Petra: the city is carved out of a great rock at an oasis near the Dead Sea
Sunday 24 August 2008 (Trinity 14): Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10; Psalm 124; Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16: 13-20.
May all our thoughts words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
One of the most majestic and visually stunning sites in the Middle East is the carved rock city of Petra (Greel πέτρα, petra, rock; Arabaic, البتراء, al-Batrā) in Jordan. This “rose-red city, half as old as time,” stands in the valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba, and today it is regarded as one of the new wonders of the world.
Petra was known to historians, and it is known as Rekem in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was built by the Nabateans as their capital in an oasis in the middle of the desert. According to Arab tradition, Petra is the spot where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water came forth, and where his brother Aaron is buried.
However, in the west we lost sight of Petra after the Crusades, and it only became known to us once again in 1812, when it was rediscovered by a Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. But since its discovery almost 200 years ago it has had a fascinating grip on western imagination. UNESCO describes it as “one of the most precious cultural properties” in our “cultural heritage,” and in 1985 Petra was designated a World Heritage Site.
It has featured in a number of movies, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Passion in the Desert, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, in the video game Spy Hunter, and in novels such as Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death, Simon Scarrow’s The Eagle in the Sand, and in The Red Sea Sharks, one of the Adventures of Tintin.
It is an archaeological site of breathtaking proportions, and its rock-hewn, sculpted and carved buildings include a Temple, a Treasury, a Theatre, tombs and a Monastery.
The Lycian rock tombs in Fethiye look like the facades and porticos of temples (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Rock-hewn architectural works of cultural significance can be found in many other parts of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Two years ago, I climbed up the cliffs that shape the horse-shoe harbour of Fethiye in western Turkey to see the Lycian tombs carved and hewn into the rock face, for all the world looking like the facades of classical temples.
When you see breathtaking sights like these, you understand how culturally relevant it was for Jesus to talk about the wise man building his house on a rock rather than on sand (Matthew 7: 24-26; Luke 6: 48) – a Gospel reading, you may remember, we had way back at the beginning of June.
Ordinary domestic buildings might have been built to last a generation or two, at most. But building on rock, building into rock, was laying the foundation for major works of cultural, political and religious significance that would last long after those who had built them had been forgotten.
And so, when Jesus says to Peter in our Gospel reading this morning that the church is going to be built on a rock, he is talking about the foundations for a movement, an institution, an organisation, a community that is going to have lasting, ever-lasting significance.
In the past, Christians have got ourselves tied up in knots over very silly arguments about this morning’s Gospel story. Some of us shy away from dealing with this story, knowing that in the past it has been used to bolster not so much the claims of the Papacy, but all the baggage that goes with those claims. In other words, it was argued by some in the past that the meaning of this passage was explicit, and if you accepted this narrow meaning, you accepted the Papacy, and if you accepted that then you also accepted Papal infallibility, Papal claims to universal jurisdiction, and Papal teachings on celibacy, birth control, the immaculate conception and the assumption of the Virgin Mary.
And that’s more than just a leap and a jump from what is being taught in our Gospel passage this morning. But to counter those great leaps of logic, Protestant theologians in the past have put forward contorted arguments about the meaning of the rock and the rock of faith in this passage. Some have tried to argue that the word used for Peter, Petros (πητρος), is the Greek for a small pebble, but that faith is described with a different Greek word, petra,(πητρα), meaning a giant rock, the sort of rock you would use to carve out the rock tombs of Fethiye or even the desert city of Petra itself.
A little pebble, or a fisherman with rock-solid faith?
They were silly arguments. The distinction between these words existed in Attic Greek in the classical days, but not in the Greek used at the time of Jesus or at the time Matthew was writing his Gospel. Petros (πητρος) was the male name derived from a rock, petra (πητρα) was a rock, a massive rock like Petra, and the word lithos (λιθος) was used for a small rock, a stone, or even a pebble – it’s the Greek word that gives us words like lithograph and megalithic, meaning Great Stone Age.
And Peter is a rock, his faith is a rock, a rock that is solid enough to provide the foundations for Christ’s great work that is the Church.
