12 Pentecost, Proper 16 – August 23, 2020
Today’s gospel is a bit intimidating. Jesus is calling Peter a “rock” and blessing him with a mighty blessing. I wonder how Peter felt at the time….I would guess he thought to himself….’”what? I’m no rock and I don’t want that power you’re talking about” do you really know me, Jesus??
Matthew tells us that Jesus and the disciples visit Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus, after having asked his companions who others say that he is, then turns the question on them: “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter, in a dazzling moment of clarity and insight, tells Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
Jesus seems elated by Peter’s insight, and he begins to lay a blessing on him. He opens with calling him Simon, harkening back to his former name. And, Jesus goes on to tell him, “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Jesus saw something in Peter that I seriously doubt Peter saw in himself. Remember that after this story, there are others of Jesus rebuking Peter telling Satan ‘to get behind me’ and Peter is the one who denies Jesus three times before the crucifixion. Yet, Jesus calls Peter the rock upon which he will build his church. What does Jesus see in Peter?
Well, perhaps Jesus sees that Peter is not impervious to change. Peter can be stubborn, to be sure, but he also harbors a fundamental openness to the transformation that Jesus offers. Jesus recognizes that Peter is still in formation. This disciple will yet do things that will provoke Jesus’ ire and disappointment. The human and earthy still run deep in Peter. Yet Jesus glimpses strength within him, and an openness that he knows will become a habitation for the holy.
Remember a few Sundays ago we heard about Jacob wresting with an angel? Jacob, deciding he was tired of being on the run, found himself in a place between the home had known and the life that was ahead of him. He wrestled with God in that place and Jacob was forever changed, moving forward with courage, even though afraid, trusting in God. Jacob received a blessing at the end of that fitful encounter with God.
Jesus names Peter the rock. In doing so, Jesus signifies that he both recognizes what is within Peter and is also calling forth what has yet to take form in him. Similar to Jacob’s blessing, Jesus pours a blessing like oil upon Peter. After telling Peter that he will build his church—a house of God—upon him, Jesus goes on to say, “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.” His words have the tone of ceremony, of one who is initiating someone into a sacred role. And, in fact, “binding and loosing” are words that come from the rabbinic tradition; they refer to what happens when a question arises about whether an action may be permitted. Steeped in the law, the rabbis had the power to determine which actions would be forbidden (bound) and which would be allowed (loosed). Jesus confers power upon Peter, a profound authority.
Like Jacob who recognized the presence of God in that in-between place, Peter knows Jesus in an instant of brilliant clarity. Jesus marks this moment by blessing his disciple and renaming him as a rock who will become a dwelling place for God. Jesus knew: this is a place upon which to build something holy.
So, today, let’s celebrate Peter’s insight, but also recognize how limited it is, limited by his, and our, misunderstanding of true strength and power, that is, God’s strength and power. Peter, like pretty much most of us and the world in general, defines power in terms of strength and might and the ability to exert our will over others. When Peter says “messiah,” he’s thinking of a warrior king, like, and probably even greater, than King David. So, we need to at least anticipate the second half of the story we know and how Jesus’ cross turns the world’s (and our!) conceptions of power on their head and demonstrates the true power of sacrificial love. Divine Love is the real power. Love is the most powerful force for change in the world.
The Christian life of each of us resembles that of Peter. There’s a confession of faith, we’ll confess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed each Sunday. But then, like Peter, as we live out our life in the coming week, we are either falling short of this confession of faith, or living out its implications. What we experience is no straight, flat road, no smooth superhighway, but a journey into the unknown with many twists and turns, a dead end here and there, and plenty of peaks and valleys.
So, where are you on that journey? Many of us may be in a valley. You may be in one of those low places that Peter came to. With all that’s going on in the world, the nastiness of the current political environment, the weariness of the COVID quarantine and distancing, the slow, but necessary work toward racial equality, unemployment realities and fears, the list goes on. You may feel you are past the point of getting up again, but here’s good news for your bad news: each of us is just like Peter. Whatever we do, Jesus does not leave us, reject us, deny us, or give up on us. Jesus is not ashamed of us. He does not abandon us.
In the words of Jan Richardson – “and so I am asking myself this week, what is solid within me? What do I contain that would serve as the ground for a holy place, a sanctuary? How do I allow sacred ground to inhabit me even as I remain open to transformation, to change, to renovation and renewal? How does this happen for you? What thin place might God be seeking to create in the midst of your life and your own being? What might we need to let go of in order to make room for such a space?
May you recognize the holy in your midst this week, and be a place for it to dwell. Jesus loves you with an everlasting love. Jesus has already turned to you. It may be time for us to turn to him. Blessings. Amen.