On This Rock

A Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 16 – Year A – 24 August 2014

John Edward Miller, Rector


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, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 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.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.   – Matthew 16:13-20

The Collect

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; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

For many months the disciples had been witnesses to healings and miracles performed by their master, and they had heard him preach and teach about the transforming power of God’s love. Jesus and his disciples had shared a common mission that reached out to the poor, the outcast, and the sick. As his ministry gained followers, Jesus was attracting the attention of the ruling authorities. Danger was increasing with every act of compassion Jesus offered to those whom society regarded as undesirable and indecent.

The moment that Matthew memorializes for us occurs at a point of no return for the teacher from Nazareth and his disciples. Jesus was about to cross the spiritual Rubicon by heading toward the heart of darkness that was Roman-occupied Jerusalem. From this point on, he would tell was going to suffer at the hands of religious and secular leaders. Jesus put them on notice that there would be a final showdown with the principalities and powers in the holy city. Jesus began to speak of his own death, and he foretold that he would then be raised from the dead on the third day. These were difficult ideas to digest, but they had to be. It was high time for a loyalty check among his followers.

As they entered the territory of Caesarea Philippi, a beautiful Roman city adorned with impressive architecture, Jesus likely signaled for his entourage to stop near the magnificent Temple of Caesar Augustus. Herod the Great had commissioned the temple to honor the Roman emperor under whose aegis he served as a puppet ruler. The emperor, who had been born Octavian, had taken the name Augustus in an act of self-glorification; he reveled in being called “the great one.” Moreover, Caesar Augustus had been deified; he was worshipped as the “son of God.” So his temple celebrated his so-called “divinity.”

For Jews the elevation of a mere man to god-status, regardless of his power or authority, was more than just ludicrous; it was idolatry, the sin of claiming divinity for anything or anyone other than the one true God. With this blasphemy so near his path, it is altogether possible that Jesus realized that this was a moment of truth for his companions. The contrast between mortal Caesars and the living God is infinite. The Augustan Age of Roman domination was impressive by the world’s standards, but it paled in comparison to the power and glory of God.

Maybe Jesus paused with that pagan edifice as his backdrop. Its presence raised the question, which Lord would they would serve? He then fired his famous questions at his disciples. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he asked. His students were on the spot; they had to come up with something good, something significant to say. After a little throat clearing and beard scratching, a few voices replied, “Some say that you are John the Baptist come back to life!” and “Other people believe that you are Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets miraculously reanimated by God.” Those answers seemed safe enough. As reports of what “they say,” the responses didn’t reflect any personal investment or cost. But the stakes were so high at that juncture, when all of their lives were on the line, that he couldn’t let them get away with third-person reports. So he put everything on the line with a question that they couldn’t evade. He asked them squarely, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter was known as a man of action; he did things “immediately,” jumping in where others feared to get involved. His motto could well have been: “He who hesitates is lost.” Thus when Jesus turned to his disciples and asked them to declare what they thought of him, Peter was the first to answer. Once the question was posed, as if one cue, he blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”

Peter had uttered the truth. He did so in spite of himself, because he was never known to be a great thinker, or a man of deep insight. Among the first leaders of the church, it was John, and later Paul, who had those credentials. Peter was a fisherman who hauled in his catch with nets; he lived by his physical strength rather than his spiritual gifts. So his quick response, which got it so right, was out of keeping with his normal mode of being. His statement of belief was beyond him, but it was his nevertheless. And he said out loud what others might have been thinking but they were too timid and too uncertain to say.

Jesus must have smiled; in fact he may have laughed in joy that it was Peter who actually came out and said it. He knew the fisherman well, and if he was capable of seeing him as he was, then surely the others would grasp it as well. We can imagine Jesus embracing Peter by his broad shoulders and saying, “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.”

Jesus praised Peter’s faith with those now famous words. With them he blessed the disciple’s openness and trust that enabled the big fisherman to identify Jesus as God’s messiah. In that pivotal moment of recognition and commitment we have been given a model for Christian belief, plus a foundation for the Church itself. Without Peter’s confession that his rabbi is the Son of the living God none of us would ever have ever heard of Jesus, much less have been here today in St. Mary’s Church two thousand years later. For in that moment both Jesus and Peter were standing on the bedrock of faith so solid that no force of evil can ever destroy it.

