Text: Matthew 14: 22-33
Let us pray: Almighty God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight. In the name of Christ, the Rock of our Salvation, Amen.
There are three things I’d like to share with you about this passage today. Those of you who may be Catholic or who have had Catholic upbringing, I will need to warn you, some very uncomfortable material may be ahead. Stay with me until the end, after which I hope we will both be able to celebrate our unity in Christ together.
First, let’s consider this phrase: “Upon this rock I will build my church.” Upon what rock was Jesus speaking? Was Jesus speaking directly to Simon, son of Jonah, renamed Peter? Perhaps, but let’s examine that a bit more. Are any of you, by chance, familiar with the contemporary phrase, “You rock!” Arguably, that’s really what’s being said here. The Greek word in this passage refers to Peter as Petros, which is a play on words with the similar Greek word for rock, petra. Perhaps Jesus had a sense of humor far ahead of his time.
When I first encountered this passage as a Sunday School student, I thought, “Of course it’s Peter, everybody knows that.” Later, sometime after seminary when I was on circuit substitute preaching, I encountered this passage again in the lectionary cycle and it troubled me deeply. How could the Church, the very body of Christ, be founded on the finite shoulders of a simple fisherman from Galilee? Reading through the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, he stands out as making quite a few impetuous statements, seems to miss the point, gets both praised and rebuked, and denies Jesus when Jesus gets in trouble. Jesus is going to build the Church on the likes of him?
At that time I concluded that the rock Jesus was referring to must have been Jesus himself. That makes so much more sense, doesn’t it? I mean, why not build the Church of God upon the perfect shoulders of Jesus, the Son of God? Of all people, he would be the most capable, don’t you think?
In preparation for today’s sermon, however, more commentary came to light for me.
Rev. Jin S. Kim, Senior Pastor at the Church of All Nations in Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributor for the Feasting on the Word Commentary, makes this typical protestant observation:
“The church is not founded on Peter, just as it is not founded on John the Baptist or Elijah, Luther or Calvin. The rock is not Peter, but Peter’s testimony. Therefore, while this passage has been interpreted to give the church empirical power and permanence, the underlying lesson is that the church is as resilient or fragile as each of us in our own faith. The church exists daily in this tension of power and powerlessness. Jesus’ question to each of us is, “Who do you say that I am? What is your testimony of me? What is your experience of the living God through my witness and presence?“
Rev. Kim, among many protestants claims this is the rock on which the church is founded and the source of the Christian’s authority-not the person of Peter but the witness of who Christ is – Peter just happens to say it outright first.
This is where those with Catholic upbringing may cringe, because a Catholic understanding of this passage is the basis for apostolic succession. In the true Roman Catholic perspective, Peter was basically ordained the first Pope, and every Pope from our current one traces the apostolic authority of the Church back through the ages to Peter himself.
Regardless of any of our personal takes on that issue, I think there is a deeper question embedded in this passage that we should identify and reflect on for ourselves.
Jesus asked his own disciples “Who do you say I am?” So I ask you in return, “Who do you say Jesus is to you?” How you answer that question, personally, determines, if you will, the foundational rock of your own faithful witness. But it is more than that. How we answer that question together is the foundational rock that determines our witness as a community of faith – here and beyond.
And if our testimony is the rock upon which Christ’s church is built, then indeed, nothing can stand against us, for our experience of Jesus, our Christ, strikes deeply within each of us; when we acknowledge how deep it goes, we can’t help but act out our faith in our daily lives, impacting all we do. Within this community and wherever we are, we are witnesses to the One who lived, died, and rose again to live in us.
The second thing I’d like to explore in today’s New Testament passage is the Greek word translated “church,” or ecclesia. This word appears only twice in all four Gospels, both times in Matthew; and it has a bearing on our discussion of Simon nicknamed Peter. Because of ecclesia, or “church,” most scholars consider Christ’s quote in verses 17-19 having come from the writer of Matthew, not Jesus himself. Especially since the earlier parallel Gospel account in Mark 8:27-30 does not include the part about building the church. It only has Jesus asking, “But who do you say that I am?” and Peter declaring, “You are the Messiah.”
As you may recall, the community of Matthew is in the transition time between Jewish sect and separate Christian religion. As such, Matthew wove into his account of the Gospel an ecclesiology, or you could say, a way of thinking about church community, that begins to see Jewish Christians as separate from Jewish non Christians – which leads eventually, as we know, to a separate Christianity.
My third point; again relating back to Peter, is this. There are a few identifying phrases in today’s passage that lead me to believe Jesus IS giving a special role to Peter – yes, Peter, the one who messes up, gets it wrong, denies his Lord three times, yet ends up in a leadership role of the Jerusalem Council of Jewish Christians, or the early church. Not only do we have Jesus declaring “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,” but we also have Jesus going on to say “I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (v. 19).
Remember Matthew was written for a Jewish Christian Community? “To loose” and “to bind” is actually rabbinic terminology for doctrinal and disciplinary authority. Now that is interesting! That means Peter, and the disciples, and thus the church, have the authority to teach in the name of Jesus and to interpret the Kingdom of God to the world.
I don’t know about you, but I find that incredibly freeing. As limited as Peter was, as limited and broken as I am, as limited and broken as we all are, as Christ’s body in the world, we are still entrusted with teaching in the name of Jesus and interpreting God’s Kingdom every morning when we wake up and begin a new day living as Christ’s own.
Just as Jesus applied the teachings of Torah in fresh, new, and creative ways; so too are we enabled to interpret Scriptures similarly. We are enabled to hear the voice of Jesus speaking through the church to new situations and circumstances in the context of our contemporary world; a world that desperately needs to hear Good News.
May all glory be unto the One in whom we live and move and have our being, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
Let us pray: O Lord, you have given even us the keys to the Kingdom. May we be good and faithful stewards. Amen.
 Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16).