A New Name: Simon Peter
Today we’re taking a look at Simon Peter, one of the twelve disciples, one who was called a different name by Jesus himself. We pick up in the gospel of Matthew, just after Jesus has been warning the disciples against the corrupt teaching of the Sadducees and Pharisees, two groups of religious leader who were always questioning Jesus, his methods, and his authority. Now, as they enter Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” He seems to want a sense of what his reputation is, how people understand the ministry he’s been doing. They tell him that some are calling him John the Baptist, and some Elijah, others Jeremiah, or another of the prophets. And then Jesus is more direct: “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responds, clearly pleased – Peter has it right. Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” He continues, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.” Jesus says even his own death won’t stop the community of faith that will form, that Peter and the other disciples will organize and order.
But from this moment of recognition, Jesus begins to speak to the disciples about the suffering he will undergo, about his death and resurrection. They don’t understand him. Peter draws Jesus aside and rebukes him: “God forbid it! This must never happen to you.” And Jesus responds saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me.” Finally, Jesus tells the disciples: If they really want to be followers – if anyone does – they must deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow. Jesus concludes, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
I hope this passage sounds a little bit familiar to you. We read this very passage together over two Sundays back in August, shortly after Pastor Penny and I started our journey with you. We talked about what it meant for Jesus to be called Messiah – one of his many names – what impact that had on our lives. But today our focus is a bit different. This time, we’re paying particular attention to Peter and what Jesus says to him.
Peter is called both Simon and Peter fairly interchangeably throughout the gospels. Some gospels use one more than other. John almost always refers to him as Simon Peter. Mark is the only gospel that doesn’t mention Jesus naming Simon Peter. And Matthew is the only gospel that gives us the story. In this passage that we read, Jesus calls Simon Peter. What’s the significance? Biblical scholars have debated this, because the name Peter is different in both Aramaic and Greek. Last week we talked about how Saul started going by Paul, since Saul was Aramaic and Paul was Greek, and Paul was interested in sharing the message of Jesus with those who were Gentiles. Peter, too, is a Greek name, a Greek word, which means “a stone.” The Aramaic word for stone is Cephas, and some of the gospels use this word for Peter. (As an interesting aside, Paul always calls Peter Cephas, as if to emphasize that Peter doesn’t understand the mission of the church like Paul does. Yes, Peter and Paul did not get along. Anyway:) So if we think of this exchange between Peter and Jesus as in Aramaic, Jesus says, “You shall be Cephas, and on this cephas I will build my church.” You are the rock, the stone, and on this rock/stone I will build my church. It works fine, but the text we have, and the name Peter seems to go by is the Greek: Petros. As I said, this word means stone. Not rock, but stone. And then when Jesus says, “on this rock I will build my church,” the word is petra. Rock. Not stone, but rock. Particularly like a shelf of rocks. The kind large rocks that make up a landscape, that you can walk on, build on. A small change in the Greek word – Petros to Petra – makes the difference between a stone and rock. Jesus is saying that Simon called Peter is a stone – but the future Jesus sees in Peter is a rock, a solid foundation on which a movement will be built into what we know as the church.
Of course, just later in this very passage, Jesus calls Peter by another name altogether: Satan! That word means adversary and opponent. Peter is opposing what Jesus must do, his mission, his purpose, because Peter is scared and confused. But despite the fact that Peter still screws things up, still has some of his worst moments later on – after all, his denying even knowing Jesus is yet to come – still, what Jesus names Simon for is his potential, his promise, his possibility. He names him for what Peter can become if he follows Jesus, if he takes up the cross, if he denies himself and chooses the path of Christ. Peter, the Rock.
What is our potential? Promise? Possibility? What does God see in us? One of my favorite images is a picture I’ve seen now and again of a kitten gazing into a mirror, only to see a lion looking back. Sometimes I’ve seen this as part of an article on self-confidence. When we feel good about ourselves, we look in the mirror and see all that potential. But I think it is more like what happens when we remember that we’re made in God’s image. When we gaze into God’s heart, and God reflects back to us what happens when we ground our lives and our purpose and our dreams in the very heart of God. Then, then, with confidence in God, rather than ourselves, the kitten becomes a lion. And so when I think about the word play of Peter and stones and rocks that are strong enough to be the foundation of a whole movement of Jesus-followers, I realize what it means: A stone is a stone. But a stone plus Jesus equals a rock solid enough, strong enough, to be a foundation. Peter is Peter. But Peter plus Jesus equals one who, though still struggling, inspires crowds to follow Jesus too. We might look in the mirror and see our limits. But when we look into God’s heart, anything and everything is possible. We are a little church, just little Apple Valley. But when we reflect God’s heart to the world, we’re a place with a big mission and big purpose and big reach and big potential Small seeds that with Jesus produce abundant fruit.
I’ve been participating in a clergy study group for the last couple of years, and together, we read books and discuss how they impact our lives and the lives of our congregations. Right now we’re reading Dare to Dream by Mike Slaughter, the pastor of a large United Methodist Church in Ohio. I’ve found this book more compelling than I expected, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see it offered as a study here in the near future. Throughout the book, Slaughter encourages readers to figure out what their God-purpose is, what their God-centered dreams are for life. He writes, “If [our] purpose is from God, it will always honor God, bless other people, and bring you joy. If it doesn’t meet those three criteria, then it isn’t a God-purpose, no matter how successful you are in accomplishing it.” And then he encourages us to reflect on three questions to figure out our God-purpose: “Where do you see the greatest need around you in your neighborhood, your community, or your world? How can you meet that need? What gifts do you bring to further that mission?”
Soon, our Lenten journey will begin, and we’ll focus on the practices of forgiveness and reconciliation. But when Easter comes, and we greet the promise of resurrection and new life again, I’m going to try to help us think very seriously about these questions. What are the needs we see? How can we meet them? What gifts do we bring? How are we honoring God? How are we blessing others? What brings us joy? I want us to start to look into the heart of God and see the promise, the possibility, the potential that God sees in us. You plus God equals what? Apple Valley plus following Jesus equals what? We’re like Peter. And so even when we glimpse the image God shows us, we’ll still get things wrong. But maybe we’ll start believing that we’re a people, a congregation that can dream God-dreams, with purpose, with the possibility to transform our lives, our community, and our world. God sees that potential in us. Do you? Blessed are you, stones. Because on this rock, God is building, and building, and building.