Sharing Christ’s Love – Peter Becomes the Rock
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
August 27, 2023
Geography is often important in a gospel story. When the earliest hearers of the gospel narratives heard the location of a story,that sometimes could make all of the difference in their understanding of the text.
In our text for today, Jesus and his disciples have walked north of the Sea of Galilee, beyond their normal range of activity, past the places that were familiar, and beyond any people who may have known them to a place called Caesarea Philippi.
Caesarea Philippi was a village situated near the base of Mount Hermon. It stood on the great commercial trade route that ran across the Fertile Crescent from the Tigris and Euphrates through Damascus toward the Mediterranean Sea and then down into Egypt.
That great commercial highway would have included camel caravans from all over the world – spices, fabrics, strange foods, different peoples – all came through Caesarea Philippi. We can imagine that these common fishermen may have been curious and fascinated with the new and the different and the exciting.
Caesarea Philippi was a place of worship. No, not the familiar Sabbath worship of the local synagogue in Galilee, but the worship of what Hebrews prophets would have considered “false gods”.
Three different “religions”, so to speak, were centered in this area of Caesarea Philippi. Some fourteen temple remains have been identified in this valley where ancient Canaanites would worship Baal, the god of fertility. Though Joshua had helped defeat the worshipers of Baal in this valley generations before, the bull was still a prominent symbol. Pagan worship of fertility was alive and well.
This area of Caesarea Philippi is also called “Baneas”, the common modern name in Syria, which was “Paneas” to the Greeks, named after the Greek God “Pan”. The god of Pan was the god of nature and agriculture, the god of shepherds.
The cave at the headwaters of the Jordan was supposedly the actual birthplace of Pan. Not far below the headwaters is a beautiful waterfall with an enticing swimming hole at its base, a wonderful place for travelers young and old to revel in the gifts of nature.
For many hundreds of years, the god of nature and shepherds and agricultural success had been worshiped in this location. Travelers would throw a sacrificial goat into the opening of the cave.
If the sacrifice disappeared, supposedly it was accepted by the god Pan. If blood emerged from the spring below, the sacrifice was considered rejected. Third, this area of Caesarea Philippi had been designated a place of worship by the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. An expensive, impressive marble temple had been built only twenty years or so before Jesus and his disciples arrived in Caesarea Philippi. This tremendous, beautiful structure was built for the worship of Caesar, the worship of power. The region was ruled at the time by Philip, the Roman tetrarch, thus the name “Caesarea Philippi.”
So Caesarea Philippi was a place of worship of fertility, a place of worship of the gods of nature and agriculture, and a place of the worship of power and authority. In this place, Jesus asked his disciples, Who do you say that I am? Reading this text this week made me wonder…
If Jesus were to return today, what location might Jesus choose to ask this question?
Hear the Word of God from Matthew 16:13-20.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,
‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’
And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’
And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’
Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven to a Galilean fisherman. Jesus gave the power to loose and to bind, the power to permit and to forbid, to a man who was not likely an expert in Jewish law.
Simon Peter may have been an expert in nature and the ways of the sea. He may have significant life experiences in family relations and friendships, and running a small business, but Simon Peter was not educated in the highest of places.
After Peter’s confession of faith, this symbolic handing of the keys to the kingdom was a staggering announcement, no doubt, to all who first heard it. The keys to the kingdom had heretofore been considered owned by the scribes, the ones who knew and taught the law, the ones who spent their lives poring over minute details of what is permitted and what is forbidden in the Torah.
Jesus says nope, these keys will now belong to a fisherman, to a man whom I will call Cephas, Petros, Rock. Can you imagine today taking legal power out of the hands of the Supreme Court and placing it in the hands of your local electrician?
When Jesus asked Who do you say that I am?, Peter had just spat out the words: You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Promised One! And Jesus responded to Peter’s confession of faith:
Flesh and blood, that is human people or ideas, have not revealed this to you. My Father in heaven has revealed this to you.
Let’s return for a moment to Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was and is an awe inspiring place because Mount Hermon, at over 9200 feet elevation, sits nearby, and the waters from the mountain disappear underground until they pour forth from the mouth of the cave at Caesarea Philippi.
Later earthquakes impacted how and where the water flows, but in the first century, as I understand it, a veritable river flowed right out of the mouth of the cave, forming the headwaters of the Jordan River.
The Jordan River becomes the source of life for all the agriculture and people from that region all the way down through modern Israel and the West Bank to Jericho and the Dead Sea.
Life in all its forms along that river still to this day depend upon the waters of the river.
