Proper XVI Sermon Year A, “Who is the Rock?”

Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Rev. Peter Faass

Chapel of the Transfiguration, Norfolk, CT

Is. 51:1-6; Ps. 138; Rom. 11:33-36; Math. 16:13-20

Living in New Hampshire these past four years has been, like any new experience, one of learning and growth. One thing I have learned is that regardless of how long I live there, because I am originally from Connecticut - or “somewhere else” as the locals like to refer to places outside of the state - I will always be viewed as a “flat lander” by the true natives.

Another topic I have come to learn a lot about is rock. After all we are the Granite State, and if there is an abundance of anything besides pine trees and moose in New Hampshire, it’s rock. Try digging a garden and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.

Until recently the most enduring symbol of the close relationship between our state and rock was that of the Old Man of the Mountain - a rock outcropping whose profile was - if you looked hard and long enough - in the shape of an elderly mans face. Located in Franconia Notch in the White Mountains, the Old Man of the Mountain was created after the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, as the glaciers receded, leaving behind their unique sculpture of mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and rock images like the Old Man.

Being made of rock the Old Man in the Mountain was seen by New Hampshirians to be an enduring, solid, timeless and eternal symbol of our particular brand of New England independence, worthy to be made the emblem of the State of New Hampshire, gracing license plates, highway markers, tourism brochures, and most recently the Federal Treasury Departments issue of the New Hampshire quarter.

Not too long after I arrived in the state, a visiting friend asked me what the unique outline on the state highway signs indicated. I told her that it was a map indicating the boundaries of the county. Hey, what did I know? I guess I always will be a flat lander!

Those of you who follow the news, will recall that in May of 2003 the Old Man of the Mountain came tumbling down during a heavy rain storm. 10,000 years of being battered by severe White Mountain snows, winds and rains, had finally eroded the Old Man enough so that it could no longer hold onto the mountain side. Crumbling into a huge pile of rock and stone dust at the bottom of the notch, what was believed to be rock-solid and eternal, was no more.

“But who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” replied Simon Peter. And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

This scripture passage is known as the Confession of Peter and within it’s few brief verses either lies the warrant for the doctrine of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, (commonly called the papacy) over the Christian Church. - or not, depending on your denominational and theological adherence. That doctrinal debate goes back as far as the year 1054 when the Orthodox east split from the Catholic west, and was again re-energized in the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. But it is not this particular debate that I want to focus on today - at least not specifically. Instead I want to look at the topic of rock, and just what Jesus may have had in mind when he said, and on this rock I will build my church,” which will, like all good theological conversations, have some collateral connections regardless.

It’s always good to read the scripture verses just before and directly following selected passages. In the case of today’s Confession of Peter, what follows immediately after is instructive. After being blessed by Jesus for his insight identifying him as the Messiah - the Christ - for Peter there is an almost instantaneous and certainly startling 180 degree turn of events. Immediately following Peter’s identifying Jesus as the Christ, Jesus foretells his Passion, and death, and resurrection to the disciples.

We read, “Jesus began to show the disciples that he must . . . suffer many things . . . and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him , saying, ‘God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”

Wow! Talk about a reversal of fortunes: from being blessed to demonized in the span of five verses. Peter, traditionally understood by many to be the enduring and eternal rock upon which Jesus is to build his church, crumbles into a pile of stone, just like the Old Man of the Mountain - only it took the Old Man 10,000 years, Peter managed it in less than ten minutes. In both instances, rock which was understood to be enduring, solid, timeless and eternal ended up being . . . well, as fragile and vulnerable to decay as the rest of the created order.

Can a man who went from being blessed to being called Satan in a few blinks of an eye, be chosen as the rock foundation of the Church? Well, yes. It certainly is possible primarily because with God all things are possible. But it is also possible because we humans are the best things that God has to work with. And the reality is that each and everyone of us humans is fragile, fallible and susceptible to decay. We need to not ever forget that important fact.

