Homily: “On Saint Peter and the Rock”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16, Year A), 2017.

We hear in both our reading from the prophet Isaiah and from the Gospel according to Matthew the word, “rock.” So from Isaiah: “Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance, you who seek the Lord; look to the rock from which you were hewn.”. And from Saint Matthew, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” Let us see again that when God calls someone by name, something important is happening, as for example, when Jesus called Mary Magdalene by name at the empty tomb, when but the word He spoke was “Mary,” she was healed. But that said (and this could be a sermon unto itself), with regard to the passages from Isaiah and Matthew, in order to properly understand these passages, we must ask whether there is a unique, biblical understanding of “rock” that is distinct from its regular, secular meaning. And in fact, the answer to that is, yes, there is.

The image of “rock” appears frequently in both Testaments of the Bible. It always has to do with God and in many places, relates to a title for God, such as the “Rock of Israel.” We also hear “rock of refuge,” meaning a “a strong or mighty fortress,” which of course shows up in a famous hymn by Martin Luther. God is also “rock and redeemer,” an “eternal rock,” and every morning in the Office, “Let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation” from Psalm 95.

Famously, things comes out of the rock throughout the Old Testament. God provided water for the Israelites that came out of a rock. Likewise, honey and oil both came out of the rock. To stretch things a bit: God’s ten commandments were hewn in rock, that is, tablets of stone. And there are many other instances. Of course, Our Lord and Savior was buried in a rock, and we should always understand that the stone before the rock tomb was moved not so that Jesus could get out but so that we might enter in.

Intriguingly in Deuteronomy, Moses castigates the Israelites by saying: “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” Put together here are the images of God and birthing mother. And it is that strain of the image of rock that resonates and provides interpretation for our passage from Isaiah. Isaiah speaks of rock—“from which you were hewn”—similarly as a mother. To remember the rock from which we are hewn is to take refuge, security, and protection in that from which we came, that which made us. We find direction and guidance for our present lives—fundamentally, at the core of our deepest needs and to quench the thirst of our confusion and alienation—by looking to our God, whose judgments are unsearchable, and whose ways are inscrutable—by looking to Him in His majesty, submitting to Him in awe.

And it is here, with the understanding of “rock” as God and mother, how we properly understand the significance of Jesus saying to Saint Peter, “on this rock I will build by church.” Peter had just spoken the words, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Now of course, the correct interpretation of these words has been a matter of contention between Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox, but that controversy is outside the bounds of a liturgical homily. Within the confines of biblical interpretation, the important thing to see is that these words were not of Saint Peter’s own cleverness, specialness, or invention, but were given to him, and spoken by him, only by the grace of God—who as He did to Moses when he needed the words to speak, gave Peter the words to speak: words spoken by Saint Peter that are at the heart of the Christian faith and Christian mission.

The early Church, as they sought to come to terms with the cataclysmic event of Pentecost and the Resurrection of Jesus, searched the scriptures for how they matched, enlightened, or stretched their understanding of God and of Jesus Christ. In so doing, the early Church remembered that Jesus had given to Peter a unique grace to proclaim who Jesus is. They remember this when Peter, again graced by God with words revealed to him by God, preached the first Christian homily on the Day of Pentecost, which is captured by 23 verses in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. That one-sentence summary of that homily is precisely what Peter spoke as revealed by God: “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.” At the end of his homily, Peter says, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ.” These words, indeed the entire sermon, simply expand upon the words he spoke in our Gospel.

This, brothers and sisters, is our rock—the proclamation that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. This truth is our salvation. It is our refuge, and this rock is what gathers all Christians together in the unity. It is the Holy Spirit who filled Peter so he could utter such profound truth to Jesus. It is the same Holy Spirit that filled him and the other eleven Apostles and the rest gathered on Pentecost in the upper room, including the Mother of Jesus, Blessed Mary, and which gave Peter the words to preach. It was from this sermon that the Holy Spirit flowed forth to all those who heard it, and which led three thousand souls to be baptized that day, and true Christian prayer life to begin on that day—a prayer life which we continue to embrace: steadfastly holding to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread, and to the prayers.

By our constant embrace of this pattern of Christian life, of response to God, a pattern described in that same chapter of Acts as the first actions of the Christian people who heard Peter, we are in communion with Saint Peter’s teaching, in communion with the experience of the first Christians, and in communion with the experience of Christians everywhere since for two thousand years, for it is the teaching of the Church as the Body of Christ, including its experience of Christ over two thousand years, which has made us—that we are indeed born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God—and incorporated into His Body. The rock is the proclamation of Christ Crucified, and when we embrace the pattern of prayer revealed by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of Saint Peter around whom were the Apostles, the living water of heaven is made available for us to drink. May we all continue to look to this rock. to remember this rock—indeed the rock from which we are hewn, and continued remade ever more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, that indeed at the Parousia, when may behold the rock Himself, God Almighty, in unity with Him. Amen.