By Rev. J.C. Austin
Many of the greatest players in sports have been given an enduring nickname that encapsulates their personality, their style of play, their particular excellence, or all of the above. Some are relatively unimaginative, though accurate, such as Wayne Gretsky being called “The Great One” or Muhammad Ali simply being known as “The Greatest.” Some became so synonymous with the person that you forget it’s not their actual name, like Magic Johnson or Tiger Woods. Some became more of a grand title than a true nickname, like Reggie White as “The Minister of Defense” because he was an ordained minister playing defensive end in football, or Babe Ruth as “The Sultan of Swat,” because he was, well, Babe Ruth.
But a few are the perfect, clever, encapsulation of the player’s character and performance. Karl Malone, known for his eternal consistency as a clutch basketball player, was called “The Mailman,” because he always delivered. Dick Lane was known as “Night Train” Lane because of how hard he tackled opposing wide receivers. And Dominique Wilkins might have spent his basketball career outshined by his contemporary, Michael Jordan, but it was Wilkins whose routinely spectacular dunks earned him the enviable nickname, “The Human Highlight Reel.”
Simon Peter checks several of those boxes when it comes to his nickname. First, we often forget that his real name is Simon. In this passage, Jesus gives him his nickname, saying, “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.” The Greek word “petra” means “rock,” and so the nickname of Peter (“Petros” in Greek) is like Jesus calling him “Rocky” or “The Rock.” In fact, since Simon’s father was named John, a contemporary translation of his full name would be Simon “The Rock” Johnson, which is pretty close to the most famous alumnus of Bethlehem’s Freedom High School: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. (He didn’t get his nickname until he was a wrestler, though, and even then it wasn’t given by Jesus.)
As nicknames go, The Rock is a pretty great one. Wouldn’t you like it if your boss called you the Rock? “She’s the rock of this company”; “he’s the rock I can always count on.” The Rock: it connotes reliability and faithfulness; the Rock is something you can count on, something you can place your confidence in. The Rock is about strength, power, immovability, invulnerability. That’s why Dwayne Johnson used to go around talking about himself in the third person in his wrestling days, especially by crowing the most famous rhetorical question in sports: “Can you smell what the Rock is cooking?” Now, that doesn’t even make any sense, but it doesn’t have to. Mixed metaphors aside, it sure sounds good: strong, intimidating, powerful. The Rock is solid; it cannot be moved, cannot be defeated.
Well, all that is fine and good, but there’s a problem here. We know something about Peter, and, using these terms, he doesn’t seem very Rock-like. He certainly doesn’t seem like a candidate to be the foundation of Jesus’ church. In fact, Jesus’ normal attitude toward Peter is mostly losing patience with him: whether Peter is demanding that Jesus explain his parables again for the umpteenth time, or he’s jumping out of a boat and sinking like a stone because he’s trying to walk on water to test Jesus, or he’s being called Satan because he’s tempting Jesus not to fulfill his mission, Peter is always falling short.
Later, when Jesus most needs a Rock to stand on, as Jesus is being tried and tortured, Peter pretends that he doesn’t even know him. This is the Rock upon which Jesus wants to build his church? The Rock that crumbles whenever any weight is placed on it, that rolls away whenever anything puts pressure on it? If Peter is the Rock, then Jesus seems to be building on very shaky ground.
You have to wonder whether Peter, and therefore the church that is built upon him, is up to the task. And make no mistake, the task is a big one: Jesus says that the gates of Hades, the forces of the underworld, the powers of death itself, will not prevail against it. Well, for them not to prevail against the church, the church that is built upon this Rock is going to have to go up against those powers and at least stay standing.
But you can’t even cast this Rock in the role of Rocky, the plucky fighter in the movies who goes up against far stronger opponents but has so much heart and so much drive that he manages to dig deep, stay in the ring, and even sometimes come up with a victory. Frankly, if the church is built upon Peter, it doesn’t look like it will have either the strength or the faithfulness to stand up to the powers of this world, much less the powers of Hades.
Given that kind of opposition that the church will face in proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, Peter’s selection as the Rock upon which to build it does not seem to make sense. It would make sense to choose a real Rock, one that is strong enough, powerful enough to fight back, or at least faithful enough to stay standing, as the basis for the church. What kind of foundation is an impetuous, stubborn fisherman who’s not very strong, not very faithful, and far from the brightest fellow in the world, going to be against the powers of this world and of death itself? How is the church going to prevail against anything if it’s built on that? It’s ridiculous.
