered from earthquakes that destroyed parts of the city as fast as the citizens could rebuild. The Romans were good at all aspects of engineering and construction, although they did not understand the science of seismology. So the Roman colonial administration began to rebuild Antioch and spread out its suburbs on rocky ground, using stone masonry instead of the mud bricks from the flood plains of the river. By the time Matthew’s Gospel, destined for Christian communities throughout Syria, came to Antioch—and some of this Gospel may even have originated there—the thriving city was full of strong, durable new imperial buildings and blocks of houses constructed on rocky ground, made of stone.

And by this time, Antioch already had a strong Christian tradition (cf. Acts 11:19-26) originally associated with both Paul and Barnabas, and also with Peter (Galatians 2:11-21) In today’s Gospel, Matthew gives us one of his collected “sayings of Jesus,” that has to do with houses built on rock as distinct from houses built on sand. They had not yet figured out in Antioch that an earthquake can also bring down a construction of stone and rock, but they certainly had living proof that storm rains and flooding did not destroy the new Roman buildings they saw all around them. The metaphor which seems so obvious and even stale to us was vivid and still new to Matthew’s audience—just as it must have been a generation earlier to Paul, who lived there for a year, and to Peter, who told his readers to think of themselves as “living stones” being built into a spiritual household (1 Peter 2:5).

Rock and stone are still viable as metaphors for us as they were for Peter, Paul, and Matthew. We have just finished those months from Advent through to Trinity Sunday in which our liturgies commemorate all the high spots of the Christian faith, one after another, like a journey through the Nicene Creed seen from several mountaintop vantage points. Now at the beginning of the long, green season of Pentecost we are down to earth again, in the valley of ordinary Christian living. Later, as the summer comes, we will yearn for rich metaphors of living water, streams of water, and so on; but for now Jesus speaks to us of rock and stone.

A faith that is built on Christ, the solid rock, is a faith that endures emotional upheavals, floods of sorrow, tempests of grief and hostility. A faith built on sand has us out the door fast, thinking that God, Christ, and Church are irrelevant to our emotional upheavals, our economic upsets, our sorrows, grief, and antagonisms. But building a house of faith on rock is a slow process. As any stonemason or stone carver can tell you, building or sculpting with rock and stone takes muscle, stamina, patience, and imagination. It was said of the great Renaissance artist and sculptor Michelangelo that he went into the marble quarry and kept walking around it, looking and looking at the hewn blocks, until he caught a glimpse of the statue in the stone that his carving could set free. Only then did he begin the hard work of carving and sculpting.

An Easter faith that trusts in the living God, a Pentecost faith that experiences the movement of the Spirit, this is the rock God gives us to build on. We need the study of Scripture, and we can use the lives of saints past and present, to develop intellectual muscle. We need to learn day in and day out the practice of prayer, to develop the emotional stamina needed to work on solid rock. We need to cultivate hope and patience to deal with one another as living stones, each life precious in its own way, even the intractable and the unlovable. Perhaps, above all, a faith that is built on rock needs godly imagination to live by.

We are living through a time in the Episcopal Church when dissent, disagreement, and disaffection are rife throughout the House of Bishops, diocesan houses, and ordinary parishes. Hard lines are being drawn in the sand, not just here in the Episcopal Church but throughout the Anglican Communion. Those of us who are old enough in the church shake our heads because we see evidence in these hard, divisive lines of a seismic crack in the crust of the Anglican Communion that has been visible these past 40 years or so: controversy about the full representative humanity of women as priests and bishops has been heard since the 1970s, and it looks just like the controversy now about the full representative humanity of gays and lesbians as priests and bishops in the church. And all of it looks like Antioch at the time of Peter and Paul, with the controversy of the mission to the Jews and the mission to the Gentiles.

It takes muscle, stamina, hope, patience, and godly imagination to work on the living rock of faith. And it takes not only the pride of building but the humility of rebuilding for Ghana to see living stones in New Hampshire, and Texas to see the living rock of Christ in the Diocese of New Westminster. And just to cap this offering of a probably overworked metaphor, let us not imagine that the Archbishop of Canterbury is the only Michelangelo in the stone quarry at this time. We all have the vocation of imagining, discerning, and seeing the living rock wherever God is to be found in living stones from Africa, the Philippines, Canada, the Southern Cone and the Caribbean, from Texas, New Hampshire, or even in the vast stretches of New York City.


Christopher Sikkema