Who do you think you are?
A sermon for Trinity 11 on 27th August 2017 by Roberta Berke
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” [Mt. 16.18]
One of my favourite television programmes is, “Who do you think you are?” With the aid of researchers, well-known people discover their family histories. Surprising facts are uncovered behind their familiar names. Names that were lost long ago through marriage are revealed. Often we know very little about where our names came from. Why was someone given a particular nickname? Even if we know our friends very well, we seldom know their middle names. In today’s gospel, Peter tells Jesus his true name: the Son of God, the Messiah. Then Jesus tells Peter his true name: the rock on which he will build his church.
Who was Peter? He was originally called Simon. He and his brother Andrew were fishermen, working on the Sea of Galilee. Their father’s name was Jonah. Peter was married, and Jesus healed his mother-in-law. [Mt.8.14-17] Peter spoke with a peculiar provincial accent, which was conspicuous in sophisticated Jerusalem. [Mt.26.73] Peter was a natural leader and often he spoke for the rest of the disciples. Peter was confident: sometimes over-confident and impulsive. When Jesus called, Peter and his brother Andrew “immediately left their nets”. [Mt.4.20] Peter said to Jesus, “we have left everything for you.” [Mk.10.28]
Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah is so crucial, that it’s included in all four gospels. In Matthew’s gospel, this moment is the turning point, the axis on which the story of Jesus pivots. From this moment onwards, Jesus starts to journey towards crucifixion, death and resurrection. Jesus asks his disciples, who do people say that I am? They tell him about the rumours that Jesus is one of the prophets come back to life. Then Jesus confronts his disciples directly: “but who do you say that I am?” A confused silence probably followed. Then Peter spoke out: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter reveals Jesus’ true identity. And then Jesus reveals to Peter his true identity, the person who he really is. Jesus reveals various aspects of Peter’s true self. Peter is “blessed” because he has had a revelation from God that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus calls Peter, “son of Jonah”. The name of Peter’s father was in fact Jonah, but he was not called “son of Jonah” when he was invited to follow Jesus, but simply Simon. Jonah was the prophet who tried to escape his mission. Jonah spent three days as if dead inside the belly of a huge fish before he emerged alive to proclaim God’s message. When people demanded that Jesus give them a sign from heaven, Jesus replied: “the only sign they will be given is the sign of Jonah.” [Mt 12.39; 16.4] Jesus was referring to his resurrection after three days in the tomb. Like Jonah, now Peter has had a prophetic insight. Previously known as Simon, Peter is given a new name: Petros meaning rock in Greek. In the Bible, when people are given a new name it means that have been given a new role. Abram becomes Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude.” Abraham is called a rock, when Isaiah urges the Israelites to, “look to the rock from which you were hewn.” [Is. 51.1-2] After Jacob wrestles with the angel, he is given a new name, Israel. This name means “one who strives with God and humans and has prevailed”. Jesus says to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church”. This is one of only two mentions of “church” in the gospels. The Greek word for church is ekklesia, meaning “assembly”. This is one of the most contentious passages in the whole Bible. Roman Catholics interpret these words as establishing the papacy and the apostolic succession. Protestants disagree, saying, all that Jesus meant was that Peter was to lead the early church. Jesus says to Peter, “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.” This is similar to Isaiah saying that the new king will be given, “the key of the house of David, he shall open and no one will shut; he shall shut and no one will open.” [Is.22.22] This power to bind and loose may refer to a rabbinic power to bind and loose from vows. In a similar way, Peter is given authority to decide what is permitted and what is forbidden. His view will be decisive in the controversy over clean and unclean food in the early church.
All Jesus’ words of approval might lead us to expect Peter will be a perfect saint. Unfortunately, Peter often misunderstands who Jesus is, and what Jesus must do to fulfil his purpose. Immediately after Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus reveals that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer and be killed then be raised from the dead on the third day. Peter is horrified: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” [Mt. 16.22] Jesus rebukes him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” [Mt. 16.23] Peter, the rock, the foundation of the church a moment ago, is now a stumbling block. He’s denounced as Satan, the ultimate enemy of the church. At the Last Supper, Peter insisted to Jesus that he would never desert him. Yet only a few hours later, Peter swore three times that he never even knew Jesus. Why do the gospels include Peter’s misunderstandings and mistakes? Peter had to struggle against the faults in his temperament. He was impulsive, and too quick to jump to obvious conclusions. Peter is all too human. We can all identify with his mistakes.
After the resurrection Peter became a great leader of the early church. The risen Christ commissioned Peter again, saying three times, “feed my sheep”. [John 21.15 – 17] Peter’s preaching was bold and effective. He was unafraid of offending any authorities, religious or political. Sometimes Peter was thrown into prison. [Acts 5.18;12.3] Peter had a vision which convinced him that all food was permitted, so the restrictions of Jewish dietary laws were unnecessary. [Acts 10.9-16] This new freedom opened the way for Gentiles to be welcomed into the early church. Peter travelled widely, preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. At last he came to Rome. Jesus had warned him: “when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and someone will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not want to go.” [John 21.19] Peter was martyred in Rome during Nero’s persecutions. Tradition says that Peter demanded to be crucified upside down in deference to Jesus his master.
Peter told Jesus his true name: the Son of God, the Messiah. Then Jesus told Peter his true name: the rock on which he will build his church. When Peter recognised Jesus’ true identity, Jesus revealed to Peter his true identity. Jesus said, “You are Peter”, not, “You might become Peter”. Jesus saw the bedrock within this bumbling, impetuous fisherman. God knows our true selves, our true names. When Jesus called “Mary” by name in the garden, she recognised the risen Christ. [John. 20.16] When we recognise that Jesus is the Son of God, he reveals our true identities to us. The invitation to baptism says, “Christ calls you by name.” At baptism our names are given to us. And at a funeral, we commend the person’s soul to God by calling them by their name: “name___, go forth from this world in the love of God the Father who created you.” Like Peter, we often don’t live up to our names, to our true identities as children of God. But this name is our true self, known to God, who calls us to him at the beginning of our lives and at the end of our lives. AMEN.
Copyright © 2017 by Roberta Berke. All Rights Reserved.