The Rock on Which We Stand

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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on the presumed sites of two of the most significant moments in Christianity – the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. Completed almost 1700 years ago, today it is a sprawling complex of chapels, location to five of the stations of the cross, and the home to no fewer than seven Christian groups who claim it– the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, the Armenian Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox, the Syriac Orthodox, and the Ethiopian Orthodox. If you ever have a chance to visit Jerusalem, this church is worth spending a few hours at – if for no other reason than to see how wildly varied Christian practice is around the world. Pilgrims from all over come to this holy place. Now, these seven religious groups at times have had altercations in the church. All of these deeply felt actions of devotion can at times come into conflict. In November 2008, fighting broke out between two of them. The BBC described it this way, “Dressed in vestments of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian denominations, rival monks threw punches and anything they could lay their hands on. The Greeks blamed the Armenians for not recognizing their rights inside the holy site, while the Armenians said the Greeks had violated one of their traditional ceremonies.” As the Psalm 133 proclaims, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live in unity,” right? With seven different groups claiming space in this church, it’s a good thing that none of them keeps the keys to the building. Actually, for over 800 years that responsibility has rested with two Muslim families – the Nuseibeh family keeps the door and the Joudeh family keeps the key to the church. The Christians can’t get along, so they need the Muslims’ help. Every time the door is opened (typically at 4:00 a.m.), a member of the Joudeh family brings the key and a member of the Nuseibeh family uses that key to open the door. On most days, Mr. Wajeeh or his son Obada can be seen sitting by the door of the church, upholding their family’s sacred duty dating back for generations. The keeper of the keys has an important role. They provide access to the church.  Our text in Matthew is right at the heart of the gospel. In it we encounter two very significant moments for Christianity – the public recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus’ designation of Peter as the keeper of the keys. I’ll get to the declaration of Jesus as Messiah in a little bit, but for now I want to focus on Peter and the keys. You may have no idea what I mean by Peter and the office of the keys, but you’ve seen it all over popular culture. Any time there is a cartoon of someone standing at the gates of heaven, there is Peter, like heaven’s bouncer, determining who’s in and out. Many statues of Peter include keys on them to signify that this is Peter rather than another disciple.  Still, these popular renderings really get Peter’s role wrong. They make it look like Peter has the role of deciding who’s in and who’s out when it comes to heaven, but that’s God’s job, not Peter’s. When Jesus tells Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” he’s giving him a job that begins right then. Jesus is naming Peter as the chief teacher of the church. He’s to teach others about the way of Jesus, the way of the kingdom of heaven, which leads to life. Like Mr. Wajeeh who makes sure that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stays available to all who will enter properly, so Peter has the responsibility to carry on this amazing message that Jesus is the Messiah.  One more note about Peter before I move on. Jesus says, “You are Peter, the rock, and on this rock,  I will build my church.” Peter’s name is actually Simon. There are no documented instances of anyone ever being named “Peter” in Aramaic or in Greek prior to Jesus giving Simon the nickname “Peter.” Today this name is immensely popular, but it appears that Jesus invented it as a way to describe Simon’s role in the church. Millennia before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson ever existed, the church’s first leader after Jesus went by “The Rock.” His nickname became a constant reminder of his role in the world. It’s a name that he learned to live into, particularly in the years after Jesus’ resurrection.  But, let’s go backwards now in our text. Jesus asks his disciples a question. I think it may just be the most important question any of us will wrestle with in our lives. He asks, “Who do you say that I am?” The word “you” in that question is emphasized in how Jesus asks it. You. Who do YOU say that I am? He isn’t asking for someone else’s opinion on it. He isn’t looking for you to quote a theologian. He wants you to wrestle with it and come to a conclusion for yourself. Who do you say Jesus is? Moving backwards just a bit in this text, I think that where Jesus asks this question is very important. He’s near Caesarea Philippi. It’s no accident that he’s there and that this profession happens right there. Let me give you a little context for this area. It’s in the northern reaches of Israel, fairly far removed from Jerusalem and much of the religious life there and around twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It’s