January 26, 2013
- Confession of St. Peter
- Ray Temmerman
Psalm 23; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Matthew 16:13-20
κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ἅ|δου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.
"And I yet to you am saying that you are Peter (rock) and on this the rock (BIG rock wall) I shall be building the out-called ecclesia and the un-perceived gates not shall be prevailing of her."
"You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."
σὺ εἶ Πέτρος. One can almost hear Simon Bar-Jonah, having listened to Jesus speaking these words to him, saying "Huh?!" Where in the world is Jesus coming from? Here's Simon, "one of the boys" in Jesus' band of followers. He's a good man, though admittedly sometimes given to enthusiastic outbursts; sometimes, too, actions which haven't been all that well thought out in advance. And here Jesus is giving him a new name. I can imagine Jesus looking at this friend of his, with all his strengths and foibles, liking what he sees, and saying "I'm going to call you Rocky." In so doing, Jesus declares a new and intimate relationship with this man, one that, despite some bumps and curves along the way, will endure to the death of them both.
Jesus goes on, however, in a most interesting way. Having named Simon "Petros / Peter", he now goes on to say καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ, i.e. on this petra (think HUGE ROCK CLIFF, e.g. Petra in Jordan, or Gibraltar), he is going to build his church. I can imagine Peter saying "Hang on! A minute ago you called me a rock, when I'm nothing like that. Now you are calling me a ROCK! This is going altogether too far!"
Jesus has recognized in Peter something that is beyond the rock that is visible at the moment. He sees a ROCK of stability and faith, despite all the failures still to come.
Let's have a look at another Greek word in there for a moment. In the original Greek, Jesus is going to build τὴν ἐκκλησίαν. That word today has a variety of definitions, only one of which (and a modest one at that) is a church as we know it today. We need to go back to that time. An ekklesia is an assembly, a group of people called out, intentionally gathered for some specific purpose. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra can be described as an ekklesia, as they intentionally gather for the express purpose of making unified beautiful music together. Notice this isn't just about being together in the same place, such as a crowd of people in Polo Park shopping centre. Those people generally don't know each other, and aren't there for the purpose of doing something together with each other. In fact, in many cases, when we find ourselves in that kind of situation, we would be just as happy that the others weren't there, weren't pushing and shoving and buying up the sale items before we get to them!
No, being an ekklesia has to do with intentionally gathering in a place, for the express purpose of doing something together. The legislature is one example, as MLAs gather for the express purpose of governing. Another example is that of this parish community, the community of St Peter. We gather for worship. We are not just 100-150 people who happen to be in the same room doing the same thing as the others here. Instead we gather in this room in order that our words and our hearts may become as one in our prayer and praise, our worship of our God, our care and compassion for each other and the widow and orphan in our midst. That's an ekklesia. That is what we know today as a church.
Then there's the gates of the nether world, of Hades, or as it's often known, the gates of hell. Well, I've been there! They are located in Banias in northern Israel some distance north of the Sea of Galilee, at the site of one of the three sources of the Jordan river. It's at the foot of Mount Hermon in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, within the region known as the "Panion" (the region of the Greek god Pan), and is named after the deity associated with the grotto and shrines close to the spring called "Paneas". What's known as the Gates of Hell is the entrance to a cave whose mouth is formed by the redness of the rocks. They are reminiscent of the mouth of a fiery cauldron, just waiting to swallow up anyone who dares go there. Outside, you can see evidence of multiple deities over the centuries, and of the construction, some 2,000 years ago, of a summer home for Herod. The inference is clear: the gates of hell are solid rock, immovable, and seemingly dangerous. And yet, for all their strength and perceived fearfulness, they will not withstand the advance of God's assembly, a people gathered in faith and love for God and all creation. When God's people advance, the Gates of Hell will give way before them.
As I suggested, it must have been quite an experience for Simon to be renamed Peter, the rock. It's quite possible Peter wondered what this was all about. He doesn't have anyone to look to as an example, because he's the only one in the New Testament who is renamed – and by Jesus himself! To use a cliche, that's no small potatoes!
What kind of sign can we look for that indicates the impact this event had on Peter's life? The epistle (1 Peter) gives us some indication. Those who have been called to some form of oversight are told to tend the flock that of God that is in their charge. That's an onerous charge, yet they are told to do so willingly, being examples to that flock, and in the end winning the crown of glory that never fades away.
But does this apply only to Peter? I suggest not.
Let's think for a moment back to our baptism. In baptism, we were each given a name, just like Peter was.
You were given a name intended to be a sign of God's unconditional, total, and irrevocable love for you. Each of us knows we have our own foibles, our strengths and our weaknesses. Some of us may doubt God could ever work through us to accomplish anything. Some of you have been called to be parents, others have been called to exercise your ministry, the expression of who you are, in other ways, be that through work, with extended family and friends, or in missions far afield.
All of us are called to be steadfast in faith and love, to be witnesses to the sufferings of Christ and to share in the glory to be revealed. In naming us, God recognizes in us and calls forth a petra, a steadfast rock, an icon that is bigger and stronger than anything we can be on our own. You are called by God to gather with others for the purpose of praise and worship, for care and compassion, to be God's intentional assembly in the world, taking God's love into the most difficult places, the unperceived, the nether world, where it appears no sense of God's presence could live. And there we will find that the hardened and seemingly impenetrable Gates of Hell cannot prevail against the love of God we carry in our hearts, our lives.
I'm going to give you some homework. I invite each and every one of you, when you get home, to stand in front of a mirror. Have a good look at the person you see there. And then hear the voice of Jesus saying to you, "You are <insert your name>, and on this petra, this ROCK, I will build my church, and the gates of hades will not prevail against it."