Readings: Isaiah 51. 1-6, Romans 12.1-8, Matthew 16.13-20.
Who do you say that I am? Now you don’t have to answer that question, in fact I’m a bit fearful of what you might say. When I started thinking about this sermon a couple of weeks ago, that question rolled round in my mind time and again. As we’ve just heard, Jesus asked this to his disciples-“Who do you say that I am?” It seems a bit of an odd question to ask to friends, people you’ve spent any length of time with, as Jesus did to his disciples.
When I was on the top deck of the bus last week, again thinking about this gospel passage, I was thinking to myself that I could do with some inspiration to get this sermon off the starting blocks and at least a paragraph written. Unfortunately inspiration doesn’t come in little packets available to buy. It’s all good and well that Isaac Newton got his inspiration for gravity from watching apples fall, and James Watt was inspired to build a steam engine by watching his grandmother’s kettle, but nothing was working for me.
Fortunately, a couple got on the bus and sat in the seat behind, and I was able to over-hear bits of their conversation. Nothing riveting or earth-shattering, but she turned to him and said about something “why don’t you ask?” And I thought, that’s what I’ll do. I decided to ask a selection of friends that question that Jesus asked, and sent 4 text messages from my phone that simply said “Who do you say that I am?” I sent it to four friends, two male and two female just to keep things equal, four people whom I have known for fourteen years or more. Four people I was at primary or secondary school with, and even college with two of them. One scientist, one history masters student, one council administrator, and a farmer. And now I’m certain that at least three of them think that I’ve fallen out of my tree completely. Only the farmer friend replied with an answer without questioning my question, and told me “you are you, you always have been and you always will be.” A fairly simple assessment, but right nonetheless, I am me. The scientist didn’t understand the question and didn’t provide any further answer, but that is getting into the realms of another debate. If you have any curiosity about the other replies, we can talk afterwards, but I’m sure that you can imagine the dialogues that took place. It made one thing certain, that it is a difficult question to answer when you are faced with it. Who do you say that I am?
This is just one little bit of a controversial part of the gospel. In one bible commentary that I was reading, it said that “This passage is one of the storm-centres of New Testament interpretation.” And I am inclined to believe it. After Jesus asks the question, who do you say that I am, Peter gives him the answer, “you are the messiah, the son of the living God.” We can only imagine that Peter was like my farmer friend, and gave a reply without questioning or not understanding the question, despite the difficulties of it. There are so many things that Peter could have said, some of which might have been very similar to the replies I got. A crack-pot, a lunatic, liar, a carpenter, a really nice fellow that wanders about teaching people. But no, Peter went straight in for “the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Peter is the first person to realise who Jesus actually is. The son of God.
Then comes the controversial part. Jesus knows the importance of what Peter has been the first person on earth to realise. And from this one man, he knows what will grow. Jesus appears to tell Peter that on this rock he will build his Church and give him the keys of heaven. It is from this statement that the Roman Catholic Church has the foundation of the position and authority of the Pope and of the Church. It is, I’m sure, the source of much debate, and one I don’t wish to be drawn too deeply into. The whole topic is open to debate, scrutiny and interpretation.
One of the set forms of prayer we use in morning or evening prayer goes something like “we thank you God for giving us powers of imagination and thought to search into your law and your word.” For that I am thankful. Today’s letter to the Romans, tells us not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by renewing our minds so that we may discern the will of God, possibly discern the word of God. That means we all can look at the words of Jesus and discover our interpretation. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve discovered many different interpretations in what I’ve been reading, and it seems to do with word meanings, and even in some cases, the placement of a comma. One interpretation, the book I was reading said simply “Augustine took it to mean the rock was Jesus himself.” As in, You are Peter, comma, and on this rock, me, I shall build my Church. I assumed the Augustine in question was our own Saint Augustine, but I haven’t been able to clarify that.
Another way to think of the rock is Peter’s faith. He is the first person on earth to realise and say that Jesus is the son of God. Peter is the first of many to have that faith, and on that rock that is faith, Jesus would build his Church. These are all good ways to think of it, but there are yet more! The interpretation I liked the best I found when I was reading my copy of The Daily Study Bible by William Barclay. The interpretation I found there is the idea that Peter himself is not the rock on which the Church is founded. That rock is God. Peter is the first stone of the whole Church. He is the first person, as I’ve said, to discover who Jesus was and see in him the Son of the living God. Peter was the first member of the Church, and as the first member, the whole church is built on him. This links back to our reading in Isaiah, “look to the rock from which you were hewn, look to Abraham your father and Sarah who bore you.” In Jewish thought, the Rabbis applied the term rock to Abraham. Abraham was the rock that the nation and the purpose of God was built on. Now we’ve moved to the rock on which the Church is built.
Having never studied any formal theology myself, I’m sure with my own reading this last couple of weeks, I’ve only scratched the surface of what is available and that there are many more ways to interpret today’s message. I began to feel as though I’ve read so much around this, I was starting to become like Winnie the Pooh, “ a bear of little brain and big words bother me.” But one thing seems clear. When Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” he is not just asking the disciples. That question is asked of us as well. Who do we say that Jesus is? Who do I say that he is?! I can only tell you here today who I think Jesus is to me. What I am to him remains to be seen. Jesus to me, is someone of whom I have always been aware. Aware of, but not always connected with. As a child, I was aware of this Jesus man through lessons and prayers at school, assemblies and hymn practice. And that was about it. One childhood conversation I had with my grandmother, I asked her “Why do we call it good Friday?” I was about nine I think, and she was the godliest woman I could think of to ask. “Because it is the day they crucified our Lord,” was her answer. “But why is that good,” I continued. “Because of the good that came from that day to the world,” was her reply, and I was satisfied with that.
A few years later, which is in fact a few years ago, I came across this Jesus man again. In a room on my own at the end of a ward in Hartlepool hospital, in the dark hours of the night, I met Jesus God. I asked, and he came to me. And like Peter, over time I realised who he was and of what he was capable. And I was given faith. The thing is, I am not a huge great starting block like Peter. We are all rocks that are hewn with faith, to fit together in the edifice of Christ’s Church. Peter was the first one, and we are some of the many that have come along since, and will come along after us to slot together a build Christ’s church. We are reminded in today’s reading from Romans, that as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function. To stay with the idea of building and rock, we have our parts to play, and to use the idea of a church building, once our rock has been hewn, some of us may be part of the wall, or the floor, or a lintel, beam or pillar, but we take our place in Christ’s Church.
The difference now is, I come to this Church building with you, to meet with Jesus. Instead of waiting for him to come to me in a hospital room, I hope to meet him today at this altar with this Church, this gathering of people as a spiritual body, to meet with Jesus in broken bread and wine outpoured, to hopefully be nourished, strengthened and inspired by him, so that we may go out from here, and meet with others who might hear the word, and in turn be another rock of faith in the edifice of Christ’s Church.