so far north that in Jesus’ day, it was predominantly Gentile. On a clear day, you can see Mount Hermon towering over the region, which rises around 9000 feet above sea level and which is snowcapped throughout the year. To the north was this majestic mountain. To the south is a fertile valley. One of the sources of the Jordan River emerged from a cave nearby, making it a good place to live and a place where cultic activity worshipping Pan, the god of nature, would occur. A major road from Tyre to Damascus passed through here, so it was an important stop along a trading route. This town originally had the name Paneas, after the god Pan. Around 20 B.C., Caesar Augustus gave the area to Herod the Great, who built a magnificent white marble temple dedicated to Augustus in the town. After Herod the Great’s death in 4 A.D., his son Philip assumed control of this area. Philip founded the first Roman city there, naming it after Caesar and himself – hence, Caesarea Philippi. It became the center of both worship and government in Philip’s domain.  So, Jesus and his disciples are in Gentile territory known for its loyalty to Caesar, its worship of Pan and other gods, and its economic importance. Why would Jesus go to Caesarea Philippi for this moment? In the midst of all of these authorities – political, economic, and religious, Jesus and his disciples are staking the claim that he is the Messiah and has authority over all of this. Here is this itinerant teacher, who has done some incredible teachings and healings, now standing among the Gentiles and saying that his rule includes even these things. It is incredibly symbolic that this declaration happens in Caesarea Philippi. If Jesus were to do this in America today, he’s probably have to go to several places. He could stand on the National Mall in Washington D.C. to claim lordship over our politics. He’d go to Wall Street in New York City to claim lordship over our economics. He’d go to Hollywood to claim lordship over our mythmaking and storytelling. He might even go to the rim of the Grand Canyon and remind everyone that he created even this majestic site.  In a place fraught with all the powers of his day – political, economic, and religious – Jesus asks his disciples this crucial question, “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter, the Rock, hits the nail on the head, “You’re the Messiah. You’re the Son of the Living God.” What Peter has just confessed is sedition to Rome. Jesus is the Messiah. He’s Lord. If he’s Lord, then Caesar is not. No matter how powerful Caesar is politically, economically, or religiously, Peter is staking the claim that Jesus stands over all of that. And so, Jesus gives Peter responsibility to teach this news when the time is right.  OK, so this sermon has been heavy on background and details that are interesting, but you’re probably thinking, what does this have to do with me today? Well, we are confronted with that same question from Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?” It’s not “Who does my pastor say Jesus is?” or “Who did my parents tell me Jesus is?” or “What do I know about Jesus from books and movies?” No. It’s none of those things. Have you answered that question for yourself, or at the very least, are you striving to understand what the answer to that question is for you in this time and place? It is the most important question we’ll answer because it then changes how we approach everything.  Psalm 124 says, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” It’s a psalm of praise for the Lord’s work on the people’s behalf in a time of trouble. Our days are held in God’s loving hands. They are tended to by the one who created all this magnificent matter – seen and unseen. Where does our help come from? The Lord. Not Caesar. Not the president. Not presidential hopefuls. Not any human master. If we answer Jesus’ question with “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” then everything else in our lives takes on new meaning and responsibility. Christ is our life, not a neat accessory we pull out when it’s convenient. All of our striving – economic, political, religious – comes to its conclusion in him, the one whose reign is breaking into our world even now and will someday reach its fullness.  I like how one commentator summarizes this, “If Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, as Peter said, then no matter how modest the church may look in any given time or place, no matter how imperfect the church always is, what we have at the core of it all is a power that outstrips the political powers that be in this world.  We have a protecting force but also a gracious forgiving force that no one in the universe will ever be able to stop.” We are living in difficult and uncertain times. So were the disciples who confessed that Jesus was the Messiah and whose lives flipped the world on its head. Everything we do should flow from the conviction of who Jesus is and what it means to us, which is going to mean a regular reevaluation of whether our convictions are shaped by other forces or by the God we know in Jesus Christ. Everything. In all seasons, but even in this one right now, the church is the presence of Christ in the world. Would that we live this calling out – boldly, humbly, and lovingly – and that our community would see that Jesus is at work in our lives and in our world even now.