On this Rock
In the mountains north of the Sea of Galilee is a place of cliffs, springs and ruins
called Banis, an Arabic word derived from an older word Panis. This place of pools and
rocks is the source of the River Jordan, and has seen tourists and sightseers long before
the rise of the Roman Empire. Pagan gods were worshiped there and the Romans considered it
to be the birthplace of the great god Pan, the god of chaos, panic, unbridled passion and
id. In the New Testament this place was known as Caesarea Philippi and it marks an
important juncture in the history of Christianity because it was at this site of pagan
worship, of the reputed birthplace of the god Pan that Jesus of Nazareth asked His
disciples two important questions: "Who do people say I am?" and "Who do
you say that I am?"
The reason why these questions were important is that they remain important for us
today. As one theologian noted in this century, the only thing that makes Christianity
unique is not its ethics nor its morality nor its rituals nor its insistence upon one God,
but its focus on Jesus of Nazareth. Who do people say that Jesus is, is important because
the followers of Jesus are expected to know what the world thinks of Jesus. What is of
crucial importance is what the followers of Jesus say about whom Jesus is.
Whom do others say Jesus is? The disciples reported that people considered Jesus to be
John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. This was high praise, but
Jesus asked what the disciples thought about whom Jesus was. Then Simon Peter said,
"You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered, "Good
for you, Simon!" Then Jesus made a number of extravagant statements and an outrageous
pun. Simon Peter's name, Petros, is close in sound to the Greek word for rock, petra. It
was like our name Rocky. Jesus said that on this rock Jesus will build His church, and the
gates of Hades, the power of death, will not prevail against it. Jesus will give the keys
of the kingdom of heaven to Peter.
Peter said that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God, the Son of
the living God. It is an important moment in the history of Christianity because such
insight could not come from other human beings or human reasoning or feeling. To say that
a man such as Jesus of Nazareth was more than an ordinary mortal being was to go beyond
the bounds of orthodox and rational thought into a new realm of divine insight and
possibilities, either that or madness.
To say that Jesus is the Messiah goes against what the world would say about Jesus. To
challenge what others think about Jesus has always been dangerous. In this century, Albert
Schweitzer, the noted humanitarian and missionary physician in Africa, was seldom
supported by organized denominational bodies because, as a young and brilliant theologian,
he researched how Christianity thought of Jesus through the centuries. Albert Schwietzer
was able to show that each era's perception of Jesus, including the present age,
interpreted the Gospels in light of their own cultural perceptions of what Jesus should
be. Schweitzer said that it was as if each generation looked down a deep well to see its
own reflection in the dark waters below, and declared that they saw Jesus. To say what
others said about Jesus was too outrageous for many Christians, but Albert Schweitzer
acted in the faith and insight that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. By his
example and medical missionary work, bodies were healed and souls were opened to God
through Jesus Christ.
Whom do others say Jesus is? Whom do we say Jesus is? Is Jesus a polite and nice
teacher of children? Is Jesus a revolutionary, protesting injustice and hypocrisy? Is
Jesus a good man, now dead? Is Jesus healer and soother, or is He challenger and disturber
of the peace? Is Jesus mad, misunderstood, or something so filled with truth and love that
the world must hide its eyes from the light that threatens the darkness? Is Jesus only a
personal friend, or is Jesus one who draws us beyond ourselves to reach out in love and
joy and hope to all the world?
The Jordan River is not a very impressive river in comparison to many other rivers of
the world, unless one has come out of a barren and dry desert. The Jordan River is the
major source of water for all Israel, providing and sustaining life for that land. It is
the river in which John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth and where the Holy Spirit
came upon Jesus as He began His public ministry. Baptism is a simple act of drops of water
placed upon a person in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We
United Methodists baptize all persons, from infants to youths to the elderly, in the
understanding that it is neither the age of the person nor the amount of water that is
important, but the presence of the Holy Spirit. Baptism, even if done with water from the
River Jordan, is not something done by human beings, but is the claiming by God of a human
soul for God's will and love. In baptism, the baptized, even infants, are asked to
renounce the powers and principalities of power and darkness and evil. To the world, to
ask an individual, whether a baby or an adult, to oppose the powers of evil must seem as
meaningless as it was to ask a group of Galilean peasants whom they thought Jesus is. Yet
Christianity insists that this is how God works, turning what seems insignificant into the
power of faith that not even the gates of Hades can withstand.
Simon Peter went on being Simon Peter. He challenged Jesus not to speak of defeat.
Jesus said that Satan was speaking through Peter. Simon Peter swore that he would never
desert or deny Jesus, but he did so three times on the very day Jesus was arrested, tried,
and condemned. Simon Peter does not appear to be very promising material on which to build
a new revelation about the love and will of God appearing in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son
of the living God, but Peter, weak as he is, comes to us as the headstrong leader of the
disciples. I have always imagined Simon Peter played by John Wayne or Clint Eastwood,
relying on his own physical and mental toughness, until he realizes that toughness is not
enough. One must have the power of God which comes from beyond the limits of our being.
It is on the revelation that Jesus is more than a prophet, that Jesus is the Christ,
which is the foundation of Christianity; and it is not enough that this is repeated
because it is heard from friends or preachers or teachers or relatives. It is only enough
when it comes as faith from God, and when it is the rock on which the meaning and goal of
our being is based.
The Gates of Hades shall not prevail against the faith that comes from God. So it has
been through the centuries in the revelation and promised from Abraham to the present. The
real power of the universe lies not in death and violence, but in the will and love of God
Almighty. When Pharaoh turned to genocide of the Hebrews in Egypt, it was out of fear, but
Pharaoh was thwarted by those who dared defy his orders of murder, even to his own
daughter who saved a child she found hidden in the reeds of the river. Pharaoh controlled
nothing and could not stop the will of God with hatred, fear, and death.
Jesus asks, "Who do you say I am?" The world sees only another holy person
meddling in private affairs that concern no one else. Some see an irritating do-gooder.
Some see a guru who might give them insight into their own mangled psyche, who might
advise them and help them. It is beyond the vision of flesh and blood to see the Son of
the living God who is the portal into this world of such power and grace and truth that
the darkness of the universe must dissolve and flee. There is truth. There is light. There
is hope. There is assurance. There is Christ. And this is the Good News: Christ came that
we might know that God is love, that God loves us, and that the gates of Hades shall not
prevail. There is life eternal, and it begins now in faith and joy, comfort and strength
from beyond, forgiveness and resurrection, now and forever.
Christianity claims that it is not just another religion, not just another moral code,
not just another guide to decent and fulfilling living. Christianity claims that it is
truth revealed not by flesh and blood, but by the Holy Spirit. The church may be a poor
thing, filled with many Simon Peters who imagine in their weakness and little faith that
they are strong, who betray and desert their Lord, but it is the presence of Christ that
is important and changes the world. The gates of Hades shall not prevail. God will not
abandon us, and we are called to share this news revealed to us that others may claim it
in faith as their own.
A poet of our century, T. S. Eliot, wrote a poem called Choruses from 'The Rock.' We
know now that the rock is the church and the revelation that Jesus is the Christ. We are
the church and the rock. T. S. Eliot wrote: There shall always be the Church and the World
And the Heart of Man Shivering and fluttering between them, choosing and chosen.
Valiant, ignoble, dark and full of light Swinging between Hell Gate and Heaven Gate.
And the Gates of Hell shall not prevail.
Amen and Amen.