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On this Rock
Mt. 16:13-20

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.