Embodying Our Gifts & Our Joy
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Some of you probably already know this, but this gospel reading is at the center of a major theological controversy about the ecclesia, the very heart and structure of the Christian Church.
“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Roman Catholics use these scriptures as justification for the papacy, starting with Peter, the Bishop of Rome, the first pope or papa, father of the Church. On this rock Jesus built his church, gave the keys to the kingdom, and that power passed from Peter to Linus to Anacletus and on and on, from pope to pope for 2,000 years now.
While we Episcopalians don’t acknowledge the pope as the head of the church, we do acknowledge that sacred transmission through the Holy Spirit from Peter and the other disciples who consecrated bishops who then concentrated other bishops down through history. Theoretically, I was ordained by a bishop in this unbroken line of succession from the first disciples. In fact, the word Episcopal derives from the Latin word episcopus, which means bishop.
Now Episcopalians are technically Protestants, but we still have a lot of Roman Catholic in us. Our worship more closely resembles Roman Catholic worship than any other major Protestant worship.
But those farther on the Protestant end of the spectrum reject the interpretation that Jesus was making Peter the rock, the pope, of the Church. What they tend to focus on is what Peter says: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” It was Peter’s testimony that Jesus was praising and lifting up, these Protestants say. All those who declare Jesus as Messiah are the rock of the Church, not just Peter.
So do you all remember a month or two back when I preached about hermeneutics, or the lens through which we read the scripture? Well, here you see hermeneutics in action. And guess what? The scripture supports either argument. That’s the beauty and the mystery and the complication of our Bible.
But if I may throw my two cents in, if I may overlay these arguments with my own hermeneutic: What I think matters is that Jesus is telling Peter that, because of his faith, because of his trust in what God has told him, Peter is going to live up to the highest meaning of his new name.
Now let’s recall who our sweet Peter is. As you might remember, I preached about him two weeks ago. He is bumbling, always saying things that you know made Jesus roll his eyes. Even in the very next passage, right after Jesus has just called Peter his rock, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” when Peter insists that Jesus shouldn’t die.
From rock of the Church and holder of the keys to the kingdom to Satan and stumbling block all in one chapter. Peter is kind of a mess.
And that gives me hope. Because I’m kind of a mess. Sometimes, I say things that hurt people. Sometimes, I don’t show up the way I wish I had. Sometimes I’m a stumbling block to others, to their joy and their truth. I don’t mean to do or be these things. I just fall short of the love I want to live, God’s love, more often than I’d like to.
Just like Peter did. But, Jesus says to Peter, you will live up to the highest meaning of your name. Despite your stumbling, despite your bumbling, you will live into how God created you, into God’s joy and call for your life.
Despite my stumbling and bumbling, I will live into how God created me, into God’s joy and call for my life.
Why? Because it’s irrepressible—if I get out of my own way, just like Peter had to get out of his own way. Once Jesus died, the Acts of the Apostles tell us that Peter stepped up and he led this new community of Jesus followers. He became the rock God made him to be.
Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world's greatest need.”
What has God called you to be? How did God make you? Despite your stumbling and bumbling, what is the joy that is irrepressible in your life? It’s different for each of us.
Sometimes I think I need to be MORE than who I am to meet the world’s greatest need. I need to be at the head of the protest demanding that the world sees the dignity and humanity of all people. I need to be on the news exhorting people to love all their neighbors. I need to be writing an astonishing and inspiring book that will convince Christians that our faith calls us to live differently in order to heal our warming planet.
But leading protests and being on tv and writing books—the thought of doing those things does not give me joy. Am I capable of them? Maybe. But they would be a slog. They wouldn’t feel…me. But do you know what one of my greatest joys is? Holding and guiding the vision of a smallish Episcopal parish. Helping us to understand and live our faith. And—this might be the thing that gives me the most joy—discovering what your greatest joy is and empowering you to share it here.
It’s so easy to think that what brings us joy is not enough to meet the world’s greatest need. But that’s not what Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us: "For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us."
In fact, Paul is telling us that it is essential to embody your particular joy, your particular gift, for the whole body to thrive. We were talking about this at Bible study. What if it was only me running worship? Me greeting you as you came in, me playing the guitar or piano and leading the songs, me doing all the readings, me passing the offering bags, me running Coffee Hour.
Not only would it be exhausting for me, it would be a pretty dull experience for you. And the music would be terrible. The Coffee Hour would probably also be terrible.
The Body of Christ does not thrive when we think we need to do the things that either we’re not built for or that don’t bring us joy.
And when I say joy, I don’t mean happiness. Joy isn’t the same thing as happiness. Joy is the feeling of being most authentically ourselves, the feeling of most authentically embodying how God made us, embodying the unique gifts God gave us. When I’m at the bedside praying with someone who is dying, I’m not happy, of course I’m not. That is heart-wrenching every single time. But I do feel like I am embodying my gifts, which is joy.
And I also don’t mean to imply that everything in our lives is always joyful. Sometimes we have to work jobs where we don’t always get to embody our gifts—because we need to pay the rent and feed our families. But I do think we can embody our joy in moments.
You all know the difference between the grocery cashier who has joy, who greets people authentically and is careful with how they pack your groceries, and the one who doesn’t.
What I’m saying is that when you find the opportunity to embody your joy, take it. In the big moments and the small. At work. With your family. Here at St. Luke’s. Especially at St. Luke’s. That’s all I want you to do here. I don’t ever want you to step into a ministry that doesn’t help you embody your joy.
Because we need it. St. Luke’s needs it. The world needs it. We each need to embody our joy for this world to thrive. Not someone else’s joy, not how someone else embodies their gifts. But your joy, your gifts.