March 21, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
JESUS 101: THE ROCK
The fifth in a series of seven.
We met Peter as we started this series. He was fishing. Not for fun but for a living. That’s what he did. He was a fisherman. Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Peter left his fishing nets behind and followed Jesus. He and his brother Andrew were the first two disciples.
Except he isn’t called Peter in this story. That name came later. He is called Simon. Peter means “rock.” And today’s scripture is about how he got that name.
Keep in mind, he’s the one who told the story about how he got his name. He was an old man when he told it to a young man named Mark. Mark was taking notes. I can imagine Peter getting emotional as he told this part of the story. It was an unforgettable day there at Caesarea Philippi. Others had to hear about it. Jesus had spoken directly to him that day, but he knew Jesus was not speaking to him only. As the story would be told and retold, Jesus would speak down through the ages to future disciples. Like you and like me.
Mark must have sensed that this part of the story was important. Because he put it smack dab in the middle of his Gospel. There are 16 chapters in Mark. Today’s scripture comes at the end of chapter 8. Eight down, eight to go. The teaching section is ending. The passion section is beginning. The Galilean section is ending. Soon Jesus will be on his way to Jerusalem. In fact, next week, Palm Sunday, he gets there.
Caesarea Philippi is way up north. It’s at the base of Mt. Hermon. People are surprised to learn that there is a mountain in the Holy Land that has snow on it year around. That‘s Mt. Hermon. The snow melt feeds the springs of Caesarea Philippi, which in turn feed the Sea of Galilee. In the modern world, this is called the Golan Heights. It is occupied by Israel but claimed by Syria.
Jesus brought his disciples to this out of the way place – this beautiful setting high in the foothills – to ask them a question. “Who do people say that I am?”
They tell him. They’ve heard people talking. Some were saying that he was Elijah. Elijah was a prophet who had lived 900 years earlier. He was long dead, but he was supposed to come back to usher in the age of the Messiah. Others were saying that he was John the Baptist. John the Baptist also was dead. It had just happened. He was murdered by Herod. And there was this strange rumor that John the Baptist had now come back to life and that was who Jesus really was. Others were less specific. They were just saying that he was some other nameless prophet.
Then Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter is the one who speaks up immediately. He says, “You are the Christ.” Christ is the Greek word for Messiah. It’s not Jesus’ last name. It is a statement of faith about who Jesus is. He is the promised Messiah. He’s the long awaited King, God in human flesh, sent to earth to rule over the Kingdom of God.
“You are the Christ.” Peter got it right. He gave the right answer. But I want you to notice something. There are two questions. There are always two questions. An easy question and a harder question. What do they say? And, what do you say?
It’s not hard to find out what others are saying. Ask them. Take a poll. Get on “Next Door.” Read the letters to the editor. Overhear somebody’s conversation. That’s easy. But what do you say? That’s different. That’s harder. That makes you think. You might speak before you think. Often we do. But when we take the question seriously, we quickly realize that “What do you say?” is not such an easy question.
St. Drogo, back in the twelfth century said it like this: “It matters not that he be Christ if he be not Christ for thee.” Two questions: “Who do they say that I am?” And, “Who do you say that I am?”
Which one would you rather answer? I am guessing most of you could come up with a pretty good answer to the first question. You know the words commonly used to describe Jesus. He is Lord. He is Savior. He is Redeemer. He is Messiah. You may even have that paragraph of the Apostles’ Creed memorized.
[I believe] in Jesus Christ [God’s] only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
Whenever we recite a creed, we are saying what other people say.
“It matters not that he be Christ if he be not Christ for thee.” So what do you say?
I really think that when Mark was recording the story of Caesarea Philippi, he had more in mind than telling us what happened. He had more in mind than letting us know how Peter answered that question. After all, when we hear how Peter answered that question we are hearing what someone else said. We are hearing what Peter said. I think Mark cares about what we say. He wants us to say who Jesus is to us.
So I thought about that and I realized that for quite a few years now in my work as a pastor I have concerned myself more with the first question than the second. Have you seen my library? Where all those books will go when I retire, I have no idea. Volume after volume of what other people say about Jesus. Most of those books I’ve actually read. Much of what’s in those books you’ve heard in my sermons. I am fascinated with what others say and communicating that to you in a way that I hope will be somewhat interesting and understandable is my job. I love my job.
But there’s that other question. The second one. “Who do you say that I am?” That’s not as easy for me. But there it is. I read what Mark wrote and it sure sounds like he is asking me that question. So I thought today I would answer it. This is who I say Jesus is.
I can’t remember when I first learned about Jesus. I was real small. I guess I learned about love before I learned about Jesus. Because my earliest memories are feeling safe and feeling loved. Here is the picture that I associate with the Jesus I was introduced to as a child. (See featured image) This is Jesus the Good Shepherd. It’s a painting that sort of combines the 23rd Psalm and the Parable of the Lost Sheep. This is Jesus who is kind and gentle and good. That’s who Jesus was to me. Kind and gentle and good. And that’s who I wanted to be. I wanted to be like Jesus.
As a child that meant doing what my parents told me to do and not getting in trouble. Pleasing my parents was important to me. I wasn’t a perfect child, but as I got older somehow I got it into my head that it was possible to be perfect. If I just tried hard enough. Jesus was my moral example.
