11th Sunday after Pentecost – Vicar Stoppenhagen


  1. Pentecost 11.20 “The Rock” Matt. 16:13-20

There are a few passages in the Bible that are absolutely heart and center of the story, the crux of the whole thing. Our Gospel today is one of those. An absolutely crucial passage.

In a nutshell, every serious reader of the Scriptures sees that one of the key questions is “What is the Church? How does one become a member?” Because Jesus says His Church is a life or death matter. Those who are members are One Body with Him and have eternal life and joy, even now in the midst of earth’s sorrows and trials. Those who insist on being outside the Church, well… they are in for one hell of a time! on account of their obstinate refusal of the Kingdom.(!)

And these 8 verses give us the keys to the Kingdom. They show us how Simon Peter gets in and prevails against the forces of hell itself and ever after holds the keys to open or shut Heaven’s doors. But this Way is often murky for the vast majority of readers…

The story is fairly simple (on the surface!). Jesus is hanging out in the Caesarea Philippi area, Roman-pagan land. He asks, casually: “Who do people say I am?” The disciples volunteer various answers: John the Baptist (risen from the dead at this point!), Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other prophet. Jesus goes “But who do y’all say that I am?” Simon Peter replies: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answers back in the most extravagant way: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father in Heaven. And I tell you, you are Petros (I’m using the Greek because it’s important here) and on this petra I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against IT. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then He, strangely, strictly, charges them to tell no one that He is the Christ.(!?)

The early bishops of Rome, circa 4th century, took notice of this passage. Somehow—in ways that are not clear—a tradition had grown up in the church at Rome that Peter was the first Overseer, pastor or bishop of the Church at Rome—though this is never taught or even suggested anywhere in the Scriptures. Those old Roman bishop dudes read it like this: “For guessing the true Identity of Jesus correctly, Simon is called Petros or Rock, and Jesus says ‘on this Rock (Peter!) I will build My Church’ and gives to Peter the keys to Heaven to open or shut the door on whomever he choses. And hey… “I hold that very office today as Peter’s successor! People better treat me nice!”

Let’s call this the Latin reading. It was ventured tentatively and widely rejected especially by Greek bishops in Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem—all more important Christian sees back then than Rome.  But, after the dark ages, around the 13th century, the bishops of Rome became more powerful as the Roman Empire had waned. And this reading took hold, until, by the 16th century, it was pretty widely accepted, even grudgingly by many in the Greek speaking East.

The problem with this Latin reading is that it’s not what the Greek says.(!) Jesus does not say “You are Petros, (Peter) and on you I will build My Church.” No. He says to Simon (giving him another name to go with Simon) “You are Petros (chip off the Rock, Rocky is not a bad translation) and on this the petra (sounds alike but different word—Greek for a huge mountain of Stone) I will build My Church. If those Latin guys had known Greek better, we could have saved a lot of trouble. So the Latin reading, popular though it remains in the world, is simply not what Jesus says.

The question is “What is the petra and how is Peter (Petros) related to it?”

16th century Lutherans went “Oooh! I know! I know the answer! I know Greek! petra is a mountain, a huge Rock and it is that on which the Church is built. Petros is a little chip, that’s related to the petra, the Rock in the proper manner. It is Peter’s confession of faith “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”—that is the Rock on which the Church is built! And Peter is the one as an Apostle who mediates this true faith to the Church as a holder of the office of the ministry.”

So it came about that Lutherans of the 17th century still held a basically clerical reading of this passage. The Rock is not the Bishop of Rome but the Pastoral Office of Word and Sacrament.

But I think that’s wrong too.

Simply put: I think the petra or Rock as Jesus uses the word here is the faith relationship of the Ideal Disciple to Jesus. By revelation of the Father, as Peter received that day outside Caesarea Philippi in a mystical/miraculous way, the Ideal Disciple suddenly sees Jesus exactly as He is: true Man/true God, Son of the Living God, Lord, King, Savior! John says in his 1st Epistle that whenever we see Jesus as He truly is, we will be like Him—made over in His image. Peter says in his 1st Epistle that we come to Christ, a Living Stone, rejected by men, but chosen by God and precious, and when we come, seeing with open eyes of faith, we ourselves, like living stones (little rocks) are, one by one, being built up as a spiritual house—into Christ’s own Holy Church, ourselves.

I spoke with you a couple weeks ago of theosis—the old Christian notion of seeing Jesus as He is and thus participating in the Divine Nature, sharing IT purely ourselves, made over exactly in the Image and Likeness of God’s Son Jesus Christ. And that, simply put, is what the petra is: crunched down theosis, seeing Jesus as He truly is, and—in that vision—being, at that moment, instantly and completely transformed into His Image!

The petra is not an office. It’s the relationship the Ideal Disciple has with Jesus which, in turn, relates us to all other disciples in Christ. As long as Peter operated by faith alone, he was in on the Petra. Peter, at this point, is not Apostle, Bishop, Boss. He’s just the prototypical Christian. He shows us the Way to be, so that we, like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, at times, by grace, make this leap into a new world ourselves, jumping into the abyss, and somehow, by miraculous grace, stick the landing, walking away without a wobble. But then, like Peter walking on water we go: “Wait! I can’t be god-like! I can’t do this!” And we sink.

Faith, to me, is like jumping off a bridge and landing on a giant spinning ball in the back of a pickup truck going 60 miles an hour—sticking the landing like a ballet dancer, perfectly balanced without a bobble. That’s theosis. That’s the petra: a faith relationship that builds us like Abraham, Peter, on Christ the Rock into His Mystical Body the Church. If you don’t think about it, like Peter—just leap into it, sticking the landing beautifully—it’s wondrous.(!)

Most think too much, go: it’s impossible! and go careening off the back of the speeding pickup, falling like the girl in the movie Palm Springs, tumbling out of the sunroof of her VW.

We’re all Rocky, like this—lots of bumps and bruises. But once you see, you always have the keys; and faith is constantly opening that Door, seeing Jesus as He is, being made like Him. And those fleeting instants will, by grace, turn into an eternal now where Peace surpassing understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Forever. Amen.


About Vicar Ethan Stoppenhagen

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