Jesus did not refer to Peter or to the church in this narrative as a river which would bring life to all. Even so, a fresh reading of this text might offer an explanation as to why Jesus called Peter the Rock.
The rock they were looking at in Caesarea Philippi was the source of the river of life. Actually, the rock was not the source, but the conduit. The waters came from above, from Mount Hermon, from on high, and they flowed through the rock, focusing their common efforts to bring life to all who would receive.
We typically view a rock as a foundation stone upon which the Church is built, a stone which cannot be moved. On Christ, the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.
But what if the Rock was chosen because it was porous? What if the Rock was chosen because the waters from on high flow through the rock and to the people.
Peter, flesh and blood have not revealed this confession of faith to you, but my Father in heaven has revealed to you that I am the Messiah. The grand temples in Caesarea Philippi that Jesus and his disciples would have seen – the temple for the worship of Caesar, the temple for the worship of Pan, the old stone altars for the worship of Baal – all were built upon the foundation of the false gods of money, sex, and power, gods that we still worship today.
We may not call our gods Caesar or Pan or Baal, but we still worship financial prosperity. We are still enamored, often to an unhealthy degree, with human sexuality. We still get caught up in the vice grip of those who wield power effectively.
Simon Peter, on the other hand, seemed largely unaffected by those things. He lived a simple life, providing food for his family and community. He lived in the home of his mother, likely caring for her and being cared for. He lived just steps away from the local synagogue, a long, long way spiritually and geographically from the halls of power in Jerusalem’s Temple or Herod’s Palace.
And Peter lived in a village, Capernaum, that was constantly visited by people from all over the world, from different walks of life. Many would travel to Capernaum to visit the healing springs, because they were not well and needed divine help and hope.
Peter was a common man, a good man, it seems, one who didn’t suffer fools, one who spoke his mind, sometimes too quickly for his own good. There must have been something about Peter’s character and personality, perhaps even his physical stature, that was solid enough to be nicknamed Rock.
And yet, there was also something porous enough about Peter that divine knowledge could be received and passed along through him. Peter’s heart and mind were open enough to receive, to be porous. Perhaps it was that quality, more than physical strength or leadership qualities, that allowed Simon to become the Rock.
Do you remember the first time Peter met Jesus in the Gospel of Luke?
Peter was still called Simon then, and Jesus came and stood in Simon’s and Andrew’s boat so that he could be heard and seen by the large crowds on the shore.
When Jesus finished speaking, he told Simon to go out into deep water and let down the nets. Though Simon and his friends had worked all night and caught nothing, still Simon went to deep water and let down his nets because Jesus said to do so. When the fishermen hauled in a catch so large that their nets began to break, Peter humbly cried out to Jesus: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8)
Peter was a man of humble faith and simple life and small town values. He was a man who allowed an itinerant rabbi to use his boat for a pulpit. He was a professional fisherman who had worked all night with no success, only to respond to a carpenter’s demand to go out into deeper water and let down his nets. Peter was open to listen, to receive, and to obey even when it did not seem to make sense.
You are Rock and upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
The church, or in Greek “ecclesai”, which literally means “the called out ones”, was to be built upon the foundation of Peter’s confession. This new “assembly of believers” would be built upon Peter’s confession, not because Peter knew all he needed to know, not because Peter had been born into power or privilege, far from it, not because Peter had been trained at the best seminaries or law schools, but because Peter was willing to be a vessel, a clay jar, a porous rock through whom the Spirit of God would speak and act time and again.
Peter was open to receiving from the Father, and bold enough to share what he heard. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this confession to you, but my Father in heaven.”
The keys to the kingdom of God would no longer be held by the scribes, but by those who would continually open themselves to a new word from God, to what God is speaking today, in this situation, among these people. The permitting and forbidding would no longer be decided by the elite few, sitting in ivory towers with plenty of resources at their beck and call.
The permitting and forbidding would be decided by Peter and those around him, by the assembly of believers who ived close to the earth, who knew their dependence upon nature, who knew the challenges of common people, who lived in a place where people of different backgrounds could interact and work in peace and collaboration.
Jesus shifted the locus of faith from the Temple and its systems of sacrifice to the local people and their humble worship.
Jesus shifted the interpretation of the Torah from the learned scribes to the local assembly of the faithful gathered for prayer.
When you and I are asked that age old question from Jesus: Who do you say that I am?, we are invited to be porous. In all those places where the false gods are worshiped, you and I are invited to listen, to receive, and then to share boldly what we have heard about Jesus with others. What might happen in our world if we all learned to live our lives a bit more like Peter – a humble, open, obedient, and porous Rock, through whom the living waters from on high did flow?
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church