A Different Kind of Rock
A sermon (and children's sermon) on Matthew 16:13-20.
For and audio recording on this sermon, click here. Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplah.
In today’s gospel Jesus says that he will build his church upon the rock, which reminded me of a song I learned when I was a child in Sunday School, so I wanted to teach the song today (It’s got hand motions too, so you can follow along)
The wise man built his house upon the rock / The wise man built his house upon the rock / The wise man built his house upon the rock / and the rains came a-tumbling down.
The rains came down and the floods came up / The rains came down and the floods came up / The rains came down and the floods came up / and the house on the rock stood firm.
But there’s another verse to this:
The foolish man built his house upon the sand / The foolish man built his house upon the sand / The foolish man built his house upon the sand/ and the rains came a-tumbling down.
The rains came down and the floods came up / The rains came down and the floods came up / The rains came down and the floods came up / and the house on the sand went splat!
What does this song suggest about what it means to be built on a rock?
(stable, good foundation). That’s definitely what the song means… I wonder if that’s what Jesus means in his teaching to Peter and the disciples? (you can listen to the adult sermon and see what the answer to that question is)
So, in my old Sunday school song we are presented with a simple and straight-forward interpretation of what it means to build upon a rock.
A rock provides a solid foundation. It can withstand the storms and floods of life and stand firm.
Whereas a structure built upon an unstable foundation (like sand) will crumble when trouble comes, a structure built upon a rock will provide protection and stability in such times.
Seems clear enough, right? Rock equals solid, strong, unshakable.
So, by renaming Simon as Peter, which means rock, Jesus is declaring that, from here on out, he will be unshakable, right?.... Based on what you all know of Peter, do you think that’s right?
Hmmm. Yeah, maybe not?
Peter does occasionally have his shining moments, like in this gospel scene where he gets Jesus’ identity correct … but in the very next scene (which we will hear next week), Jesus is going to be rebuking him and calling him “Satan,” so he’s maybe not as stable as we would think from the rock analogy.
And that makes me wonder if maybe we are not meant to hear this week’s declaration as such a binary, static metaphor.
Maybe the point is not to put our hope and trust in the church being “as solid as a rock.”
But, if that’s true, then we have to ask what is the point of this story? What are we meant to take from Jesus’s question and Peter’s answer, and all of the affirmations that follow. What is the hope that this story points us toward?
Well, to get at that question I think we first have to look back at where this story comes in Matthew’s narrative as a whole.
In terms of timing, this story is a little over half-way through the gospel.
The excitement has slowly been growing, as Jesus emerges on the public scene, filling and then surpassing the hole left by the arrest of John the Baptist, performing healings and miracles, delivering the sermon on the Mount and teaching in parables, gaining attention from the people and the authorities alike.
As we follow the developing narrative, we the readers are to understand that the question Jesus poses to his closest followers is a question that is bubbling up from the crowds that are flocking to Jesus: Who is this man?
But, of course, as the readers, we already know the answer to that question. We were introduced in the very first verse of the gospel to the fact that this is the story of “Jesus the Messiah.”
In literary analysis, they call this style of story-telling the omniscient narrator, and it is designed to have a particular effect on readers.
Cluing us in from the beginning (on the answer to the question on which the tension of the story builds) creates what is called dramatic irony. The tension for us is not about what the answer to the question is, but on the suspense of whether the people in the story will realize the truth.
It’s a technique that gratifies the audience because we get to feel a little self-satisfied about how we already know the big secret, and then, when the secret gets revealed, we feel connected with the characters in the big payoff.
Except, Matthew doesn’t exactly follow this script.
We get the secret insight.
And then we follow the rising tension as the question of Jesus’ identity builds for the crowds and the disciples with every new display of power and authoritative teaching.
And we get the emotional pay-off - temporarily - when Simon declares Jesus to be the Messiah, and Jesus applauds his insight and gives him a new, promising name…
But then that payoff gets undermined when Jesus reinstates the secret by telling the disciples that they can’t tell anyone he’s the Messiah!
This is NOT how the story is supposed to go. It messes with our emotional arc. We’ve been building toward the big reveal, but then all the energy gets yanked out of the scene.
It’s like yelling “Happy Birthday” for a surprise party, and then realizing that it’s not the birthday person who just opened the door.
It leaves us feeling wrong-footed.
