Scriptures: Matthew 16:13-20

Upon This Rock

(Based on Journey of Stones: A Sermon Series for Lent and Easter by Steven Molin)

As we continue on week 5 of the Journey of Stones, today we're going to look at a particular kind of rock. The identification of this rock, as the liturgist noted, depends on your interpretation on the passage, but nevertheless it holds true, that the Church is founded on it.

There is a story of students studying math in a fifth grade classroom, and the teacher was using the method of “estimating” to help them come to a greater understanding of numbers. She decided to use a visual aid, and had a jar with ping pong balls in it, and asked the students to estimate how many ping pong balls there were. How many of you have ever done a contest like that, where you try to guess how many jelly beans, for instance, are in a jar?

One young boy estimated that there were forty, another girl estimated twenty-five, and there were various other estimates. When the balls were taken out of the jar and counted, the correct number was forty, so the boy cheered for himself when he was given the prize.

Then the teacher decided to ask how the students arrived at their answers. The little girl who had said twenty-five said, “Well, it looked like there were five balls in the bottom row, and there were five rows, so I counted up to five, five times.” Man, that makes sense!

The boy who had the correct answer said, “Well, yesterday was my dad's birthday and he was forty, so that sounded like a good number.” And which student was it that got the prize? Was it the one who had thought and analyzed and estimated? Or was it the one who took a flying leap at a number, and guessed correctly? As we know, it was, unfortunately in a way, the one who guessed.

This seems to happen with regularity in our world: people who are perfectly willing to give an answer without thinking about the question. Even in religious circles, it happens. I'm sure you've heard this story before.

A pastor was giving a children's sermon one Sunday and begin this way: “Kids, what's small and gray and furry and climbs oak trees?” There was no response, so the pastor tried again: “Oh, come on, kids. It's small and furry, with a bushy tail, eats acorns and climbs oak trees.” Finally, one little boy raised his hand. “Yes, Billy, do you know?” And Billy said, “Well, I was gonna say 'a squirrel' but I s'pose the answer's Jesus.”

Do you see what I mean? Giving an answer without thinking about the question, and it happens all the time in this world. I've heard various variations on that particular illustration, because the kids think the answer to anything in the children's sermon is always Jesus.

In our passage today, the Lord had been with his disciples for quite some time, as this Gospel text opens up to us. They were with him long enough to watch him heal the lame. Long enough to watch him feed the 5,000. Long enough to see him walk on water, argue with the Pharisees, and teach parables.

So now, apparently, the time had come for Jesus to do a sort of reality check, to see if the disciples, or anyone else, had yet figured out who he was. So first he asked them, “Who do other people say that I am?” What do you hear on the streets? What do the people say about me?

The disciples may have recently discussed this very question, because it seems their answers were immediate and specific. “Some people say you are John the Baptist.” Frankly, I don't understand that, because Jesus and John lived during the same time. “Some say you might be Elijah,” who was prophesied to come back before the Day of the Lord. “Still others think you might be Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” They were listing their religious heroes. They knew that Jesus spoke about God and that he was prophetic in nature and ability, so they gave their best guess.

But then Jesus made the question more pointed, as he asked the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Who do you say that I am? It suddenly became obvious that Jesus was not content to hear what other people believed. He wasn't interested in public rhetoric or popular opinion, nor is he today. Jesus is always wanting to know what you think, what you feel, and what you believe about him.

Jesus made the question pointed and specific rather than vague and general. I can't help but imagine – although the narrative doesn't say this – that there were a least a couple moments of silence. This was their rabbi. This was their teacher. This was the one that they had seen do all these miracles. And now he's asking them, “Who do you say that I am?”

It's almost like when you were in school, and the teacher would ask, “Who wants to come up to the board to show how to do this problem?” How many of you would volunteer? Very few people do. They don't want to take a chance on getting it wrong in front of everybody.

Likewise, the disciples held back. It was easier, after all, speaking for someone else. It was safer reporting what other people believed, than to actually share what you believe yourself. Because you might be wrong. So the disciples were silent.

But not Peter. Of course Peter, we know, was impulsive, brash, tended to be tactless and say what was on his mind. As I like to say, he's the one who gives me hope, because he knew the taste of shoe-leather well.

Peter blended all that he had seen with Jesus with all that he knew about the promised Messiah, and he said what was in his heart.. He was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself said so. He was given wisdom to understand, in that moment. (Though I would note that it was fleeting, because immediately after that, when Jesus tells them that he's going to have to die, Peter is the one that says, “We're not going to let that happen,” and Jesus says, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”)

Even though the Holy Spirit gave him wisdom, the boldness to say it came from Peter. He wasn't afraid to speak up about what he believed. The problem with the church today is that we are more like the other eleven disciples than we are like Peter.

When we are asked to profess our faith, we spew out the religious words that we have heard in church over a lifetime, rarely stopping to think about their meaning. When we are asked to say what we believe, we describe what our parents believe, or mumble what we think our church believes, or report what popular culture says we're supposed to believe.

What we are essentially doing is answering the first question of Jesus: “Who do people say that I am?” But Jesus does not let us off the hook so easily. “But who do you say that I am?” he asks. Who do you say that he is?

Do you say that he is “Savior”? Do you know what that means, really? It means that Jesus and Jesus alone is responsible for dealing with your sins. Your good deeds have absolutely no power in earning forgiveness. Your guilt and shame cannot buy God off. Not even sacraments like communion and baptism can get get us into heaven. Only Jesus, the one who suffered and died on the cross, and you need to understand fully what that means.

