Pebbles on the seashore at North Strand in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Sunday 21 August 2011,
The Ninth Sunday after Trinity:
10.30 a.m., Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin, Morning Prayer.
Exodus 1: 8 - 2: 10; Psalm 124; Romans 12: 1-8; Matthew 16: 13-20
May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Last month, I climbed up the cliffs that shape the horse-shoe harbour of Fethiye in south-west Turkey to see the Lycian tombs carved and hewn into the rock face, for all the world looking like the facades of classical temples. Rock-hewn architectural works of cultural significance can be found in many other parts of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, in places such as Petra in Jordan.
When you see breath-taking sights like these, you understand how culturally relevant it was for Christ to talk about the wise man building his house on a rock rather than on sand (Matthew 7: 24-26) – a Gospel reading we have missed this year in the Lectionary readings that take us through Saint Mathew’s Gospel Sunday-by-Sunday.
The Tomb of Amyntas, carved into the rock face in the cliffs above Fethiye (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
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 foundations 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 Christ 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, everlasting significance.
In the past, Christians have got 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: if you accepted this narrow meaning, you accepted the Papacy; 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 is 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.
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 spoken at the time of Christ or at the time Saint 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 in Jordan or the rocks from which the tombs in Fethiye are carved, 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 Gospel reading (Matthew 15: 21-28; 14 August) wanted Jesus to send away the desperate Canaanite woman because “she keeps shouting at us.”
This is the same Peter who a week before (Matthew 14: 22-33; 7 August), tried to walk on water and almost drowned, and Christ said to the same Peter: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (verse 31).
This is the same Peter who, in the week before that (Matthew 14: 13-21, 31 July), was among the disciples who wanted to send away the crowd and let them buy food for themselves (verse 15).
This is the same 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, Christ has to put the question three times to Peter before Peter confesses that Christ knows everything, and Christ 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).
Robert Spence (1871-1964), “Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield,” depicts George Fox preaching barefooted in the Market Square in Lichfield 1651 … George Fox challenged his followers to say who Christ is for them (Lichfield Heritage Centre)
Who do you say Christ is? Who is Christ for you?
This is a question each and every one of us must ask ourselves anew time and time again. He must be more than a good rabbi or teacher, because the expectations of a good religious leader or a good teacher change over time.
Who is the messiah for you? Again, many people at the time had false expectations of the Messiah. Who is Christ for you?
Visiting Lichfield last week, I was reminded of George Fox, the founding Quaker, who walked barefoot through the streets of Lichfield. But George Fox also challenged his contemporaries with these words: “You may say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?”
Who is Christ for you? Is he a personal saviour? One who comforts you? Or is he more than that for you? Who do you say Christ is?
It is a question that challenges Peter in this morning’s Gospel reading. Not who do others say he is, but who do you say Christ is?
Peter’s faith 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 Christ pick me or you? Well, why would he pick a simple fisherman from a small provincial town?
It is not how others see us that matters. It is 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.
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 misjudgements. 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 so, may all we think, do and say 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 Institute. This sermon was preached at Morning Prayer in Holmpatrick Parish Church, Skerries, Co Dublin, on 21 August 2011.
who sent your Holy Spirit
to be the life and light of your Church:
Open our hearts to the riches of his grace,
that we may bring forth the fruit of the Spirit
in love and joy and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.