BIBLE READINGS: Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20
Some people have claimed that Jesus did not have a sense of humour because he is never shown laughing in the Bible. Actually, he told many jokes. They were puns, but these do not survive language translation. One of his best known is found in today's Gospel.
The Old Testament referred to a mysterious figure called "One like a Son of Man" This was synonym for "human-appearing". He would bring help from God. Jesus asks his apostles about current speculation on the figure's identity. The disciples give the most common guesses. Jesus then quizzes them why they haven't added his own person to the list. Only Simon Bar (son of) Jonah gets the point. He blurts out that Jesus must be the mystery man, the Messiah.
"Simon" means "pebble" in Hebrew. "Cephas" (or Peter) means "rock". Jesus makes a double pun. He says that the little pebble is going to be a big rock in his scheme of things. In Greek it is also a play on words; “Peter” [petros] means a little stone, a pebble; petra means a massive rock – like Ulluru.
Few sentences from scripture have evoked as much discussion and controversy as this one. It is quite familiar to those of you who have some Roman Catholic upbringing in your background. These words are inscribed inside the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and have been understood by Roman Catholics as the scriptural foundation for the authority of the Pope – though the post-Vatican II church is somewhat less insistent on that interpretation of this passage.
Peter, of course, is one of the most prominent figures in the New Testament. According to Matthew, he is the first to confess Jesus as the Christ – Messiah. It was Peter who was charged with strengthening the faith of the other disciples after recovering his own shattered faith. He was reportedly the first of the Apostles to see the risen Christ. On the Day of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2, it was the bold Peter who was chosen to preach. There is no doubt that Peter was the acknowledged leader of the Jerusalem church, and of the Jewish faction within the newly emerging Christian Church.
Later tradition says that authority at Jerusalem slipped from Peter’s hands, and that James the brother of Jesus was named to lead the church there. We don’t know much about the politics of that; it may even be that the passage before us grew out of that rivalry as a defence of Peter’s leadership. It was through Peter’s vision – and unceasing pressure applied by such early missionaries as Paul – that the doors of faith were opened to the larger Greek-speaking world outside Judaism. No doubt about it: Peter casts a long shadow over the history and development of early Christianity.
What, exactly, did Jesus mean when he called Peter a rock? This passage is in artfully crafted poetic form in Greek. Perhaps the early church took this saying of Jesus and made it into a kind of epic poem for teaching purposes. If it is poetry, how should we interpret it? Augustine, the 4th century theologian, says that Jesus was not referring to Peter but to himself – and Martin Luther followed that interpretation. In Greek the sentence is ambiguous and certainly is open to this interpretation. Others – John Calvin among them – has held that the rock is not Peter himself, but the faith to which he gave witness when he confessed “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Literally translated, it says something like “I say you are a little stone – a pebble – and on this big rock I am building my church.”
Oscar Cullmann, a Theologian, insists that Jesus really meant Peter himself. Upon Peter, the disciple, Jesus said, “I am building my church.” Others say that if it had not been for use of the passage to defend the authority of the papacy, no other interpretation would ever have occurred to us except that Jesus meant what the tradition says he meant.
A quick look at Peter is helpful, I think, for in Peter we can see a great deal about ourselves. His personality seems to contain many of the contrasts of humanity – including our strengths and our weaknesses. Here is a person who, like we ourselves, is capable of making the bold and noble confession we read today and then, with expletives undeleted, of denying the Lord of the confession. Of swearing boldly, when Jesus was arrested, that he does not know this Jesus – and then of weeping bitterly in repentance. Of following at a safe distance behind the crucifixion procession – but bravely leading the preaching mission at Pentecost. Peter is all of us, at our best and at our worst. Among the disciples he is spokesperson and representative; but in public he both confesses and denies Jesus. Doesn’t that sound amazingly like the way we practice our faith? Sometimes with great certainty and conviction; sometimes with overwhelming doubt and timidity?
This plain humanity of Peter is exactly why Jesus would build the enduring fellowship of believers on such a person. A representative of the Apostles, and of us. It is upon the shoulders of common, ordinary human beings quite like us that the Lord places the weight of his Church. Building a church out of pebbles and rocks.
And that is what we are about. Some Big rocks and some little pebbles and a lot of gravel in between. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the ministers are the rocks. We are but stones in the structure – and most certainly are neither the cornerstone nor the keystone. Christ is building his church out of pebbles, not carving from a single piece of marble. That is what Paul was getting at in the reading from Romans this morning.
Our vision for the Church is a vision of unity, of wholeness. But wholeness ought not be confused with uniformity. Wholeness is not sameness. Wholeness is interconnected parts. Stones of various sizes, shapes, colours and textures -- collected from here and there and everywhere -- held together by the mortar Christ provides in his own body and blood. In wholeness, differences are not eliminated or plastered over, but rather they come alive and contribute to the health, the welfare, the unity of the whole as they come together, interact and cooperate.
Building a church out of pebbles and stones. Who was it who observed that a rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a person approaches it with the image of a cathedral forming in his soul? “You are a pebble, and upon this rock I will build my church.”
It was the plain humanity of Peter that became the quality of life and faith out of which Jesus would build the enduring fellowship of believers. A representative of the Apostles – and of us. It’s upon the shoulder of common, ordinary people like you that God has placed the weight of the Church. And that is where God continues to build the church – out of pebbles and rocks – as men and women, children and young people come to believe in and serve God through the witness of God’s people. It is upon the gathered stones of our faith that those who come after us will see Christ’s church still being built. The same God who used Peter’s varied strengths and weaknesses is still doing glorious things. And doing them, strange as it may seem, through people like us. Not perfect people; people who, like Peter, deny the very Lord we profess and profess the very One we deny.
Remember, as you go about your daily lives, that God is still building the church out of pebbles and rocks. “You are a stone, and upon this rock I am building my church.”