But was Jesus actually referring to Peter when he made the rock statement or are there other possibilities? (Certainly theologians over the centuries have thought so.) Or might Jesus instead be referring to his statement that God had given the revelation of Jesus’ messiahship to Peter? Was God the rock he spoke of? Jesus was clear: It was not flesh or blood - in other word’s Peter’s own insightfulness and deductive powers that got him to confess Jesus as Christ - but rather it was God the Father in heaven who had done so. So if God himself had revealed this to Peter, it therefore follows that it is God, especially God as revealed through Jesus, who is the rock on which the Church would be built.

So let me paraphrase this scripture a bit. “Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jona. For it is not your intellectual capabilities, or some special gift you have that has revealed this truth of my being the Christ to you. But in fact it is my Father in heaven who has revealed this to you. And I tell you on the rock of God my Father who does these things, will I build my Church.

Certainly the scriptures would support such an understanding. Over and over the word rock - which is sur in Hebrew - is applied to God. “He is the rock, his work is perfect.” (Deut. 32:4) “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer.” (I Sam. 2:2) The writer of that great Christian hymn Rock of Ages proclaims it clearly as well: “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

And in today’s lesson from Isaiah, God tells the people who are seeking deliverance from difficult circumstances to, “seek the Lord, look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” In other words when the going gets tough, look to God the rock, look to the source - the quarry - from which you were created. God is the enduring rock. God is the source from which deliverance and all good things flow. God is the only eternal rock on which anything of value can be built.

What do we learn about ourselves and our relationship with God when we see Jesus’ statement to Peter in this light: that God is the rock?

Certainly it is that we should not place our faith in humans above God. That is idolatry. Plus, as Peter shows us, humans are pretty fragile and fallible creatures. Yet that is our human tendency: to look to people, and not God for our ultimate guidance, leadership and deliverance. It’s also what gets us into trouble.

I recently finished reading God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, written by the evangelical minister Jim Wallis. (Who also is the editor of Sojourner’s magazine.) In the book Wallis presents a new vision for faith and politics in America, a vision that is not conservative, not liberal, not libertarian - which are all human visions - but a vision that goes to the prophetic religious tradition of the prophets like Isaiah and Micah, and most importantly to that of Jesus. It is a vision that goes to the enduring rock , the source of all goodness and deliverance. It is a vision that goes to God.

The visions that we have been offered by our human leaders on all sides of the political spectrum have, and continue to fail us in this nation. Either God is being used and manipulated to meet human needs and desires, or God has been deleted from the conversation in the public square altogether. Both are wrong. We need to go a different way, we need to go the way of prophetic politics. We need to go back to the prophetic vision where God the rock is central. With God at the center of our life, we will speak in a moral and political language that seeks the common good for all people.

Prophetic politics finds its center in fundamental moral issues like children, diversity, family, community, citizenship, and the ethics of non-violence, tolerance and fairness. Prophetic politics looks to heed God’s call to care for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the most vulnerable among us. It works to construct national directions that many people across the political spectrum can agree to. Prophetic politics is conservative on family values, sexual integrity and personal responsibility. It is progressive on poverty and racial justice. It affirms good stewardship, supports gender equality and is internationally minded. It looks first and foremost to peacemaking and conflict resolution in foreign policy. It is strong on marriage, raising children and individual ethics. It does not look to scapegoat any group of people like Muslims, Arabs, Jews or Gays. At it’s heart prophetic politics makes the crucial connection between personal ethics and social justice. And most importantly prophetic politics finds it’s warrant in scripture, because prophetic politics goes to the rock, which is God.

Our nation needs to turn to the rock of our salvation, the rock of ages, to find the healing solutions for the serious issues that confront us today. If we do not do this- if we stay on our current path - I fear what the future holds for us as a people.

It is essential for us to do this. It is essential because God is the only rock we can build something on worth building.

Jesus said, “on this rock I will build my Church.” It is on this same rock that you and I are called to build our common lives.


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