The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
You are Rock
My name is Jeremiah. It is a good name; I like it. It even shows up in today's gospel reading. Jeremiah is, most famously, the name of an Old Testament prophet. The name comes from the ancient Hebrew word for “YHWH has uplifted.” It has a strong meaning and a good history. Of course, the great biblical Jeremiah is not really who I was named after. While the prophet legitimized the choice in my mother’s eyes, I was mostly named after the title character in the Robert Redford film, Jeremiah Johnson. But still, it is a good name.
I've always been proud of my name. And I've always been protective of it. I never let folks change it. I was a pretty shy little kid. I did not really speak up about much. I have never been a confrontational person. But whenever someone called little Jeremiah “Jeremy” or “Jerry”, I corrected them with a rare, fiery boldness. No one was changing my name – not even my great-grandma, who for some reason decided she was going to call me “Skippy” as a baby. And no, you do not have permission to call me “Skippy”. And yes, I realize mentioning that may have been a huge mistake.
The point is: names are important. They help shape our destiny. We spend a lifetime living into our names. They are powerful; names are powerful. They keep telling us who to be and who to become. They have an origin story that precedes us and they carry on the story that we leave behind. There is a lot in a name.
Peter, however, is not a name. I mean, it is now. It is a name now. We know Peters. We have one in this church. But it was Jesus who made Peter a name. When Jesus called Simon Peter, he created a new name – a name that would take the Western world by storm.
But in first century Palestine, Peter was not a name; it was a thing. Though the English translation of the Gospel misses it and centuries of Peters obscure it, what Jesus really says to Simon is: You are Rock. Not a name, a thing. Kinda like a nickname that really, really stuck – like two-thousand years stuck. But also a name because the name Jesus gave Simon told him who to be and who he would become. It shaped his destiny.
Peter lived into his new name. He became the foundation upon which Christ built a new community – the Church. He emerged as a leader of the early Jesus movement. On the Day of Pentecost, the book of Acts tells us, he preached the Gospel in the streets; he saw the Church explode with growth; through his life and ministry the Gospel began to spread throughout the world – to all people. He carried on the work of Jesus, until he, himself, was killed on a cross like his Lord.
His ministry was so powerful and so important that it continues to shape the Church still today. The Roman Church, the largest Christian tradition, traces the authority of their most powerful Bishop, the Pope, back to Peter. Christ made Peter the rock upon which he built his Church. And for 2000 years, Christians have lived and died, but that Church carries on, prevailing against even death and the grave. We are the most recent embodiment of that Church. And Peter is the rock upon which our Church is built. He lived into his new name.
But Peter's story is complicated. He was certainly not an infallible man, riding around in a bullet-proof vehicle, wearing fancy red shoes, and writing theological treatises. He was Rock. And he lived into his new name. For something that does nothing, rocks are a lot of things. And Peter represents those rock things well in Matthew's Gospel. Like a rock, he was fairly dense; he often failed to get it. Even though he was in Jesus' inner circle, he often failed to understand what Jesus was really about. He's that guy who asks the question with the obvious answer, right as the teacher is about to move on – asking Jesus to explain parables and sayings that Jesus was sure he would understand the first time. And like a rock, he was difficult to move, stubborn. He denied Jesus three times on the night of Jesus' arrest – even though everyone in the courtyard seemed to know he was with Jesus. That’s stubborn. And, you might remember our Gospel story from a couple of weeks ago, like a rock, Peter sank in the water.
So, clearly, Peter was not perfect. And yet, Jesus chose to make him the Rock upon which the Church was built. Jesus gave him a new name, a new destiny.
Yet it is worth asking: what gives Jesus the right to strip Peter of his old name and give to him a new one? Now, the obvious answer is: he's Jesus, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, he can do whatever he wants. Maybe, but I don't think that's it. I think Peter gave Jesus permission to change his name, his identity, his life the moment Peter acknowledged Jesus' identity.
Before Jesus made Peter the Rock, Simon Peter made this confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” He didn't say much, but he said a lot. The word “Messiah” means “anointed.” In ancient Israel oil was poured over the head of the new King; he was the anointed, the messiah. But for Simon Peter, Jesus was more than just an earthly King; he was the Son of the Living God. In the city of the most powerful Emperor in the world, in the shadows of the pagan temples that surrounded them in Caesarea Philippi, Peter goes all the way with Jesus: my Lord and my God. That one short statement changed Peter's life, impacted the future of the Church, and changed the world. Peter offered Jesus his life.
And Jesus changes his life. Before Peter met Jesus his name was Simon. Simon is not a bad name. There is nothing wrong with it. But it no longer represented who Simon would be. His former name meant “he has heard.” But no longer is Peter a passive hearer. Jesus makes him the leader, the one who carries on the Kingdom work, the Rock upon which the Church is built – forever and ever. In Christ, he was so much more than just someone who heard something. He is Rock.
He was forever changed by Jesus: a new name, a new identity, a new destiny. And it all happened the moment Peter went from being a guy who heard some good things about Jesus to being a man who accepted Jesus as Lord. It is easy to like Jesus, to spend time with Jesus, to listen to Jesus’ words. But it is not easy to give Jesus your life. Peter took that step.
The story of the Church is long and complex. It is the story of people – flawed human beings going about their work in the name of Jesus, flawed human beings standing on the shoulders of other flawed human beings standing on the shoulders of Peter – himself flawed. But, you see, the Church is not defined by our flaws; we are defined by our Lord. And Jesus is not looking for perfect people. Jesus built the Church on an imperfect Rock, an imperfect Peter. Jesus is not looking for perfect people; he is just waiting for you to give him your life.