But the thing is, Jesus is not a fool. Jesus knows who Peter is, what he is like. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that Jesus’ reaction is one of surprise, more than anything, to Peter’s confession, because in a way, it’s so out of character for Peter. Jesus is trudging through the outlying territories of Galilee, wondering if there’s any point in what he’s doing, wondering if anybody gets it. He asks his disciples who they say he is, and suddenly Peter blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus’ head snaps up in wonder: “Blessed are you, Simon, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven!”
As a compliment of Peter’s wisdom or insight or faith, that’s not much; it’s like saying you did a good job filling in a crossword puzzle after somebody gives you the answer sheet. But Jesus isn’t complimenting Peter, he’s interpreting the situation for him. Jesus does not say Peter is blessed because he’s clever enough or faithful enough to figure out who Jesus is. In fact, Jesus is really saying that Peter is blessed because there’s no way he could have figured that out on his own, and yet he still knows it!
Jesus recognizes that Peter is blessed because God has blessed him with the knowledge of who Jesus is, not because of anything he has done on his own to bless himself. He didn’t seek it out, he didn’t earn it, or work at it, or train for it. But in a sudden, improbable instant, this unreliable, unremarkable figure is transformed into the Rock upon which the church stands: the first human response to God’s purpose in Jesus, the first witness giving a clear confession of who Jesus is.
Which is really the whole point here. Peter, in and of himself, is quite clearly not “The Rock.” At best, he’s “The Gravel”: a loose and shaky pile of small stones which shift and give way when something presses down on them unless they’ve been gathered up by someone and placed in a bag, or joined together with some kind of binding substance. But Peter does not have to be the Rock in and of himself. The good news here is that God does build upon shaky ground, and God intends it that way.
Despite all Peter’s cracks and flaws, Jesus does build his church upon this Rock, Simon, not because of his strength in claiming the confession he makes, but because of the strength of the confession that claims him: “You are the Son of God, the Messiah.” God works with and through the faith of human beings that tends to crumble or roll away, and transforms it into solid rock. Peter does not start out as the Rock of Faithfulness; Jesus declares him the Rock, and he is slowly transformed into it, in fits and starts, steps forward and steps back. That confession, and that transformation, that is the foundation of the church, the true Rock on which we are built, which the gates of Hades shall not prevail against.
Even six months ago, that rhetoric would probably have sounded…a bit much: “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against us?” But in the last six months, over 175,000 people in the United States have died in this pandemic, and we continue to see over 1,000 people die every day with no indication of a meaningful reduction anytime soon. And even so, there are still whole sections of the country that are essentially pretending like nothing bad is happening, refusing even the most basic steps to care for their neighbors by wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing.
And yet somehow that is only part of the perfect storm we find ourselves in, which right now includes with twin hurricanes, the literal wildfires engulfing California, the metaphorical fires of political polarization, the ongoing plague of systemic racism, and so much more. If you’re not feeling at least somewhat shaky in the midst of all of that, then I’m really worried about you.
Which I think is why Jesus created a community of believers rather than a confederacy of individuals. The point of our life and ministry together as Christ’s church is not simply to be a rock to each other but to be the Rock together. Here at First Presbyterian of Bethlehem, we describe our mission like this: “As a diverse and joyful community of Christ’s followers, we explore how God’s gracious love gives meaning to our lives and faith and inspires us to address the needs of our world. through our worship, learning, and service, God fills us with purpose, compassion, courage, and hope.” As a community of Christ’s followers, we explore; God fills us with purpose, compassion, courage, and hope.
All of those descriptors are plural, and yet they all connote unity. Which makes sense, really because in being bound together by God’s Holy Spirit in these ways, we are not simply gravel, but together we become the Rock. I can’t remember a time when we needed that Rock more, nor the assurance that because of it, the gates of Hades shall not prevail against us. But that is what we have: no matter how shaky we feel, no matter how shaky we are, together through the power of the Spirit, God brings us and builds us together to be Christ’s church, to receive and embrace and embody and share Christ’s promises of abundant life, and irresistible grace, and unbounded love, and unfathomable peace.
Yes, those promises, too, are a bit much. They are more than we can take in and more than we can give away; they are more than we can imagine and more than we can even accept. But those promises are ours; and we are theirs; and even the very gates of Hades cannot and will not prevail against them, against us, against the love of God in Jesus Christ.