Sermon from Sunday, August 21, 2011
Concordia Lutheran Church, Concord, NH
I love rocks. I used to collect them when I was young and even today I have a bowl in my living room with several different kinds of unusual rocks and stones. Each one is unique and tells a story – a story of where it came from, what it’s made of and what its shape resembles. No matter where I travel, there’s never a shortage. Just look at the region of the country we live in – NH, the granite state; no shortage of rock here. And there certainly was no shortage of rocks and stones where Jesus lived. We read in the Scriptures of Jesus traveling in the wilderness walking long miles every day over hot, sandy, stones. He preached on a mountain made of rock, was tempted to turn stones to bread, challenged people not to throw stones at a woman accused of sin, and it was a rock that sealed his tomb.Rocks can be used to destroy or to build up.
But in today’s Gospel we hear of a different kind of rock. Jesus calls Peter Πέτρος in Greek- πέτρᾳ or Rock. Why would Jesus give Peter a new name and one so similar sounding to his own? Was he just playing with words or did he have something more important in mind? Jesus said on this rock I will build my church. Was he referring to Peter or was he referring to the statement Peter made? You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Or was Jesus referring to himself, the rock on which the church is built? The setting for the question posed to the disciples gives us a hint.
In the previous chapter in Matthew we read about the Pharisees and scribes questioning Jesus about the letter of the law. They were concerned with dietary and purification laws, but Jesus tried to tell them it’s what’s inside a person that makes him clean or unclean, but they didn’t understand. Then Jesus fed the multitudes, but afterwards the disciples were the ones who didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to tell them. After that, he and the disciples travelled 25 miles north of the Sea of Galillee to Cesarea Philippi. It is here that Jesus asks the question “Who do you say that I am?” to the disciples. It was an odd place to ask such a pivotal question. Cesarea Philippi was a place filled with all kinds of temples to various gods. There was a giant marble temple built for Caesar Augustus and his son Philippi who were worshipped as gods, a temple to the Syrian god Baal, a temple to the Greek god Pan – god of shepherds and flocks and various other temples. It was an odd place to ask such a question – among all those other gods – wasn’t it? Or maybe it was the perfect setting.
Some people, said the disciples, thought he was John the Baptist come back from the dead or even Elijah. But Jesus was not concerned with what anyone else thought. Jesus wanted to know what they thought. Surrounded by the rumors of who he might be, surrounded by the temples to the various gods, Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter’s response “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” stood out among all the false gods that surrounded them. It was on this truth, this rock, that Jesus would build His church.
It’s the first time in the four gospels that Jesus specifically refers to the church, the body of believers. Yet, he tells the disciples not to reveal he is the Christ, the Messiah, to anyone at that time. Peter finally proclaims who Jesus is and they were supposed to keep it a secret? Peter may have proclaimed it, but he didn’t understand it. We see that in next week’s gospel when Peter will try and prevent Jesus from going to the cross and Jesus will say “Get behind me Satan.” Peter wanted an earthly Messiah. He wanted an earthly god, perhaps much like the ones that they looked at among the temples that day at Cesarea Philippi. Perhaps Jesus said to keep it a secret, because He knew they didn’t understand. To say Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God is no small statement and it comes with consequences.
Jesus asks us this same question today. “Who do you say that I am?” He is not interested in the memorized creeds or the written confessions if they do not come from our hearts. He wants to know from the depths of our souls who we believe Jesus is. And if we say Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, we must be ready for the consequences or we might as well keep it a secret. To say You Are the Christ is to echo the words I AM spoken by God to Moses on the mountain. It is to acknowledge Jesus is the Son of the Triune God and is the Savior of the world. This profession changes everything.
It changes the way we think, the way we act, the way we live our lives. To say that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God means that we love others as He does. We love the outcasts as much as our best friends. We forgive those who hurt us because we have been forgiven. We treasure all God’s children because we ourselves are treasured by God.
The church, unlike the stones I collect, is made of living stones. Each one is unique and has a story – a story of where we came from, what we are made of, and who we resemble. We were born with a purpose from our Creator, each with different gifts yet all resembling the image of God from whom we were created. To say that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God means that He is the Lord of our life and not any of the false gods we are tempted to worship. Like Peter, we too have been given keys – keys to unlock hardened hearts with the Word of God. We are called to reveal God’s grace to the world, a world that desperately needs to hear the Good News of Christ, the Solid Rock on which we stand. We are the living rocks that make up the church. What kind of rocks are we? Will we destory or will we build up? Amen