13 Now when Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”
15 He said, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”
16 Simon Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Keys of the Kingdom
17 Then Jesus replied, “Happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my Father who is in heaven has shown you. 18 I tell you that you are Peter. And I’ll build my church on this rock. The gates of the underworld won’t be able to stand against it. 19 I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered the disciples not to tell anybody that he was the Christ.
First prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection
21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day. 22 Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” 23 But he turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
Saving and losing life
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 25 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them. 26 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives?
1 Peter 2:4-5, NRSV
4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
SERMON Simon Peter: Rock
There was a time when I was fascinated with rocks. In High School there was a teacher in whose office I worked during Study Hall. He had a rock tumbler. That’s where it started. Later my aunt and uncle had a shop that included polished rocks, geodes, and more. I even learned how to polish the stones, and I still have jewelry that my uncle made from those rocks. The geodes were especially exciting, because they looked ugly on the outside, but if you were lucky, when you cracked them open the inside sparkled with pretty crystals. I still think that is true of other things in life. Take Peter for example, he was pretty rough and rugged on the exterior, but inside Jesus could see the potential for that jewel of an earnest heart.
Today’s Gospel lesson conveys some significant interchanges between Jesus and Peter with the other disciples present as well. There are at least four sections that could stand on their own, so we are going to take them one at a time.
First, we have what I have known since my college New Testament class as the Caesarea Philippi passage. Once again, reading both Hamilton and Barclay’s background information on this setting adds so much more to the scene, so let’s travel in our minds to the region of Caesarea Philippi, 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee nestled beneath Mount Hermon. Jesus has taken the disciples to this territory outside of their usual area of ministry in Galilee for a spiritual retreat. (Adam Hamilton, Simon Peter, p. 60)
This region is primarily not Jewish, but there are elements of many religions in this neighborhood and its history. There are ancient temples from Syrian worship of Baal. There is a cave said to be the birthplace of the Greek god of nature Pan. The space was also known as Panias and referred to as Banias even in the 20th century. The springs under that cavern are the starting place of the Jordan River which was significant in the Jewish heritage of Israel. There is also in the area a large white marble temple built by Herod the Great to honor Caesar Augustus. Herod’s son, Philip, added more and renamed the area Caesarea, but since his father had already established a town of Caesarea along the Mediterranean, this one added his name and became Caesarea Philippi. (William Barclay, Matthew, Vol. 2 in The Daily Bible Study Series, pp. 134-135)
So Jesus brought his disciples to a place where Baal, Pan, and Caesar were all worshipped as deities, where their own faith heritage flowed with the Jordan, and Jesus asked them an important question. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The Common English Bible always says Human One in capital letters where most translations have Son of Man. Jesus at times referred to himself by this designation. It could just mean human being and was used that way by the prophet Ezekiel. However, Daniel used this term as a messianic reference. In Daniel 7:13-14 we read,
13 In my visions during the night, I saw among the clouds in heaven someone like the Son of Man. He came to the Ancient One, who has lived for endless years, and was presented to him. 14 He was given power, honor, and a kingdom. People from every province, nation, and language were to serve him. His power is an eternal power that will not be taken away. His kingdom will never be destroyed.
There were assorted answers reported by the disciples to Jesus’ question. Some said John the Baptist who had recently been executed by the second-generation Herod, brother to the Philip who had named this region. Some said Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets who was expected to return and prepare the way for the Messiah. In fact, there were many who thought John the Baptist was the returned Elijah, because of similarities in their lifestyle and preaching. At Passover Jews still leave a place at the table and check the door for Elijah’s return. Some others thought Jesus was Jeremiah, another prophet who some believed had hidden the Ark of the Covenant and the Altar of Incense from the Temple when the people were taken into exile in Babylon. There was a legend that Jeremiah would come back with these items before Messiah came. You can see all the answers related in some way to preparing for Messiah.
Now Jesus made the question more direct, “Who do you say I am?” Note for a moment the clues Jesus has hidden in his questions. Calling himself the Son of Man had a messianic connotation. Rephrasing the question to include the words “I AM” had a divine connotation going back to Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, when God’s answer to God’s name was to say, “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:14) John recorded many times Jesus identified himself with phrases which began “I am.”
