A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.
Growing up in the Deep South, I was not privy to a childhood surrounded by the majesty of national parks. So it makes me a bit jealous to know that our young people get to grow up here, in a space of the world surrounded by such diverse beauty—from the 5000 year-old bristlecone pines of Great Basin, to the enormity and splendor of Yosemite Valley. But during my recent road trip back and forth to my parents in North Carolina, I had the privilege and pleasure of visiting so many of these wondrous places—like Arches in Utah, and the Black Canyon in Colorado, and even the hot and humid Congaree in South Carolina.
Yet the most stunning was the last stop we made at one of the most famous national parks—the Grand Canyon. We rose before the sun to watch the dawn break in the East: the rocks awakening first with shades of purple and indigo, slowly evolving to a fiery glow—that was far more than mesmerizing—, as each turn and crag and dramatic drop off into the beyond was slowly lit up by the glorious sun’s life giving rays. And in that moment of staring out at such miraculous splendor, I could not help but think to myself that “grand” is really the only appropriate name in our English language for this liminal space.
The Grand Canyon more than lives into such a name.
Names are not only descriptive, but powerful and transcendent, alluding to one’s purpose on this planet. Like in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew. We hear of two naming incidents. First, Simon, one of the twelve, is able to articulate just who Jesus is. He calls him the Messiah, or the Anointed One, the Son of the Living God. These are titles that allude to his chosen-ness, his power, his authority as a vessel of the Divine.
But what I find rather interesting this morning, is the second naming that occurs: that of the nickname given to Simon. Jesus decides to all of a sudden start calling him Peter. Like a few frat bros throwing around a few funny titles, this was not a standard name in first century Palestine. No, Peter, or in the Greek, Petros, came from the root for rock, or petra. This name alludes to its following function when Jesus says, “on this rock I will build my church.”
Now if you have been paying attention to Peter’s development throughout this Gospel, you might recall that this nickname might seem a bit out of the ordinary. For Peter is as much like a rock in the sense that he is hardheaded, constantly waffling back and forth in figuring out just who Jesus is. Or in the sense that he almost sinks like a stone, when he attempts to walk on water with Jesus, just a couple of Sundays ago. Even after this naming, he will display that he was not necessarily the most stable and thoughtful and grounded of the disciples. During the night that his teacher and friend is put on trial, instead of standing by Jesus’ side, Simon Peter denies his Savior three times!
And yet, Jesus gives Simon this nickname—not for derogatory, ironic purposes, but for empowering purposes. Let’s be real, in the Gospel account, Simon Peter has yet to live into this name. But he will grow into it. And he does embody it in this encounter, recounted in Matthew 16. For Peter’s own power and authority does not come from his own talents or strengths, or support by other followers of Christ, but by the fact that he testifies to the true rock, the sure foundation; that he can point to God and draw others’ attention to the Divine.
Is this also not our role as the church? We are called to testify to the rock from which we were hewn, pointing to our God, and drawing others into the loving embrace of the Divine. Yet, like Peter, we are limited human beings who have been hard-headed more than a time or two; who have made mistakes. The church institutional having past atrocities—such as supporting slavery and colonialism, the exclusion of women and our LGBTQ siblings in Christ—, mistakes that we are still feeling the repercussions of today, and still repenting of our own shortcomings.
Yet, we, like Peter, are meant to live into our name as the church. In today’s passage from Matthew, this is one of only two times we actually encounter the word “church” in the Gospels. In the Greek, it is written as ekklesia. You may have heard this term thrown around Christianity more than a time or two. And this Greek word for the church, ekklesia, means “called out.” Our name as the church, is “called out.” We are a people called out. Called out into the world. Called out from our comfort zone. Called out to confront injustice in our midst. Called out to communicate God’s love for each and every creature that walks about this world.
And y’all, in order to live into such a name, it’s gonna take all of us, not just some of us. It is going to take this whole Body of Christ. Yeah, Peter gets the nickname, “the Rock,” but let’s be real, he definitely did not do it alone. He had company all along the way. We always hear that he’s chilling with Jesus and the sons of Zebedee—James and John. And he only came to the empty tomb after a little push from Mary Magdalene. And he regularly hangs out with his bud, John Mark, during his many missionary journeys. These other individuals, these fellow disciples along the way, giving him advice, and nuance, and perspective, so that he could understand his calling more fully and deeply and intimately.
Any member in the church is part of the same. We do not work as isolated disciples, but as many members of a larger whole. For no one individuals embodies all of the characteristics of ministry, not even our church, our ecclesial leadership. That type of perfection is only for God. Instead, we all must surround ourselves with others who will constantly redirect our focus away from our own selves, and draw our attention closer to the Divine.
We also must remind ourselves that this is also true of all of our leaders, all of those who hold power and authority in our human institutions—in our churches, in our diocese, in our local, and in our national government. No one person is our savior, is the anointed of the Divine. Praise the Lord, that job has already and forever been taken up by Jesus the Christ. But instead, we must support leaders who are humble and grounded enough to surround themselves with those who will call them out—call them out of complacency and short sightedness; call them out of arrogance and self-centeredness—, and point them in the direction of the Creator of us all—the rock from which we were hewn, and the quarry from which we were dug.
As the Body of Christ, as many members of one church, yes, all of our gifts will differ. Yes, there will be many moments when we disagree, but as always, we should be pointing one another to the one, holy, and living God, who was, and is, and always shall be all about love. My friends, let us not be afraid to live into our name, to be called out into the world around us, no matter the cost.