Marach 4, 2018: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
3rd Sunday of Lent
It is not by accident that Jesus takes his disciples here, to Caesarea Philippi, a city devoted to the worship of conquering Roman emperors to asks them about his identity. “Who do people say that I am?” What’s the word on the street? What’s trending on Facebook or Twitter? What are people saying? Then Jesus turns the question on them, “Ok, but who do you say that I am?” Don’t just tell me what’s out there, tell me what’s in here. I don’t want to hear the popular opinion or what is polling well, I want you to tell me what you really believe. I imagine there was a long pregnant silence while the disciples weighed their thoughts. Did they truly know? Could they put it into words?
Part 1, the rock
Then Peter opens his mouth. As he so often does. Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” You are the long awaited savior. You aren’t just a prophet, you are the one about whom the prophets have been speaking for centuries. You are God’s own Son. Peter’s confession of faith is the first time that this honest truth about Jesus is spoken. Peter gets it right, more right that he can even comprehend. You are the Messiah. You are the Son of the living God. It’s a risky confession to make, blasphemous in the eyes of many, and it is honest to God true.
Jesus responds with praise: “Blessed are you Simon…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” So this sentence requires us to slow down and pay attention to a few things. First, up to this point in the gospel, Jesus’ good friend has gone by the name of Simon, but here, Jesus renames him Peter. Giving someone a new name is a divine act. It’s what God does to Abraham, and to Jacob in the Old Testament. This act of renaming says something about who Peter is, but it also says something about who Jesus is and the divine authority that he claims.
Here’s the thing about Peter’s new name– in Greek it is “Petros,” which is a pun, because the Greek word for rock is “petra.” Jesus says, You are Petros and this will be my petra. Peter’s new name is the ancient version of “Rocky.” I tried to get Randy to play the Rocky theme song today, but he was too wise fall for that. [Randy plays the Rocky theme song here!]
Jesus says, your new name is Petros and I am going to build my church on this solid rock of the truth that you have spoken. Now, this is a place where Protestants and Catholics tend to interpret the scripture differently. Jesus doesn’t say that Peter himself will be the foundation of the church, but rather that his statement of truth, his confession of Jesus as messiah and son of God, that message will be the bedrock of the community of faith that is to come.
This is a very important moment not only for Peter’s life, but for all of us who follow in his footsteps, the church throughout the ages. This is the first time in the gospel that the word “church” shows up in the gospel. All of us, the church universal, the whole community of faith–we are right here with Peter in this moment, encountering Jesus and claiming this truth about him. And what does Jesus say about us, about the church he’s going to build? He says, “The gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Death stands no chance against the ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ. That tyrannical king of the world, that emperor who seeks to claim all of human life, Death and his kingdom will crumble and fall before the words of truth that Peter speaks that we still confess to this day.
Part 2, the stumbling block
This is a high and holy moment if there ever was one. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the story just ended there…but it doesn’t. Because, you see, Jesus keeps on talking. Now that his disciples know who he really is, he begins to teach them about the suffering and pain and death that he has to endure once he gets to Jerusalem. It’s too much for Peter to handle. And so, yet again, Peter opens his mouth. He pulls Jesus aside and says, “Hold on there buddy. Didn’t I just say, like six verses back, that you were the Messiah and the Son of God. You are God’s great champion, the one who is supposed to lead us into triumph and victory. Nothing can hurt or harm you. So what’s all this crazy talk about suffering and dying. Do you even hear what you’re saying?” Peter rebukes Jesus. Rebukes. That’s a powerful word. It has appeared before in the gospel. Jesus rebukes demons when he casts them out of sick people. Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves when he calms a storm at sea. Now Peter tries to rebuke Jesus. And look where it gets him. Peter cannot handle all this talk about suffering and death. Peter doesn’t want to face the Gates of Hades if this is what it requires!
This time, Peter gets it wrong—really really wrong. And Jesus speaks the harshest words we will hear out of his mouth: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me.” Wow, that was quick! Peter went from being the Rock to the stumbling block so fast it could give us theological whiplash. He spoke the truth, he confessed Jesus’ real identity…in part. But he could not handle it in whole. He could conceive of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, but not as Suffering Servant. He wanted to follow a victorious leader, not a criminal condemned to die. He wanted glory and power without suffering. He wanted fellowship without hardship. He wanted Easter without Good Friday. And don’t we all!
