Sermon, 21st Ordinary A, Isaiah 51:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Renaming Rocks

A new poll from the Pew Research Center has found a slim majority that says religious institutions should not speak out on political and social issues.

People have been frustrated by the way religiously-based beliefs have been involved

ethnic conflict

in our politics and legislation, and perhaps you are one of them.

Our texts today bring up this issue. Why? Because if anything is central and fundamental to our faith it is that God is revealed to us in his Son, Jesus.

If we want to know God, our task is to know him through Jesus. If we want to understand what he wants, cares about, requires of us, we look at Jesus, we listen to Jesus.

This Jesus-focus is authorized in the very text we have before us today from Matthew, and it is here that we also get a strong teaching of Jesus that involves politics and social issues.

To be clear then, to know God, to love God, to be a person of faith is to be a learner, that is, a disciple – of Jesus.

So if he is passionate about a political or social issue, we allow him to “school” us.

Looking at it another way: if Jesus cared about it, he did so because God cares about it.

Our quest is to know God, to understand what God wants of us, and to become better than we are now in following as a disciple. So, we need this text; let us begin.

First, this text is usually called Peter’s Great Confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi. It is central to our faith that Jesus is the Messiah, or Christ (in Greek-based English), both of which mean “the anointed one.”

Jesus is God’s unique son, anointed with God’s Holy Spirit. That is Peter’s confession of faith, and Jesus blesses him for it.

But then, right after Jesus congratulates Simon for getting this correct – credit for which he gives to God, not to Simon’s brilliance – there are some really strange phrases.

Jesus changes Simon’s name – to Peter (his mother named him Simon) – why? and why change it?

Peter means “rock.” What is all that “rock” language supposed to mean?

Jesus called him the son of Jonah – what’s that about?

Then Jesus Gave him the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose with authority – what does that mean: that he made him the Pope?

And are these odd phrases connected to each other or to Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, son of God at Caesarea Philippi?

Yes! and Yes!

Let’s take them one at a time: Let’s start with the Rock business. Of course you know that Peter is the Greek word for Rock. Jesus says to simon, “You are Peter or Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”

The Rock is a frequent Old Testament image: God is our solid rock or refuge – it is a fortress metaphor.

But Jesus cannot be calling Simon “God,” so we go to another way the rock metaphor is used, and that takes us to the reading from Isaiah 51.

The prophet tells the people not to forget their identity: they are chips off of the block of Abraham and Sarah.

Question: What was God doing with Abraham and Sarah? He was starting in motion a process that would bring, as Isaiah says, “light to the nations.”

God chose Abraham and Sarah as the first step in blessing all the nations of the earth, being a light to all the nations.

So how did that work out? Actually, not so well. In fact, instead of being the means by which God would bless the whole world, Israel turned inward, circled the wagons, and focused ferociously on keeping the rest of the world away.

Jesus, however, was all about taking the light of God beyond the ethnic confines of Israel.

Jesus was like the prophet Jonah who preached the gospel to the Assyrians in Nineveh, so that even the enemies of God’s people came to have faith.

That’s why he looked at Simon and said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah…”. Simon too would be a boundary crosser.

This is also why he changed his name. Simon’s mother did what a lot of other mothers did: she named her son after a national hero.

Simon was part of the Maccabean Revolt which was successful in winning independence for the Jews against the Greeks.

Lots of sons were named for the heroes of that independence struggle, including Matthew, John, and Judas as well as Simon.

So when Jesus changed Simon’s name, he transformed his identity from the next conquering hero of national independence to a son of Jonah the prophet, preacher to the gentiles.

Jesus gave him a new name: Rock – or Peter. Simon and all the Israelites were cut from the Rock of Abraham and Sarah; they were Jewish.

Abraham and Sarah were given a promise, a covenant, and a mandate to be blessings to the entire world, to be a light to all peoples, not just to their own ethnic clan.

Jesus was intent on fulfilling this God-given mandate to bring God’s love and God’s redemption to the world.

To this end, he laid a foundation that was no longer based on ethnicity.

This new foundation, this new Rock is the church. Jesus said to Simon: you are now Peter, Rock, and I will build my church on the ministry I began when I called you to follow me.

The gospel of Matthew specifies that this happened, not in Jerusalem on the huge rock outcropping called Mount Zion, but on another city built on a rock, Caesarea-Philippi – a Roman city.

Now the pieces are coming together. Jesus is the Messiah – yes; but does not base his kingdom on a new Simon, a new ethnic liberator. He is God’s Messiah, or Christ, who is accomplishing a much greater, world-wide liberation; soul liberation.

If this is going to work, changes will be necessary. The old walls of Kosher will have to come down. People will have to be released, loosened from the old purity regulations that excluded so many – including all gentiles from worship.

So Jesus gave Peter the authority, or the keys, to bind or loose – Rabbinic language for forbid or allow.

Peter could say, “OK, now you can eat pork. Now you can eat meals with gentiles, now you can, as Peter did, stay with a professional tanner (formerly taboo – see Acts 9) and preach to a Roman centurion, like Cornelius, who as it happen, lived in Caesarea. (Acts 10)

So now we can see how this all fits together.

Jesus asks: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
But Jesus gets personal: Who do you say that I am?

Peter, the first person Jesus called to be his disciple has the answer: you are more than those things. You are the long- awaited fulfillment of our hopes: you are Messiah, God’s Son.

Here is where it gets crucial: to know God is to know God as revealed in Jesus.

To know what God wants of us is to learn from Jesus.

Central to Jesus’ teaching, and therefore, central to God’s concern is that race and ethnicity are not meaningful categories for the purposes of exclusion in the Kingdom of God.

To go even further: the Messiah will not be the champion of any political agenda:

  • He will not be co-opted by any group. He is not a Jewish zealot.
  • He is not a mascot for Republicans, he is not a mascot for Democrats,
  • he is not a partisan of the Georgians nor Russians.
  • or Kurds or Iraqi’s

In fact, the opposite.

  • Any group that is trying to oppress another is against him.
  • Any group that wants to exclude another is working against his purposes and contrary to his will.

So, what does God want from us?

  • What does it mean to be a disciple?
  • What does it mean to bend the knee to Jesus the Christ, the Son of God?

– It means working for the reconciliation of the world that he made.

– It means being an advocate for peace making, for negotiation that leads to justice and fairness, and the protection of the rights of minorities.

So does this touch politics? Yes. We can make it clear to the people we send into office that their job is to work for justice and peace.

All over the world people are killing each other over racial and ethnic conflict. That is the opposite of God’s will.

As people who bend the knee to Jesus as Messiah, Christ, Son of God:

  • we go to work on the side of reconciliation and peace-making;
  • we pray for reconciliation peace-making;
  • we vote for policies of reconciliation and peace-making;
  • and we demonstrate in our own personal dealings with people who are different from us an openness and respect that shows that we know that Jesus Christ is our Lord.

Yes, it is bad in many places in the world today. But we are not people who are in despair. We are people of hope because imbedded in this text is a promise.

When Jesus looked at Simon, and called him Rock, he made this declaration: “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Jesus is not attempting in vain, he is building his church. We are evidence of it. “I will build” is the basis we have to be hopeful people.

This is not naiveté nor wishful thinking. It is the promise of our Lord that he is at work in this world, and he has called us to join him in this work!

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