I was twenty-five when I finally heard it, in a Good Friday sermon, and I realized just exactly how much Jesus went through, just because of me and my sin, and how much he loved me – and you. So don't ever say he is Savior, without thinking about what that implies.

Who do you say that Jesus is? Do you say that he is “Lord” of your life? That makes you his servant. If he is the Lord, then you are the slave. It also means that everything you have is his, since slaves cannot own anything. Further, it means that whatever the master tells you to do, you have to do it. Have you ever thought about that?

Hopefully you have, because one of the common things that I repeat is that so many people take Jesus as Savior, but a lot fewer take him as Lord. And “lord,” in those days, literally meant, if you were his vassal, part of the oath of vassalage was that you prostrated yourself and the lord got to put his foot on your neck, which was symbolic of the fact that your very life was in his hands. He owned everything.

Even if you don't like calling yourself a slave because of the connotations we have today in modern America, Paul called himself a bond-servant, which essentially is someone who is forever serving their master. They've taken an oath. Have you ever thought about what it means to say that Jesus is Lord, and what it implies?

Who do you say that Jesus is? Do you say that he is “Creator”? Remember, Peter's confession was “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Now the Son of God is … God. We firmly believe that he was involved in creation. John, in the first chapter of his Gospel, said, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God, and nothing that was made was made without him.” Jesus was there. He's the Creator.

Is he the Creator of everything? That means that he is creator of those we might call our enemies as well as those we call our friends. He is the creator of people of different religions, people of different color. He is the creator of the people you love … and the people you despise. Do you know understand you are saying when you confess that Jesus is your Savior, and your Lord, and the Creator of the universe?

When Peter made this bold confession, Jesus bestowed upon him a most astonishing nickname. “You are Petros; I will call you rock,” or as I like to say, Rocky. The word can mean, depending on what it is petra or petros – and people argue about which one it is – either a small stone or a craggy prominence. I prefer the second because Peter was a big guy and he just reminds me of Rocky Balboa. I can hear him saying, “Yo, Jesus!” And perhaps like Rocky, “I've got what you call a loose brain.”

Jesus called him “rock, because your faith is so solid.” And Jesus went on to say, “Upon this rock I will build my Church.” The Catholics say that that meant Peter was the foundation of the church. That's why each pope is called the heir to Peter. The keys of the kingdom were given to Peter. That's why every priest has to be ordained in a particular way, with hands laid on, so that apostolic succession is guaranteed.

I always like to say that the Catholics can't argue with me being ordained, because I had a Lutheran at my ordination, and he laid hands on me. And Martin Luther, you know, was a Catholic priest, so he must have had the hands laid on him too. So I've got that apostolic succession down.

For most of us in the Protestant denominations, we believe that it was Peter's confession of Jesus as Christ that is the foundation, or rock, of the Church. He was the first to confess Jesus as Lord. His statement of faith was the first stone in the building of a new Church that would come to worship the cornerstone, which was Jesus Christ.

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about how the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, and that is Jesus. So Peter's confession here is one of worship for that cornerstone.

The building of this Church has continued throughout human history, with each generation of Christians adding its stones of faith. Faithful people of every age have stood up and professed Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and they too became stones upon which the church is built. As Peter said in his epistle, “living stones.” You have Peter, and Paul. Augustine. Martin Luther. Karl Barth – though many of you probably don't know that name. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which many do know. It was not easy for them … nor is it easy for us.

People, the time has come for each of us to stand up and be counted. Vague is no longer good enough. Lukewarm is no longer appropriate. Not to get overly political, because I don't like doing that, but there are laws that are attempting to be passed, right now, that would restrict religious freedom, to the point that we would have to say what the government says is right over what the Bible says is right on certain things, or else you could lose your church, your business, if you profess that openly. But unless they hear from us, going with the flow, it's impossible anymore. We need to let them know.

We need to be unafraid to make sincere confessions of faith, because this is what the Savior asks of us, and it's what the world needs to see: bold, authentic witnesses once again. And note, you can only be authentic if you actually know what you believe. I asked you earlier, who do you say that Jesus is? Platitudes, doctrinal affirmations, however valuable those are, won't do it. You have to be able to speak from your heart and your head. Again, in 1 Peter, he said, “Be ready to defend the hope that is within you.”

And it's not just the world, but our fellow church members, and our impressionable children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, our curious colleagues, perhaps, at work, and our weary friends and neighbors wonder where there is hope in this world.

The Millennials are terribly lost. It's not their fault, in many ways. But they see a much darker world, have more problems with depression. They're moved away from the church because we haven't been able to give them a good answer and a good hope. We need to share that hope with them. It's the only way things will change.

Today, you hold in your hands your contribution. It is a small stone, imperceptible perhaps, when compared to the mighty rocks that comprise the Church throughout history, but yours is every bit as important as theirs.

For all the times we have failed to speak boldly about our faith in Jesus Christ, for all the times we have denied ever knowing him, like Peter, for all the times we have withheld the possessions that we know belong to him – today we say we are sorry. And we lay our stone at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, and dare once again to be called his disciples. Because no power on earth can destroy what the Church has become. As Jesus said, not even the gates of hell can stand against it, if we are faithful in our beliefs.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.