Romans 12:2; Matthew 16:13-20
Today, there are several little things in the Gospel text I want to share briefly before getting to the main point.
Jesus calls Simon “Rock.” In Greek, this is the word “petros,” which comes into English as Peter. He calls him Rock because of the solid rock of his faith. Some people believe Jesus is saying the church will be founded on Peter himself, which leads to Peter being the first pope. Others believe Jesus is saying that Peter’s faith that will found the church, and indeed, his life after Jesus’ death portrays his strong faith.
Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, with the power to bind and loose laws on earth. Binding and loosing is a technical term in Judaism. Over time, some rules that made sense in the past no longer made sense in the present, and this power makes it possible to change the rules to suit the new situation and location.
For example, one of the rules in Judaism that needs to suit the local situation is the distance that constitutes a Sabbath day’s walk, which is the distance one may walk on the Sabbath. In rural areas, it is from one edge of town to the other, or from home to the synagogue. In the city of Jerusalem, it is the entire city.
As the young Christian Church was forming, it went into many new territories, and the long-standing Jewish rules had to be revised. Circumcision before baptism was one of the hottest topics of the early church, as was the eating of non-kosher food. The power to bind and loose these rules was critical to the expansion of Christianity beyond Judaism.
Jesus says that the Gates of Hades will not prevail against the power of his church. Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, which is in the northern area of Galilee. Caesarea Philippi was a Roman city, a symbol of Roman presence and power in the region. We know this area today as the Golan Heights, where a border war was fought between Israel and Syria a number of years ago.
Mount Hermon is there, the source of most of the water for Israel, in Jesus’ time and still today. High on the mountain is an ancient cave. It is filled with water, deep, deep water. Around the mouth of the cave are niches carved in the rock, with statues of the god Pan in them. So, it is an ancient worship site for gods other than the Jewish God. The cave is called the Gates of Hades, and it was believed that anyone who fell into the water was going straight to Hades – or Hell.
So, as Jesus is preaching that the Gates of Hades will not prevail against the church, Jesus is assuring the disciples that the Son of Man is more powerful than the Roman army, more powerful than the god Pan, more powerful than deep waters of the Gates of Hades.
At the end of their conversation, Jesus tells the disciples to not tell anyone that he is the Messiah. He wants to make sure that he has a chance to be the Messiah God sent, not the one the people are expecting. He wants to make sure he is not forced to be the military hero the people are looking for. He wants to make sure the crucifixion and resurrection happen God’s way, in God’s time.
On to the story itself. Jesus has been traveling with the disciples for a while now. They have seen him feed thousands of people, heal unknown numbers of people, tell perhaps dozens of parables. The news about him is widespread – from Jerusalem to Tyre and Sidon to the northernmost parts of Galilee, people have heard about Jesus.
Jesus decides it’s time to talk about his identity. He begins by asking what the people are saying about the Son of Man. The disciples make the connection that Jesus is talking about himself.
In many passages in the Old Testament, Son of Man simply refers to a human, a mortal being. By the time of Jesus, it also had another meaning: of an apocalyptic being, who will come and bring about major changes in the world. They tell Jesus the people think he is one of the prophets, reincarnated, perhaps Elijah or Jeremiah. Some think he has the spirit of John the Baptist, who has just recently been killed by Herod.
Then, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. Before anyone else has a chance to speak, Simon Peter blurts out what he has been thinking for a long time, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” Jesus is pleased with this response, and tells Simon he is blessed because this knowledge comes from God. Then Jesus goes on to tell Peter that through the solid rock of his faith the church will grow.
Because we know the end of the story, we know that Peter is not always so wise, so guided by God. Very often, the human side of Peter shows up. Next week, we will read about just that, when he yells at Jesus for suggesting that he will suffer and die.
But for today, Peter’s faithful confession of his belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and as the Son of the Living God is front and center. Because of this belief in Jesus, Peter gives his whole life to following him, to serving him, and then to leading the fledgling church as it begins to take shape. He will die for his faith in Jesus. Legend tells us that he was crucified upside down, because he didn’t consider himself worthy of dying as Jesus died. For Peter, Jesus was the Lord and Ruler of his entire life.
It’s appropriate now to ask you, “Who do you say Jesus is, and what does that mean to you?” This is your challenge for this week, and for the rest of your life.
Is Jesus the Lord of your life? Does Jesus matter all through your week, or just on Sunday morning? Since we are all human, just like Peter, it’s normal for us to not constantly think about Jesus, and we are all works in progress in that regard. But there are signs in our lives that show our faithfulness and commitment.
Does devotion to Jesus guide your decisions? How about where you shop? For example, shopping at a local farmers’ market puts money in local pockets, including the people who actually grow the food. Does that matter to you?
Is it through doctors or through Jesus’ healing power that you are made well? It’s both, isn’t it? Do you thank God for your healing as you pay the doctor bills?
If you have tried giving a bit more to Hope this month, have you missed the money? Does it seem like Jesus has stretched your budget to allow for some extra giving for his purposes? Is Jesus the Lord of your wallet?
How do you use the time Jesus has given you? As Hope looks to the future, we have asked for volunteers to serve as committee members, and soon we will be asking for folks to serve on the congregation council. Does your commitment to making Jesus the Lord of your life stretch that far?
I think often of Paul’s words: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds through Christ Jesus. When we allow Jesus to be the Lord of our lives, we deepen our commitment to following him instead of being guided by the ways of the world which fight against him. We are transformed!
Please pray with me: Lord Jesus, we don’t always keep you front and center in our lives; forgive us. We ask for your patience as we seek to be more faithful, more committed to you. Send your Spirit into our hearts so we may be guided by you every day and encouraged to make you always the Lord of our lives. Amen