Surrounded by traces of worshipping many other gods, having experienced Jesus healing miracles, feeding thousands, and calming the storm at sea, how would the disciples answer this key question? It was the oral essay worth all the grade points needed to pass the course with flying colors. And the question was met with the awkward silence of students who think they know the answer but are afraid to say it out loud, because they might be wrong. When Hamilton hinted it was that kind of moment, I had a sharp memory of such a silence in Mrs. Rowbottom’s eleventh grade English class. I did know the answer but avoided speaking up in any class. I finally became uncomfortable enough to raise my hand and give the answer for which I was rewarded by the fellow across the aisle with a significant glare. I probably never talked in her class again if I could help it.
Good old impulsive Simon Peter, however, was willing to open his mouth with an answer from his gut. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” A++, go to the head of the class, for the moment anyway. Simon Peter knew somehow that Jesus was more than preparing for the Messiah, Jesus was the Christ which of course is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Messiah, both meaning anointed one. In the Old Testament the kings were anointed. Messiah was expected to be the new king God would send to God’s people. Simon Peter also acknowledged, after all he had witnessed, that Jesus had to be the Son of God, the living God whom Jews worshipped. Baal was a statue. Pan was a legend. Caesars only achieved divine status after they died. But the God of the Jews was very much alive and interacted with his people. Simon Peter recognized that Jesus was both the King God promised and God’s own Son. Wow!
Jews expected Messiah to be a great leader who would teach the people about God’s justice and lead them in righteousness. Jesus was all that. They also expected a warrior king who would rescue them from current foreign rule, but they had that part wrong. Son of God was a royal title going back to the time of David and verses from Psalm 2 and from 2 Samuel. They added to the expectation that Messiah would have a Father/Son relationship with God. Adam Hamilton writes, “it seems likely that Simon was beginning to grasp that there might be something more to Jesus than met the eye.” (p. 67) Barclay referred to Napoleon coming to the same conclusion. “I know men, …and Jesus is more than a man.” (Quoted by Barclay on p. 138)
How about you? This would be a good week to ponder this significant question yourself. Who is Jesus to you, and what are your expectations of him?
We move on now to the Keys Passage, but this is also an elaboration on the theme of Peter, the Rock. Jesus declares that Simon, the son of Jonah, is happy or blessed, same word as used in the Beatitudes, because this understanding of who Jesus truly is could only have come with God’s help. It goes beyond what humans have figured out thus far. I must point out that in John’s Gospel, Andrew said he had found the Messiah after first meeting Jesus. Matthew doesn’t record that event. But to my mind God has been working in the core being of both of these brothers. Perhaps that seed of possibility was first planted in Simon Peter’s mind when Andrew suggested it. Through recent events: the healings, the feedings, and especially Simon’s walk on the water in the storm, he has become more and more convinced. Now God’s Spirit lets him claim that hope with confidence, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) Jesus sees that revelation as a blessing resting on this disciple.
Jesus goes on to say, “You are Peter,” which means Rock, “and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18) Let’s remember the location of this conversation. They are sitting at the base of Mount Hermon a 70 foot “massive wall of stone” towering above them. (Hamilton, p. 69) The Greek word is petra, which is also the base of Simon’s nickname, Peter. Hamilton writes that petra isn’t just a little stone; that would be lithos. Petra “signifies a rock ledge, a cliff, a massive rock.” (p. 69) Jesus is playing with the word that refers both to Peter’s character and their mountain setting. The foundation of the church is no small matter; it is as significant and massive as this mountain. The early church caught that point. As Hamilton points out, “Though Jesus seldom calls Simon by this new name, Peter, the early church nearly always used this name.” (p. 69)
Rock was not a new metaphor in Judaism. Barclay shares that Rabbinic tradition referred to Abraham as “the rock on which the nation and the purpose of God were founded.” (Barclay, p. 140) Jesus could be looking to Peter to be the same sort of foundation for the era of the New Covenant, one God would work through to establish his people as once God had worked through Abraham, the father of God’s people. But in Deuteronomy, in Samuel, and in Psalms, sur meaning Rock, was used to describe God who is our rock, our fortress, our deliverer, our shield, refuge, salvation, and stronghold. (Psalm 18:2)
There are multiple interpretations of this statement. Augustine understood Jesus to be referring to himself as the foundation. Others have suggested that Peter’s statement of the truth about Jesus is meant to be the foundation. Still others would say similarly that Peter’s faith will be the foundation. The most common understanding I have heard or read is that Peter is to become a major foundation stone of the church Jesus is building. Barclay interprets that one this way, Peter “is not the rock on which the Church is founded; that rock is God. He is the first stone of the whole Church…and, in that sense, the whole church is built on him.” I see elements of each of these points as true.