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” said Jesus. The disciples must have looked at one another in amazement, for they heard what we cannot hear in English. Jesus’ blessing was a play on words, and they were wondering whether their master had just told them a joke at Peter’s expense. In Greek, he had said, “You are Petros (Peter), and on this petra (stone) I will build my church.” Petros, which is a masculine noun and name, refers to a rock, a small piece of stone. In effect, the big fisherman was called, “Rocky,” a nickname that might imply thickness as well as strength. Think Rocky Balboa, for instance. On the other hand, petra, which is a feminine noun, means a stone formation – a massive rock that cannot be moved. Now think El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The difference between the two terms can hardly be greater. Petros the disciple was no petra. In biblical Greek only Jesus, or God the Creator, is ever described as petra.

But this word play was not a joke. Jesus was not making fun of Peter.

On the contrary, he was singling him out for this blessing. The question is why? It had to have been more than a reward for a good answer. It wasn’t as if Peter had said the secret word and was winning the $100 prize, a la Groucho Marx. Big Rocky was neither that lucky nor that witty. The blessing was surely based was something else, something beyond Peter’s personal resources. Jesus gave him something in that power-packed moment. That gift was, and is, our one foundation.

And yet, here is where the church is entrenched in disagreement. We do not agree about the gift. So it’s a good thing that Jesus is the builder, and the one who places the church on a foundation of his choosing, because if it were left to us, the church would be on an even more unstable footing than it appears to be.

One view takes a literal approach to the gift and argues that Jesus has passed the torch to his chief disciple Peter, whom he blesses and calls “the rock.” In other words, this scene was like an ordination, a sacramental act wherein Jesus lays hands on Peter and transfers his authority to the one man who has confessed him as Christ, the Messiah. This ritual thereby makes the church associated with Peter the church, the repository of Christ’s power. The hierarchy and sacraments of that church become essential to being Christian, and in time, certain of its teachings would be regarded as infallible.

Another view protests that it was neither the choice of Peter, nor the act of authorizing him as head of the church, that constitutes the gift. Instead, it is his confession of faith, his believing in Jesus as Messiah, that his teacher was praising. The gift of Christ Jesus is the grace of recognition and the courage to name, and take a solid stand with, the Son of the Living God. Confession of faith, rather than sacraments and structures, was the rock upon which Christ would build his church. This view of the decisive moment became the standard position of the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century.

And here we are – Episcopalians who stand on ground that is neither of the extremes, but contains elements of both views. We inherit and promote a “middle way,” based on Scripture and tradition. And we depend on the grace of God for guidance through, and the redemption of, our life. This is the gift: that God loves us, and supports us, and makes us whole, despite the fact that we do not merit what God is constantly giving. From this perspective of eternal love we can see that Peter is everyman; he is you and I.

Peter, the rolling stone, the unstable block (blockhead?) confessed Jesus as Messiah. By the grace of God, and at the right time, the truth penetrated his thick skull and he shouted it out. And at that moment Jesus knew that his friend Rocky, Petros, had put on the petra – had put on Christ, and that saved him and the church from stumbling. To Peter, the one whose doubt caused him to sink like a stone as he walked toward him on the water, the one who would deny even knowing Jesus three times as his Teacher faced execution, the one whom Paul would rebuke as two-faced in his dealings with Gentile converts, Jesus promised to give the keys to the kingdom – the keys of binding and loosing, His faith had overcome the obstacle that he himself was. Peter had become who he was intended to be.

He exclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” Thank God he said it. And that is exactly what we should say. Thank God, and no one else. As Jesus said to Peter, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” This was a revelation, not an insight or a correct answer. God made it happen, disclosing to an ordinary man an extraordinary truth. Peter remained fallible and dense, but with the help of God he persevered to the end, and endured an ignominious death for the sake of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. We have received his testimony; we confess our faith, even as we confess our sins. For we too do things that we should not have done, and have left undone those things that we should have done. And, as our forebears had the wisdom to admit, “there is no health in us.” Neither we, nor Peter, nor Paul, nor Mary, nor Joseph, nor Mother Teresa, nor Martin King, nor any other disciple, has the ability, in and of himself, to know Christ and make him known in word and deed. That power is beyond our reach, but it is given to us freely. Peter’s simplicity was his real strength; it made him open and receptive to Jesus, and he knew him.

That was enough. God’s grace is sufficient to fill the gaps and the cracks in our rocky ways. Though we often are petrified to risk our lives for his sake, God can make us be who we ought to be: his solid stone, his foundation for the future.

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Let it be. Amen.