August 27, 2017

12th Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 51:1-6

Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20


The word, rock, has different meanings in today’s world. For young people today, the Rock is the name of a famous American actor who starred in many blockbuster movies and who once became the highest paid actor in Hollywood, earning 86 million dollars last year alone. His original name is Dwayne Johnson and the Rock was the stage name that he used when he was still a pro-wrestler in in World Wrestling Federation.

In modern English, the word rock can have different meanings, some are opposite from the other. Today, when we say to someone, “You rock!”, we want that person to know that he/she is great or wonderful or cool! Indeed, when we say, “You rock!” to someone, we want to say that he/she rocks like a rock star! But when we say to someone, “You’re on the rocks,” that means that person is in trouble. Ships often hit rocks in the ocean and break apart. So to be on the rocks means that you or your situation is breaking apart. On the other hand, however, when we say to someone, “You’re my rock,” it means that the person is the source of strength that gives stability and safety in our life. Indeed friends, language can be an unpredictable business.

Rock is also used as a metaphor in both the Old Testament and New Testament of the Bible. The Psalms often likened God to a rock, the place where people could find refuge and shelter and protection. A rock, or rocky mountain or landscape, would provide natural protection especially during battles. To take position in a rock thus is to have an advantage over ones’ enemies during battle. Ancient people also used caves in a rock as shelters from the elements or wild animals.

In the New Testament, Jesus himself gave a parable about two men who built their houses: one built on sand, the other built on the rock (Matthew 7:24-27). The house that was built on sand was immediately overwhelmed by the winds and floods and came down crashing. But the house built on the rock stood strongly even after it was battered by the elements.

So, in the Bible, a rock was seen as something that gave people protection and strength. The readings that we have today also introduce us to the rocks that provided our spiritual ancestors with strength and stability as they faced uncertainty, even danger.

In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus and the disciples were on their way once again. Last Sunday, we heard that they were in a territory near the cities of Tyre and Sidon. But now we hear that they were near the town of Caesarea Philippi.

While they were there, it seemed that they had enough time to spend for themselves, so Jesus used this time to ask his disciples an important question. He wanted to know what other people thought about him, about who he was. Well, like with any issue today, people in his time had different opinions about who Jesus was.

But that was only the preliminary question. What Jesus really wanted to know was what the disciples themselves thought about him.

Simon was the only one who dared to answer the question and he was right on the money. Others may have their opinion, but Peter proclaimed that Jesus was really the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. This proclamation led Jesus to say to Peter the famous words had opened themselves to many interpretations. “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church,” Jesus said.

The Roman Catholic Church believes Jesus was ascribing the word rock to Peter. For them, there and then, Jesus inaugurated Peter as the rock upon which the church is built upon. This is the foundation of the Roman Catholic’s doctrine of apostolic succession. For them, there and then, Jesus inaugurated Peter as the first leader of the church; in other words, the first Pope. And from Peter, the leadership of the church has been passed on to generations of Pope after him in unbroken succession.

But Jesus’ words can also be understood differently. The Greek word for Peter is petros and the Greek word for rock is petra. So here, Jesus was playing with words, pointing to the similarities between Peter’s name and rock in Greek language. But in Greek, Petros is masculine and petra is feminine. So, grammatically, petra is closer to the word ekklesia, which is the Greek word for the church.

In other words, Jesus did not necessarily talk about Peter when he said that upon this rock he would build his church. Indeed, the context of the passage actually points to Peter’s revelation of Jesus identity as the Messiah as the rock. The church, the ekklesia, thus is built not upon Peter, but upon Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

This revelation of Jesus’ identity is the foundation upon which the church, throughout many generations, is built. This revelation is the anchor that has given the church the stability to survive not only persecutions, but also other obstacles that it has met in its history.

So the foundation of the church is not Peter, but the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. This revelation has been and will always be the foundation that guides the church as it charts its way in the ever-changing ocean of history. Without this foundation, the church will be lost, just like a boat in the past will be lost in the ocean without the guidance of a lighthouse, stood firmly on a rock. The church has to have Jesus as its foundation.

We hear similar issue in our reading from the book of Isaiah. The prophecy that we read today in Isaiah was given to the people of Israel living in exile in Babylon. There, in exile, they had lost all of their pride as an independent nation that was respected by other nations around them. There, in exile, they were just remnants of what used to be a jewel in the desert of Palestine.

But the prophet, which we may call as the second prophet in Isaiah, reminded them about their identity. He reminded these defeated people in exile about who they were: they were the descendants of great ancestors: Abraham and Sarah.

But as great as they were, Abraham and Sarah were not the rock from which they were hewn. No, the rock from which they were hewn were the promise that God gave to Abraham and Sarah. God promised to Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would occupy a land, multiply greatly, and become a great nation.[1] And God was true to God’s promise to Abraham and Sara even after they were way over the normal child-bearing age. God gave Abraham and Sarah a son, Isaac, when Abraham was one hundred years old.[2] Indeed, God fulfilled God’s promise to them even when Abraham and Sarah were facing what seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle.

In their time of exile and nation-wide tragedy and loss, the second prophet of Isaiah thus invited the remnants of Israel to look back to the stories of their ancestors. They were reminded that they were the product of God’s promise to their ancestors and the promise remained no matter what kind of disaster that they were facing then. They were hewn from a mighty rock. And that rock was the promise that God gave to their ancestors; a promise that would remain strong for generations to come.

Indeed, it begins from within. The world outside may keep on changing. Each change may bring different threat, but as long as the core of our life is God, our rock, we will find the steadiness that we need to steer the course.

In the passage that we read today from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul too reminded the Christians in Rome not to conform themselves to the standard that the world offered. Rome was a metropolitan city; a mega city for ancient world’s standard. As such, Rome has many things that could tempt its inhabitants, including the Christians who lived there. Rome offered myriads of opportunities and lifestyles that may not agree with the Christian values. But Paul asked the Roman Christians to let God transform them inwardly. They were to offer their lives as offerings not to the world, but to God.

In other words, the Christians in Rome must anchor their lives to God and God’s will as they lived amongst values and lifestyles that may go against the gospel. God and God’s values must become the rock on which they built their lives on.                                                                                                    

Friends, people often say that there is only one thing that is certain, and that one thing is change itself. The world around us is changing all the time and we may feel pulled and pushed to different directions. But as long as we have Christ at the core of our lives, we can traverse the ocean of life with courage, strength, and wisdom. As longs as we follow Christ and his values, we know that we won’t be lost even when the storm is at its strongest.

Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God! Let this proclamation be the rock from which we are hewn, and from which we find shelter and strength. Amen.

Toby Keva

[1] See Genesis 17
[2] Genesis 21:5