And probably a bit confused about why the story has taken this unexpected turn.
For Jesus, there are very practical, real-world reasons to keep his messianic identity a secret.
Those reasons are actually what drive the scene-shift that we get next week.
Jesus understands that claiming his true identity as God’s Messiah is a direct threat to the imperial and religious powers, and this threat is leading toward the true climax of the story’s tension with his arrest and crucifixion.
He will make his first prediction of this coming event in next week’s reading - prompting the confrontation with Peter, who is not prepared to hear it - but Jesus also knows that time has not yet come for the climactic confrontation with the authorities.
The setting for today’s scene is already provocative; Caesar-ea… a Roman settlement connected to a temple dedicated to the first Caesar, Augustus, who claimed the title Divi Filius - Son of God.
Jesus knows what he is doing when he asks his closest followers to declare how they see him in this particular place.
He wants THEM to recognize the competing claims about who really holds the title of God’s Son. He wants to start preparing them for the violent reaction that Jesus’ true identity will engender from the powers that don’t want a rival.
BUT - Jesus doesn’t want that violent reaction to happen just yet. So, he creates the opportunity for the revelation… AND for he realization of what this identity will mean when it gets out… and then he reinstates the secret, because the time has not yet come.
This all explains what Jesus is doing in the story.
But what about the author? How does Matthew intend us to respond by setting us up with the inside knowledge about the secret, and then flipping the script when the secret is revealed?
He draws us in with the experience of being in the privileged position of knowing what the innermost circle do not yet know… and then he pulls the rug out from under us by revealing that knowing the secret is not actually the point.
In fact, it might even be setting us up as potential antagonists to Jesus if we - like Peter next week - presume to know what his Messianic identity means.
Because the human instinct when we imagine a Messiah - a Savior - is to focus our attention on whatever threat or circumstance that WE want vanquished… and then to imagine that our Savior will forcibly overcome it… that salvation will look like a dominating victory.
It is to assume that a Messiah is someone who doesn’t NEED to keep their identity a secret because the whole point of a Messiah is that they are destined to WIN, so there is nothing more to be afraid of.
We are so easily guided into the kind of self-satisfied confidence that Matthew has being inviting us into from verse one of his gospel through his omniscient narrator technique that makes us think we already know what is coming.
And I think this is all intentional.
Just like Jesus needs his followers to know who he is, but he also needs them to not act precipitately on that information…
Matthew wants us to know who Jesus is, but he also wants us to get stopped short of assuming that we know what that identity means.
I think he WANTS us to get wrong-footed, because only in that sense of disorientation, of instability, will we be open to letting go of our preconceived expectations, so that we can understand the kind of Messiah that Jesus really came to be:
A Messiah who does not overthrow empire on its own terms - with violence, and power, and domination…
But rather undermines the foundations of empire by revealing the power of a different way: a way of love, and service, and even death … that leads to resurrection - to a new kind of life that no longer operates under the same rules of fear and power.
The SALT Commentary for this passage summarizes the teaching under the surface of this story in a powerful way. It reads:
“The physics of empire, of domination, of stone statues and self-aggrandizement, is everywhere – both then and now. But look deeper, Jesus says. It’s all built on sand. There’s a deeper physics, a deeper bedrock – and on that rock will I build my church. On the surface, it may not look like much: take Peter, for instance, this unremarkable fisherman, so bold and so cowardly, so insightful and so foolish, so faithful and so unreliable. But look deeper: he follows. He testifies. He struggles. He understands – and misunderstands. He believes – and disbelieves. And through it all, in fits and starts, he pursues the love and justice, the grace and mercy God created him to pursue. You see? Faith is a kind of pursuit. And on that rock – not the rock of Caesar, but the rock of humble, persistent pursuit, the living rock of faith – I will build my church!”
And this is the hope, the good news of this gospel for all of us…
whether or not we know the secret of what God is doing in a given moment,
and whether or not we are fully able to understand and embrace the way in which Jesus saves us not with power and dominance, but with love and service,
the rock on which Jesus is building his church is the pursuit of Jesus - with our imperfect understanding, and our flawed faith (rather than our access to an omniscient narrator).
When we pursue Jesus, we are acting out our trust that is Jesus is truly the Messiah we need, the one who saves us in a way we cannot predict, but in the way that will open our minds and our hearts to something new.
Thanks be to God.