Welcome to today’s worship post.
Year A 21st in Ordinary Time.
Who do you say that I am?
Near the beginning of Matthew’s gospel Jesus begins his ministry after his baptism by John in the Jordan: he begins by calling Disciples to follow him and then begins to travel through Galilee proclaiming the that the kingdom is now here, healing the sick and the suffering and teaching about the Kingdom. There is a lot of teaching centred on the Beatitudes – the Sermon on the Mount, followed by a number of miracles: he touches and heals a man with leprosy – breaking a long held taboo; then he breaks another taboo by healing the servant of a Centurion, a non Jew.
As people hear and see stories of what Jesus is doing and saying they begin to raise questions about just who this Jesus is:
When Jesus brings back to life a little girl who has died: Who has power over life and death in this way?
When Jesus speaks the sea is calmed and the wind dies down: Who is this that even the winds and the waves obey him?
When Jesus casts out evil spirits from two men and sends them into a herd of pigs: Who is it that has power over evil spirits in this way?
When Jesus heals on the Sabbath he is challenged as a law breaker – but who has the right to break these laws?
The Answer? – the one who gave life in the first place can bring life to the dead; the one who made the winds and the waves in the first place has power over them; the one who is the creator of all things and therefore has power over all, and one who is pure love such that no evil can stand.
These actions are not just acts of compassion they are also done, and are reported by, the gospel writer in order to show us who Jesus really is. Now Jesus turns to the disciples and asks them about the people who have heard these stories and seen and heard the things he has done and said – what are they saying about him?
Their answers may at first sound a bit bizarre to us. The disciples tell him: ‘Well some people are saying that you are John the Baptist, but others are saying you are Elijah and others still are saying you must be Jeremiah, or one of the prophets’. Most of these people were Old Testament prophets, long gone by Jesus’ time, and John the Baptist has also recently been put to death so how could Jesus be any of these people?
Well it was a common belief that important figures from the past could be in some way reincarnated. It was widely believed for example that Moses and Elijah would one day return so it seems people were debating which of these characters Jesus might be.
Then Jesus asks the really important question: “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon (as he is still known until this point) responds “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God”. This is a light bulb moment for him. Simon has shown a level of understanding that tells Jesus that all the work he has done until now has been worthwhile – he has got the message, he knows who Jesus is. But it’s not yet time for everyone else to know and so Jesus tells the disciples to keep this information to themselves for now.
But Jesus blesses Simon and calls him now Peter – the rock – for the first time. It’s a name that sticks but what does he mean exactly when he says (vs 17) “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 rockI will build my church”.
There is a lot of debate about precisely what Jesus means here. Simon has been given a new name ‘Peter’ which means ‘Rock’ and Peter has been been given a special understanding of who Jesus is: an understanding that Jesus says has been given to him especially by God. Its like his eyes have been closed until now and suddenly they have opened so that he can see Jesus properly and recognise who he really is – the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. So Peter has been given a special roll to play in letting people know who Jesus is and in the building of his church, because Jesus also tells him “on this rock I will build my church”.
Obviously if you are going to build a church it needs to be built on a strong foundation. But, like any of us, Peter is far from perfect, he has his faults and he will be the one will let Jesus down at a crucial time when Jesus is arrested. He will deny knowing him and he will run away and hide out of fear. Perhaps Jesus knows this when he refers to him as “Simon, Son of Jonah”. You may remember Jonah from the Old Testament story – Jonah who tried to runaway from what God asked him to do, got swallowed up by a whale was miraculously saved and ended up doing what God asked anyway. Perhaps Jesus knows that ultimately, Peter also will end up being a strong advocate for him.
Peter may not be perfect but he does end up being the one who begins to call the church immediately after Pentecost. In Acts 2 we can read how Peter addressed the crowd after the coming of the Holy Spirit and how thousands of people who heard him were added as disciples of Jesus – these people became the foundation of the church. So Peter becomes the rock that is the foundation of the church.
But it’s important to note as well that although Peter may have been the rock, it is Jesus who does the building. “On this rock I will build” he says. I’m no Greek scholar but I gather that the Greek word used here means ‘house-build’ but the same word means ‘family’. So it seems that when Jesus says he will build his church, he is also saying that he will build his family ie. the church of Jesus is the family of those who place their faith in him and call him Messiah, those whose eyes are opened to who Jesus really is just as Peter’s were.
At this time we have learned that the Church really is the family of Jesus, – not the building where we gather or the activities we engage in normally. We are still the church of Jesus Christ even when we cannot be in a particular place or do particular things. We are still the people who recognise Jesus as ‘Messiah, the Son of the Living God’ and that is the most important thing about being church.
As we begin to contemplate how we can begin to meet again and re-engage with activities we must keep this central to our thinking. It doesn’t matter what we cannot do – what matters is what we can do to love Jesus and love one another, and to worship the Son of the Living God.
Perhaps some of the things we did before we cannot do again for some considerable time. We know that church cannot go back to the way it was until we can be sure that we can do so safely without the threat of CoVid 19. But we can still tell God that we love him and we can still share the gospel with those we meet. We may just have to do it in different ways than we are used to, and maybe that is what God intends.
And while Peter was the rock on which Jesus built his church, we remember also that Jesus is the rock, the foundation of our lives. This week we remember especially all those who have had such a hard time with exam results for the exams that didn’t happen. Whatever happens, Jesus can be the rock on which we depend and he will always be there to sustain us and give us strength in difficult times.
Andrew Biggs 17th August 2020.