On This Rock

The Rev. Charles E. Walling
St. Paul’s, Fayetteville
August 21, 2011
Year A, Proper 16
Matthew 16:13-20

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.

“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.”

These verses are among the three or four most studied, debated, disputed and argued about verses in the Christian Scriptures. Historically these verses have been central to issues of authority in the church, especially of the authority of the episcopacy and of the Bishop of Rome. But as important as these verses might be in dealing with the theological riddles it raises, it does not seem to be important enough in our time to talk much about it.

Jesus asks two key questions of his friends. It is interesting that he chooses to ask them while he and they are visiting one of the most worldly, secularized cities of the ancient world, Caesarea Philippi. It was a city of a large military presence! It was a city that was well known for its pluralistic population; it was a melting pot for people from all over the known world. And it was a city that had a large center for the worship of the god Pan and the sexual implications that were connected to it.

It is against this back ground of pluralism, militarism and sexuality that Jesus asks, “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” Doesn’t that make his question an extremely contemporary question for us? Pluralism, Militarism, and Sexuality is the backdrop of our lives. It is essential that we have some idea of many attitudes to Jesus Christ which occupy the minds of our day, both in and outside of the Christian community.

And his friends began to answer: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah, others Jeremiah, other one of the prophets”. On and on went the impression and the scenarios, just as they do today. Jesus is called teacher, guru, moral ethicist, healer, a sentimentalized religious icon. Jesus is looked upon as a revolutionary, a freedom fighter, a political liberator. On and on the different images stream, each one to some extent a reflection of history and human experience in a certain place and time. All of them contain of truth. None of them contains all of the Truth.

Then Jesus asks another question: “Who do you say that I am?” Notice we have gone from a question about hearsay to a very personal question. Each of us in some sense at some moment needs to hear this personal question if our Christian faith is to become real and mature. I must at some point decide who Jesus of Nazareth is for me. I must say it because the decision must be conscious and intentional if my relationship with Christ is to become anything but perfunctory. In the same way I must make a conscious and intentional decision to say that I love those closest to me if my relationship with them is to be real, alive and not perfunctory.

Peter said the biggest thing he could, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Make no mistake about it, in a very few verses Peter will prove that he did not fully understand what he had said. Like Peter we do not have to understand in a precise and analytical way what we are saying. Indeed, we never will. The depth of Jesus Christ will forever elude us. But on such conscious and intentional attitudes is a solid personal faith built. This personal faith, when joined with others, will form a resilient Christian Community.

On a bright, cold Sunday morning in New York, Elaine Pagels interrupted her daily run by stopping in the vestibule of an Episcopal Church to get warm. Two days earlier, her two-and-a-half year old son had been diagnosed with an invariably fatal lung disease. She writes:

“Since I had not been in church for a long time, I was startled by my response to the worship in progress—the soaring harmonies of the choir singing with the congregation, and the priest, a woman, in bright gold and white vestments, proclaiming the prayers in a clear, resonant voice. As I stood watching a thought came to me: Here is a family that knows how to face death.

“… Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine [or understand].”

“On this rock,” said Jesus, “I will build my church.”

Amen.