In today’s liturgy, we have some Old and New Testament passages that, at first glance, don’t seem to me to fit together very well.
Moses floating in a basket on the Nile,
Matthew’s Gospel where Peter first declares Jesus as Messiah, and
The apostle Paul telling us that we need to act as different parts of Christ’s body (this was part of today’s liturgy, but wasn’t read as part of our service) .
These are all part of our Christian heritage, but I wondered why these 3 passages were put together. Is there a big picture here? How do they fit together? What can we glean from them? How should they change and shape our lives? Reflecting on them over the last couple of weeks, I do think they point to a coherent big picture story. I will offer 2 words that helped me connect the dots………Covenant & Ark. Well, everything in Christianity ultimately relates to the covenant story. But I found the term “ark” to be helpful also. So, let’s get into it.
First, with Covenant, in simplest terms, this was God’s promise to Abraham that:
his descendants would be more numerous than the stars;
God would be their God and they would be His people; and,
Collectively, they would be a light to the nations.
In the Old Testament reading, we learn that when Moses was born, the descendants of Abraham were an enslaved people within Egypt. It wasn’t always so. Over the last few weeks, we’ve remembered that they came to Egypt after his brothers, the other sons of Jacob, sold Joseph into slavery to get rid of him, out of jealousy. But God elevated Joseph to be second in command to Pharaoh, saving Egypt and neighboring nations from starvation during a seven-year famine. Joseph was able to bring the descendants of Abraham into Egypt as honored guests. But after several generations in Egypt under a new pharaoh, they were out of favor as a people and treated as slaves, in part, because they were so numerous and the Egyptians began to fear them. As a cruel method of birth control, Pharaoh made a decree that all Jewish male babies must be put to death.
This Bible passage is rich with symbolism and implications in this part of the Covenant story. We are told that Moses’ mother, in an attempt to save the infant, puts the baby in a papyrus basket and sets him afloat in a marsh along the banks of the Nile River.
In an act of mercy from an Egyptian princess, the child Moses is saved, raised as Egyptian nobility, and suckled by his actual mother. His mother and Moses were Levites. The Levites become the future priests of Israel, bridging God to the people. The Abrahamic covenant and God’s plan is continued in the midst of oppression and struggle, preserving the descendants of Abraham.
It is also very interesting to me that the Hebrew word used in the Bible for the papyrus basket is “tebah”. This is the second and last time in which this word is used in the entire Bible. In Genesis, Noah is told by God to make a tebah (ark). The same word is used for Noah’s ark and the baby basket that floats Moses in the Nile. By both, God’s people are saved and a future secured by an ark floating on the water.
Later in Moses’s life, soon after the Exodus from Egypt, Moses ascends Mount Zion and returns with the 10 commandments on stone tablets which are placed in the Ark of the covenant. A different Hebrew word, perhaps, but still a container that preserves and extends God’s covenant with Abraham.
In fact, the entirety of the Bible presents a story arc, from Adam through Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, through the prophets who point to the coming Messiah, and Jesus himself as Messiah in fulfillment of the covenant and reshaping of the new covenant in His sacrifice; an Ark indeed…..saving many through baptism into Him. A story arc of God’s faithfulness in keeping his covenant and saving his people.
The Gospel text also seems to fit into this biblical story arc of the covenant quite well. In today’s passage in Matthew, Peter makes the bold statement that Jesus is the promised Messiah, fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah, Elijah and Jeremiah. Did you catch in the gospel message that this discussion of Jesus with his disciples takes place in the region of Caesarea Philippi north of the Sea of Galilee. The location is significant. It was the northernmost portion of the ‘promised land’ taken possession of by Israel. But now called Caesarea, it doesn’t take much guess work to know that this is a Roman controlled land. History tells us it was also very pagan. Under the Jewish King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, it became a center of Baal worship.
Later, Greeks occupied this land, a few hundred years before Jesus, and established the city of “Paneas” dedicated to Pan, the Greek god of fertility. The land was even famous for a cave which they named the gates of Hades. Then, just a few decades before Jesus, at this same cave’s entrance, the Jewish king Herod the Great constructed a temple and dedicated it to the god emperor Caesar Augustus. Reportedly, due to this gross paganism, observant Jews avoided this region, to not become defiled. But it was in this district, perhaps on one of the several mounts overlooking this temple fronting the gates of Hades, that Jesus first admits that he is the promised Messiah. Peter boldly states that he believes that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”……… the long-awaited Messiah, God’s prophetic King who would restore Israel. This is an announcement of the continuation of the Covenant with Abraham; reclaiming God’s people, instituting God’s kingdom of peace, and extending that promise to all peoples. Jesus makes this revelation on a hilltop in the corrupted, pagan, Gentile dominated region, at the edges of and barely still a part of the promised land. Perhaps Jesus is reminding His disciples and us of the Covenant’s larger mission to the nations?
Jesus added that upon the “rock” of Peter’s bold messianic assertion, that He will build His Church, “and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” He says this near, perhaps even overlooking, the literal, so-called gates of Hades with a Jewish constructed temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus the god emperor. Jesus’s statement implies that paganism, beliefs not of the true God, human authorities, and anything in opposition to God, will not overpower His Church. The Church to be built will persist and His kingdom will extend a bridge from the Jewish people and God to the gentiles……….., fulfilling the Abrahamic covenant of being a light to all nations.
So now, what about the epistle text of the apostle Paul in Romans Chapter 12? Since it wasn’t read in today’s service, I’ll first quote from it. We, among other things are told to
present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your
spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the
renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good
and acceptable and perfect.
And, further that………….
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.
There seems to be 3 main points, and it’s all about us.
First: Holy and Acceptable spiritual worship of God requires being a living sacrifice. We need to be “all in”, fully engaged and committed to this venture of being a Christian.
Second: We need to stop conforming ourselves to this world, renew our minds and be transformed…..and in so doing, we can actually discern the will of God………….. what is good and acceptable and perfect. Wow, what a promise?!
Thirdly, he goes on to say how we do gain this renewal and discernment,
with humility and sober judgment; and
with recognition that we are but one member of the total Body of Christ, each with different functions assigned for the good of all. We need each other, if we are going to be transformed and discerning of His will!!
In summary, in the arc of this story of the covenant, you and I are the
firstly, recipients of the covenant; and
secondly, participants in the covenant, becoming a part of the body of His Church.
We are part of His promised covenantal legacy, from Abraham thru Moses and the long line of the faithful and those who prophesied the coming Messiah; to Jesus’s revelation as Messiah on the pagan borderlands; extending the New Covenant through His sacrifice; and to our role in His established Church. This is the covenantal promise. In a very real sense, we are the covenant!! The covenant lives and breathes in us with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we are also its container or ark, if you will.
And this is not the end of the covenantal story arc. It isn’t over. We are not only the beneficiaries and heirs of the covenant; we are also stewards of the covenant. We are charged under this same covenant, as part of Christ’s body and Church, to live it and extend it into the next generations, continuing to be a light to the nations, reflecting Christ’s light to the world. As well as being a beautiful gift, this is a daunting challenge. But God is with us in this continuing story arc as we play our role in the covenant.
So, can we perhaps end with the words of today’s Collect as our collective prayer…………
"Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name. Amen”