Let me play with it a step further. One of Jesus’ parables comes to mind, that a house built on sand will fall when the rain comes, but a house built on rock will stand. (Matthew 7:24-25) The church of Christ must be built on solid rock. That rock in my mind is God himself, represented in Jesus. Some moments Peter’s faith may seem as shaky as shifting sand, but I believe Jesus can already see how it will solidify in the future into a rock worthy of being a significant building block of the Church.
Take a moment to notice, as Hamilton points out, that Jesus is the architect and builder not Peter. (p. 70) When we are tempted to think that building the church is our responsibility apart from God’s work, that’s blasphemy! God is the builder; we are the building blocks. We have our role to play, indeed, but Jesus is still the master craftsman building his own church in us, with us, through us. The verses we read from Peter’s letter to the churches helps us see our part more clearly. Jesus is the living stone, rejected by others but precious to God. We are to come to him as living stones ourselves, to be built by God into a spiritual house and holy priesthood. (1 Peter 2:4-5)
This is an important thing to remember; a building or edifice was used by New Testament writers as a metaphor for what the Church is meant to be. The Church is not a literal building, it is the people of God whom Jesus has brought together to continue his work. The Greek word ekklesia in this passage translated as church actually means called out ones referring to a gathering or community of people. Hamilton goes on to say, our “English word church comes from the German word kirche, which is related to the Greek word, kuriacon that means ‘belonging to the Lord.’” (p. 70) Hence, church was never meant to designate a building, but it means a community of people belonging to the Lord. As Hamilton reflects on the verse from Peter’s letter he writes, “all of us are meant to see ourselves as living stones, the building blocks of a community and movement through which God is working to heal and transform the world.” (p. 71) Jesus, the master architect, has chosen each one of us to be part of that community. Each of us has a role to play that is part of his master plan.
Ephesians 2 gives us another picture of how the early church understood the metaphor of building as representing God’s intentions for the church. “20 As God’s household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 The whole building is joined together in him, and it grows up into a temple that is dedicated to the Lord. 22 Christ is building you into a place where God lives through the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:20-22)
Jesus continued by saying that the Gates of Hades could not prevail against what he is building. Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus and the disciples were having this spiritual teaching retreat was home to a beautiful waterfall that fell thirty feet. Nearby was Hermon Stream. Fed by snowmelt the two formed the headwaters of the Jordan River. In the cavern up the mountain a chasm opened above an underground spring. It has since been sealed, but in earlier times, this was another place like the Sea of Galilee that was too deep to be measured. Hence it was also considered to be a path to the underworld, the place of the dead. In Greek mythology that was Hades; in Old Testament Hebrew it was Sheol. When we translate it as Hell, it does not convey the proper meaning. (Hamilton, pp. 62 & 72)
Hamilton adds the tradition from the early church that “while Jesus was in tomb, he descended to the underworld, broke open the gates of Hades, and liberated those who had been captive there.” (p. 73) We include that thought in the Apostle’s Creed, “he descended to the dead.” It goes with our understanding that Jesus overcame physical death as proven by his resurrection, but I like the thought Hamilton goes on to share. “It also means the power to overcome the things that represent spiritual and emotional death, such as hopelessness, despair, addiction, oppression, poverty, and sin.” (p. 73)
Jesus is saying that even death, even these things that feel like death cannot overcome the Church, or as Barclay turns it around, these death dealing blows cannot stand up to the Church at its best. Barclay pictures the Church like a fortress, which image certainly fits the surrounding temples and mountain at Caesarea Philippi. If Hades represents the evil forces causing death, then evil cannot take down the Church of Christ. In Old Testament times, the city gates were a meeting place, and the arena of the judges. It was the seat of government and power. Then the powers of the underworld cannot overcome the Church of Jesus. Or if we remember Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Son of the living God, and the Church is built on that foundation, then death represented by Hades has no hold on Christ, and the Church he builds will not be destroyed. I like that last interpretation especially in view of the fact that the Temple building was destroyed in 70 A.D., but the people of God live on without it though it was once the place of worship for both Christians and Jews.
This section continues with Jesus giving future authority to Peter symbolized as “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (v. 19) Hamilton explains, “Binding and loosing were terms applied to the leading rabbis when they debated the law and how to interpret and apply it.” (p. 73) What was bound was forbidden; what was loosed was allowed. Peter becomes not the dictator of the Church, but as Barclay suggests Jesus has made Peter the steward of the Church, responsible for its maintenance and welfare. (p. 146) This keys passage is the foundation of the Roman Catholic understanding that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and first Pope of the Church. I think it may also be why legend pictures Peter guarding the gates of heaven. In any case, Peter became one of the founding apostles who has greatly influenced the direction and spread of Christian faith.