Each and every one of us, if we are honest—wouldn’t we rather be rescued from death than follow a dying Lord. But the deep mystery, the scandal of the gospel is that God’s power and grace are revealed in suffering. That Jesus must endure death for it to be defeated.[i]
Some days, maybe on our best days, we can honestly confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord, the Son of the Living God. We want to follow him in life, we want to follow him into heaven, but we don’t really want to have to pass through the gates of Hades. Our faith is rocky. Our church is rocky. And in the blink of an eye we find ourselves falling flat on our faces in fear, cringing back to our old ways of life, serving as stumbling blocks to others. We, like Peter, become tempters to those who want easy discipleship and a risk-free faith. We, like Peter set our mind not on divine things but on human things. And we come falling down like a rock, crashing to the ground.
Part 3, the church and the cross
One of my good friends in high school was a guy named Seth Goodson. He actually ended up becoming a pastor as well, but when we were in high school he was a basketball player. He was ok on offense and better on defense, but there was one thing that Seth was absolutely brilliant at—taking charges. Now, if you’re not familiar with the rules of basketball, when a defensive player comes to a complete stop with both of their feet planted in place, then the offensive players have to go around them. Otherwise, of the offense player bumps into or pushes over the still defender, it is considered a charge and the other team gets the ball. Taking a charge, is an art form. If you stand still too early and give the other team too much time to react, they’ll just go around you. But if the defensive player waits too late and is still moving at the time of contact, then they are charged with a foul. Taking a charge requires reading the movement on the court and slipping it at just the right time. And of course, being willing to get pushed over and fall flat on your back for the sake of helping your team. If taking charges is an art form, them my friend Seth was Leonardo Divinci. He was a master at knowing just when to slip into place, plant his feet, and get pushed over.
By the time we were seniors, word had spread that Seth was getting close to setting the state record for taking the most charges in a high school career. He picked up a few more each game, and when he was just one or two away from the record our gym was packed to watch the next game. It happened in an ordinary moment. Our guys took a shot and missed it. The other team got the rebound and was coming down the court quickly. They were driving toward the basket when all of the sudden, Seth slipped into the exact right spot at the exact right time and got pushed down to the ground. The referee blew his whistle and gave the signal that a charge had been committed and the crowd went ballistic! We screamed like we had just won a championship. Seth had set the record! The next day the front page of the sports section had a big picture of him in the act of falling down, right as his rear end hit the floor. I showed it to him and said, “Seth, man, you’re famous!” He said, “Yeah, great, famous for getting pushed over more times than anyone else. I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
In a sense, that’s precisely what Jesus invites us to do here in this scripture: not to be a stumbling block in our own weak, selfish, fearful attempts to defend and preserve our own lives and livelihoods. But to take a fall, to take a charge. To be willing to be pushed over and over and over, to suffer for the sake of others, for the sake of the gospel. Jesus says, ““If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” That’s the kind of Church that’s built on the rock of Peter. That’s the rocky kind of church that we have been throughout the ages.
In one of the very first sermons preached to the group that would become Spring Hill Presbyterian Church, a young seminary graduate named John Leith preached a sermon on this scripture and the kind of church that is called to follow the way of the cross. It was 1943, right in the midst of World War II. He said, “The church that shall survive this day of death will be the church that speaks not the language of this world but of the kingdom of God. It will be a church ready to die for her witness and that the world counts worthy of crucifixion…To bear such a witness will be to go against the grain of the world, to come in conflict with the [idols] of racial prejudice, of national pride, of greed and militarism. It may be that the world will crucify her, but in the language of another world her Master says, ‘Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’”[ii]
Peter’s story didn’t end with that high holy moment of confessing the truth. But neither did it end when he fell flat on his face. No, his story continued in its rocky path with moments of failure and fear and moments of truth and love. Ultimately, tradition tell us, Peter’s story took him to Rome, to the royal gates of the emperor Nero where he was put to death for his faith, literally following Jesus onto a cross himself. “Pick up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says, because “on this rock I will build my church.” That’s the hard part of the gospel. And in a deep, mysterious way, it’s also the deep, deep good news of the gospel—that the gates of Hades cannot prevail against us.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
[i] Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence, 163.
[ii] John Leith, “Life in the Shadow of Death,” sermon preached at Spring Hill Preaching Service, July 18, 1943 included in Pilgrimage of a Presbyterian: Collected Shorter Writings, edited by Charles E. Raynal, 2001, page 6.