How could Peter or his faith be so great? This is the same Peter who in last week’s reading (Matthew 15: 21-28) wanted Jesus to send away the desperate Canaanite woman because “she keeps shouting at us.” The week before (Matthew 14: 22-33), he tried to walk on water and almost drowned, and Jesus said to the same Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (verse 31). And in the week before that (Matthew 14: 13-21), he was among the disciples who wanted to send away the crowd and let them buy food for themselves (verse 15).
This is the Peter who seems to get it wrong constantly. Later in this Gospel, he denies Christ three times at the Crucifixion (Matthew 26: 75). After the Resurrection, Jesus has to put the question three times to Peter before Peter confesses that Jesus knows everything, and Jesus then calls him with the words: “Follow me” (John 21: 15-19).
The Apostle Peter in an icon on Mount Athos (1546): so often he gets it wrong, like I do, but he has rock apostolic solid-faith
Peter is so like me. He trips and stumbles constantly. He often gets it wrong, even later on in life. He gives the wrong answers, he comes up with silly ideas, he easily stumbles on the pebbles and stones that are strewn across the pathway of life.
But eventually, it is not his own judgment, his own failing judgment that marks him out as someone special. No. It is his faith, his rock solid faith.
Despite all his human failings, despite his often tactless behaviour, despite all his weaknesses, he is able to say who Christ is for him. He has a simple but rock-solid faith, summarised in that simple, direct statement: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (verse 16).
It is a faith that proves to be so rock-solid that you could say it is blessed, it is foundational. Not gritty, pebbly, pain-on-the-foot sort of faith. But the foundational faith on which you could build a house, carve out a temple or monastery or treasury, rock-solid faith that provides the foundation for the Church.
There are other people in the Bible and in Jewish tradition who are commended for their rock-solid faith, including Abraham and Sarah (see Isaiah 51: 1f),
It’s the sort of faith that will bring people into the Church, and even the most cunning, ambitious, evil schemes, even death itself, will not be able to destroy this sort of faith (verse 18).
Throughout the Bible as people set out on great journeys of faith, their new beginning in faith is marked by God giving them a new name: Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul, and Simon son of Jonah is blessed with a new name too as he becomes Cephas or Peter, the rock-solid, reliable guy, whose faith becomes a role model for the new community of faith, for each and every one of us.
Why would Jesus pick me or you?
Well, why would he pick a simple fisherman from a small provincial town?
It’s not how others see us that matters. It’s our faith and commitment to Christ that matters. God always sees us as he made us, in God’s own image and likeness, and loves us like that.
In the past few weeks, I’m sure we have all been disturbed by the war in Georgia. As I was praying for the people caught up in this war, I was taken by the fact that the main Church in Georgia, one of the most ancient churches in the world, doesn’t call itself the Georgian Orthodox Church but calls itself officially the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church.
In its name it proclaims not only that the Georgian Church holds to the true faith, but that it holds too to the rock-solid faith of the apostles.
The faith that the Church must look to as its foundation, the faith that we must depend on, that we must live by, is not some self-determined, whimsical decision, but the faith that the Apostles had in the Christ who calls them, that rock-solid, spirit-filled faith in Christ, of which Peter’s confession this morning is the most direct yet sublime and solid example.
Apostolic faith like Peter’s is the foundation stone on which the Church is built, the foundation stone of the new Jerusalem, with Christ as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2: 20; Revelation 21: 14).
It doesn’t matter that Peter was capable of some dreadful gaffes and misjudgments. I’m like that too … constantly.
But Christ calls us in our weaknesses. And in our weaknesses he finds our strengths. So that, as the Apostle Paul reminds us in our Epistle reading this morning, the church is then built up by the gifts that each one of us has to offer in ministry, in service to Christ, “each according to the measure of faith that Christ has assigned” (Romans 12: 3).
Our weaknesses can be turned to strengths if we accept the unique gifts each of us has been given by God and joyfully use them, lovingly use them, in God’s service, for building up his kingdom.
Let’s not be afraid of our weaknesses. Let’s not be afraid of the mistakes we inevitably make. But let’s accept the gifts God has given us. Let’s use those to build up our faith, to build up the Church, and to serve Christ and the world.
And now, may all our thoughts words and deeds continue to be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached at the Parish Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines, Dublin, at 10.30 a.m. on Sunday 24 August 2008.