But now we come to part three, and the story takes a dramatic twist. Peter has made a bold and accurate statement of faith. He has been praised and given great responsibility by Jesus. And then Peter trips himself up by trying to protect Jesus. Assured that somebody gets who Jesus really is and what he is trying to build, Jesus begins to explain that he must go to Jerusalem, and he will die there at the hands of the worldly powers that be.
Jesus included that he would be raised on the third day, but I think Peter was already in too much shock to even hear that line. I sometimes say that I go into mom mode. Peter went full out into papa bear mode, took Jesus off to the side and told Jesus that really musn’t happen. I can hear Jesus sigh as he must have out on the water in last week’s story. I imagine Jesus thinking, “Oh, Peter, you almost had it, but once again you missed the point.” What Jesus actually said to Peter came out stronger and sounds harsh to our ears. “Get behind me Satan!”
Now listen to the whole line, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.” (v. 23) Do you remember when Jesus was in the wilderness being tested by Satan after his baptism, a preparation for his ministry on earth? The temptations all related to using his divine power to accomplish earthly priorities: to feed himself, to have wealth and power, to live it up we might say. But all of that would have been putting himself as a human ahead of God’s mission and caring for others. Now Peter was essentially suggesting the same thing. “No, Jesus, you can’t die. You have to take care of yourself. You have to stay with us to lead us.” Maybe those messianic expectations were also kicking into play. Messiah was supposed to be a warrior king, not the suffering servant Jesus came to be.
For all the truths Peter had begun to grasp, he couldn’t wrap his human brain around that one yet.
Sometimes we are guilty of the same thing. We think about Jesus and about his Church in human terms and expectations. We become more like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day sure that our interpretation of the law is correct, that we can say who is in and who is out, what is right and what is wrong. Or we become focused, as the Church sadly sometimes has, on prosperity and on numbers, but suffering and sacrifice for others, no we don’t always want to believe in that. Then we, too, become stumbling blocks to God’s purpose in Christ.
Hamilton reminds us that “History is littered with the stories … of ultra-religious people missing the point, and ultimately acting in ways that were the antithesis of God’s call to love. Religious zeal, when coupled with an absolute conviction that one is right and an amnesia regarding God’s call to love, can lead religious people to do the most irreligious things.” (p. 75) Think of the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch trials, pogroms, and hate crimes driven by “religious” beliefs. But Jesus taught us to love our enemies. The Church has not always lived up to that mission.
Barclay writes, “Satan is any influence which seeks to make us turn back from the hard way that God has set before us; Satan is any power which seeks to make human desires take the place of divine imperative.” (p. 149) If you understand Satan, the tempter in that way, you can see that such a force is still active in our world and sometimes even chipping away at the mission of the Church. That is when I have to remember that Jesus said such powers cannot prevail against Jesus’ intentions for the people, he called to be his own. My hope in that promise is that Jesus will always send the Holy Spirit to teach us once again his truth and guide us back to what is right.
We humans just don’t think the same way God thinks. Isaiah 55:7-9 reads,
“7 The wicked should stop doing wrong,
and they should stop their evil thoughts.
They should return to the Lord so he may have mercy on them.
They should come to our God, because he will freely forgive them.
8 The Lord says, “My thoughts are not like your thoughts.
Your ways are not like my ways.
9 Just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.
We do our best to serve our God, but we must never think that we know better than what God’s plans.
It takes me to what Paul wrote in Romans 12:1-2,
So brothers and sisters, since God has shown us great mercy, I beg you to offer your lives as a living sacrifice to him. Your offering must be only for God and pleasing to him, which is the spiritual way for you to worship. 2 Do not be shaped by this world; instead be changed within by a new way of thinking. Then you will be able to decide what God wants for you; you will know what is good and pleasing to him and what is perfect.
As Jesus concludes this lesson with the disciples, he speaks of that living sacrifice and holy offering of ourselves. “Take up your cross and follow me.” Peter’s place, theirs and ours is to follow Jesus. That will mean sacrifice along the way, to do what needs to be done or as my friend Joan always says, to “do the next right thing.” It won’t always be easy or convenient or comfortable, but it is more important to do what is right in the eyes of God and follow the urging of the Holy Spirit, to continue the work of Jesus. It is in sacrificing the ways of this world to do God’s will instead, that we find a life most worth living. This is true for us as individuals and as the Church. In spite of what the world may tell us, let us build our lives on Christ, allowing Christ to build us into a spiritual temple, the people of God called out to be the Church.