I kept a diary back then. Each day I would record my shortcomings. Each day I would resolve to do better the next day. As I recall, my greatest weakness back then was teasing my younger sister and brother. I just couldn’t resist.
When I got interested in sports, I decided Jesus wasn’t as gentle as he appeared to be in that painting with all those sheep. He was tough. He was strong. He was fearless. Those qualities became important to me. I had a football coach who was a Christian. He had a saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Jesus was that way. Even on the cross.
I remember accepting Jesus as my Savior. Several times. At church camp, watching Billy Graham on television, in a private moments of prayer. It was always a promise to follow Jesus wherever he led me. At one point I thought that might mean being a missionary in Africa. I had no idea where following Jesus would take me, but wherever it was, that’s where I would go. My life was his, it was not my own.
I wasn’t cut out to be a pastor. I was pretty sure about that. There were people who tried to get me to change my mind, but I wouldn’t budge. A missionary to Africa maybe. A pastor never. But it turned out differently. My promise years earlier to follow Jesus wherever he led me led me eventually to where I am today, pastor of this great church.
If you asked me back then, “Who is Jesus to you?” I probably would have said, “He is my Lord. I will follow him no matter what.” If you ask me now, I would still say that Jesus in my Lord. That hasn’t changed. But I have changed. As an adult I have realized that I haven’t always kept my promise to Jesus. I haven’t always followed him no matter what.
The letters of Paul took on greater meaning for me as I got older. I could relate to those letters. Because he was writing to churches that had discovered as I discovered that following Jesus, no matter what, is not so easy. Paul talked a lot about grace. That was kind of his main theme. That none of us can follow Jesus perfectly. But that’s OK, because what really matters is not our works but God’s grace. And nowhere is the grace of God seen more clearly and more powerfully than in Jesus.
It’s been a gradual awakening for me. I was pretty heavily into the works righteousness variety of Christianity. Even though I knew better in my head, my heart kept telling me that I just needed to try a little harder. I wasn’t there yet, but I was getting there. Just a little more prayer, a little more self-discipline, a little more self-denial and I would be there. It was hard for me to accept that, no matter how hard I tried, I would never get there. Not on my own. I needed help. I needed Jesus. Not so much as my example, so I could strive to do better, but as my Savior, so I could experience his forgiveness and acceptance and love. No matter what.
See the difference? Even though I haven’t always followed him, no matter what, I still know that he loves me, no matter what.
Being a dad was one way that God taught me about grace. I wasn’t the best dad. For many reasons – one being that church was so important to me. I was always working. And when I was home, I wasn’t always there for my children the way they needed me to be there for them. I have some regrets. But children are really good at forgiving. I experienced that from my children when they were small and I still experience that from them now that they are grown. They love me more than I deserve to be loved. Jesus loves me that same way. That’s grace.
But Paul also helps me see that grace does not mean I stop trying. Just because I can’t follow Jesus perfectly does not mean I stop trying to follow Jesus at all. So I haven’t abandoned my childhood objective of following Jesus no matter. It’s just that when I fall short, as often I do, it’s not the end of the world. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Paul said that. I believe that. So I can relax. It’s not about me and how good I am. It’s about Jesus and how good he is.
That has been very freeing for me. I don’t have to live up to anybody else’s expectations. I don’t even have to live up to my own expectations. I can be who I am. I can be who God made me to be. I can do my best, and then leave the rest to God.
That’s my rambling attempt to tell you who Jesus is for me. What I can’t do is tell you who Jesus is for you. Only you can answer that. And in this week before Holy Week, I encourage you to spend some intentional time on that question. Who do you say that Jesus is?
“It matters not that he be Christ if he be not Christ for thee.”
Peter did not hesitate. He gave his confident answer. “You are the Christ.” That’s when he got his new name. This part is actually not in Mark. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell this story. The details differ slightly. One detail that is in Matthew and not in the others is this:
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (16:17-18).
He was Simon. Now he is Peter. He has a new name. He is the Rock. That’s what the name Peter means. Jesus says he is going to build his church on this rock. But what did he mean?
There has been a lot of discussion on this down through the ages. The Catholic Church has taught that Peter was the first Pope. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “on this rock I will build my church.” Another interpretation is that the rock is not Peter himself but rather Peter’s faith. When he said, “You are the Christ,” he was confessing his faith in Jesus.
You read on and you see that his faith is not all that rock solid. When Jesus starts talking about suffering and dying, Peter objects. Then Jesus, who has just praised the faith of Peter, says to him, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mark 8:33). That’s quite a turnaround. And that tells us something important about faith.
It’s the object of our faith, Jesus, that is rock solid. You and I are like Peter. Our faith ebbs and flows. It can be strong one moment and it can vanish into thin air the next. So we don’t put our faith in our faith. That would be the same thing as putting our faith in ourselves. We put our faith in Jesus. As it says in that hymn, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
We follow him, no matter what. And we also know that he loves us, no matter what.
Lord Jesus, you are the Christ. You are the Son of the Living God. You are the Rock of our salvation. In this week before Holy Week, we know we need you in our lives. We know we are more comfortable talking about you, learning what others say about you, than we are talking to you, getting closer to you, and getting clear about who you are and what you mean to us. Your way is hard. We cannot possibly follow where you lead on our own. Thank you that we are not on our own. Thank you for grace. In your strong and holy name, we pray, Amen.