Note: A version of this sermon was written and given for both St. John’s Episcopal Church in Murray, KY and St. James Pewee Valley, KY.
In the name of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen
The gospel passage from Matthew this morning is rich with imagery and significant: it a highlight of Peter’s life, as well as a turning point in the gospel’s narrative.
Jesus takes the disciples to Caesarea Philippi; a city occupied by Romans. North of the city was a rocky outcrop with a deep cave; there the Roman occupiers built a temple to the god Pan. The Romans made sacrifices there, and they believed that this temple, into the cave, was a gateway into Hades; the underworld.
Here, Jesus asks the disciples the central question of Faith: Who am I?
Who do they say that I am?
The disciples report what others say: John. Elijah. the prophets.
Then Jesus asks again. Who do you say that I am?
Peter answers: you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
Jesus gives him a blessing: for the answer is not Peter’s but the answer was given to Peter by God.
Then Jesus renames Peter. In the Bible, people are renamed after they have encounters with the divine. Peter was not renamed when he was called to be a disciple, or when Jesus drew him out to walk on water. No. Peter is renamed at this juncture. Peter, Petros is a play on words. It means rock. You are petros, and upon this Petra I will build my church. Jesus is telling us something here about Peter: our Roman Catholic Siblings see “this rock” defining the role of Peter as the first pope, the first leader of the church. Jesus also means the rock of Peter’s declaration: that statement that defines our Christian faith: You are the savior: you are the son of God. Upon that rock, that statement, we build our faith.
So this gives us a sense: Peter’s faith, given to him by God, is the rock of our faith.
“And the Gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
This isn’t just a throwaway line: this is important. Jesus has walked with his disciples north, to where their culture tells them the gates of Hades are. It is possible that Jesus and his disciples sat together and had this conversation, this teaching moment, at the site of a temple that they thought led to the underworld. So when Jesus is talking about the foundation of his church, he is contrasting it with the rocky cave, a place of fear with a proclamation of hope.
There is a third sense in the passage of how Jesus uses the word Rock- it is the sense in which connects back to the disciples’ faith in the God of Israel; our God. The disciples were familiar with the book of Deuteronomy; at the end of that book Moses addresses the people of Israel one last time before they enter into the promised land. He speaks repeatedly of God as the Rock.
The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just(Deuteronomy 32:4)
A faithful god, without deceit, just and upright is he.
The third sense connects back to the first. The Rock, God, gives Peter his faith; the Rock, God gives Peter his name; and the Rock, God, though Jesus his son gives us faith and through that brings us into the Kingdom of Heaven.
So what does that mean for the church today? What does that mean for the church in the time of Digital worship and Covid-19? What does it mean that the church is built on the Rock of God, the Rock of our salvation: Jesus, who is the Son of God?
Here we are wrestling with two mysteries: the mystery of who Jesus is, and the mystery of the Church. If we accept the declaration of faith, we must also accept that the church is built upon that Rock. The church is the community of those faithful to Jesus throughout time. It is a human community. It falls short; it disappoints; yet it is also a community of those called together by God: and not even the gates of Hades will prevail against it.
This is a bold claim to make in the 21st century: when the church can’t gather like we have, when the church is shrinking in our part of the world; when many of our neighbors see the church as obsolete, or worse, evil. Yet we must return to that central gospel proclamation: Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Jesus Christ is the son of God. On that proclamation, we can build our church, our faith. If we do, we build our faith on solid ground.
This is a turning point in the gospel. After the disciples are given vision of who Jesus is, God transfigured him before their eyes. Jesus tells them that he must die— not here, at the gates of hell, but at the hands of his own people. Jesus goes to Jerusalem. He dies for our sins; he suffers the worst death and humiliation humanly possible. Yet his words were true. Sunday comes, and Jesus rises from the dead. Sunday comes, and Jesus sends out the disciples to make disciples of all nations. Sunday comes, and the disciples look back and truly see: Jesus is the Messiah: the son of the living God.
Jesus’ words this morning are powerful. They challenge us to declare our faith. At the same time they show us that it is God who is the Rock and God who gives us the power to declare our faith. Yet in the end, Jesus leaves it up to us to answer the question: Who do they say that I am? And who do you say that I am?
This is the recording for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Murray, KY.