Tom Long: Between a Rock and a Stumbling Block

In the 1950s, there was a professional wrestler making the circuit of small towns and county fairs by the name of William Dee Calhoun. Now, as you know, most wrestlers have some kind of trademark, some gimmick or schtick that makes them stand out. William Dee Calhoun's trademark was that he was 6 feet 4 inches tall, weighed over 600 pounds, and wrestled wearing a huge pair of farmer's overalls. He was a heap of a man, and because of this no one called him William Dee Calhoun. No, he was known, for obvious reasons, as "Haystack Calhoun."

Now, "Haystack" is, of course, a nickname. No parents ever looked lovingly at their newborn baby and said, "Let's name him Haystack." It's a nickname that Haystack Calhoun acquired later in life because of his great size and who he was. Well, as strange as it may seem, the same is true for the name Peter. It's colorful nickname. Now, we know Peter as Jesus' disciple, and now we even call him "Saint Peter." There are many churches named after him, including the great Basilica of St. Peter at the Vatican. Today, Peter is a very popular name. Many people have that name, including the host of this radio program. But no Jewish family in Jesus' time ever named their baby boy Peter. Peter actually comes from a Greek word meaning "Rock," and it's a nickname, like "Haystack." "Rock" is the nickname Jesus gave to the disciple whose real name was Simon son of Jonah, and New Testament scholars tell us that no record has ever been found of anyone in the ancient Greek world being named "Peter" before Jesus gave that nickname to Simon.

The story we just heard from the Gospel of Matthew makes a big deal out of Peter's nickname - "Rock." What happens is that Jesus and his disciples have come to the region known as Caesarea Philippi, on the Mediterranean Sea about twenty miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee. The disciples don't know it yet, but Jesus has cast his eye toward a dark horizon, toward the city of Jerusalem. He knows that he must go there to suffer and to die. Here at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus has arrived at a great turning point in his life. From now on everything about him will be moving toward the cross.

So, at this pivotal moment he asks his disciples, "Who do the people say that I am?"

The disciples think for a moment, and then begin to try to give answers. "Well, some of them think you're John the Baptist, come back from the dead," one of them said. Another disciple offered, "Some others think you're Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets." Jesus took this in, and then he said, "What about you? Who do you say that I am?"

Simon son of Jonah was the one who summoned the courage to answer. "You're the Messiah," he said, "the Son of the living God."

That, it turned out, was the right answer. Jesus wasn't just a prophet, and he wasn't John the Baptist returned from the grave. He was the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of the living God. "Bless you, Simon," Jesus said. "You didn't get that from human beings. You got that from my Father in heaven." And then Jesus said one more thing to Simon. "You know who I am, well I know who you are, too. You are Peter - you are Rock - and upon this rock I'm going to build my church."

Years ago, when I had become the pastor of a congregation, one of the older members pulled me aside to give me a little wise advice about my new flock. He told me about some folks in the congregation who were nice enough people, perhaps, but gossips. "Watch out for them," he warned. He told me about some other people who looked energetic and promising, but who had a pattern of letting the ball drop, of never following through on things. And then he told me of the strong members, the reliable ones, the ones I could count on. About one woman in the congregation in particular, he said, "She is faithful and solid and full of courage. You can depend on her. She's the kind of person you can build this church on," he said.

That's what Jesus said about Peter. "Your nickname is 'Rock,'" Jesus said, "and you're the kind of rock I can build my church on."

Well, with that kind of recommendation, we expect to see Peter - good old solid Rock Peter - shining like a light and soaring in leadership. We expect him immediately to do something fantastic in the name of Jesus - to start a charity, or preach powerfully to a Roman legion of soldiers, or establish a ministry of healing in a leper colony, but no - wouldn't you know it - in the very next story in Matthew, Peter the Rock falls flat on his face.

What happened was that Jesus tells his disciples for the first time the terrible secret - that he must go to Jerusalem, must undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious authorities, and must be killed. Peter the Rock was not having any of that talk. "God forbid that!" he protested. "This must never, ever happen to you."

The air grew cold. Jesus had just called Peter "the Rock," but now he has a different nickname for him - "stumbling block." "Get behind me, Satan," Jesus rebukes him. "You are a stumbling block to me. You're paying attention to human stuff, not to the things of God."

It's a whiplash moment. How did we move so quickly from Peter the solid Rock to Peter the Stumbling Block?

Years ago, I talked to a minister in Texas who was trying to get a new church off the ground, and things were not going well. They would start a new program, and it would fail. They designed a strategy to increase attendance at worship; it didn't work. They began several new ministry initiatives; they all fizzled. "We couldn't figure it out," he told me. "The church leaders and I were praying like mad for our church to succeed, but nothing was working. Finally, in a prayer meeting with the officers of the church, one of our officers said, 'Maybe we ought to ask God what God wants us to do.'"

"Suddenly," the minister said, "it hit us, hit us hard. We had been planning church programs that we wanted to do and then praying, 'God, please come join us in what we want to do.' From that moment on, our prayers changed. Now we pray, 'God, what are you doing in Houston and how can we be a part of it?'"

Like old Peter, this young church had become a stumbling block, because they were just paying attention to the human stuff and not to the things of God. When they began to pray "God, what are you doing in Houston and how can we be a part of what you're doing?" they turned from a stumbling block to a solid rock.

Now let's admit, it's not always easy to know what God is doing, because what God is doing in the world always comes as a surprise. None of the disciples could have figured out on their own that this rabbi from nowhere in Galilee whom they'd been following was not just a great teacher, not just a prophet like Jeremiah, but that he was in fact the long-expected Messiah, the savior of all, the very Son of the living God. Peter didn't get that insight from being smart or a Bible wizard or a great theologian. He didn't come up with that on his own. It was given to him as a gift by God. And he trusted what he had been given. He saw it not through his human savvy but through the eyes of faith.

None of the disciples could ever have guessed that the way Jesus was going to live his messianic calling was to go to Jerusalem, be roughed up by the officials, suffer and die like a criminal on a cross, and then be raised by God from the dead on Easter. No, we don't get that from human calculation. We get it from the mouth of Jesus himself. This isn't human stuff, this is God's surprise, this is Jesus telling us what God is doing in the world and telling us to get behind him and follow.

Right now, in our own land, there is a movement happening toward racial justice. In one sense, it has been brewing for a long time, four centuries really. But in the last few months it has gained strength and swept over us like a sudden summer rainstorm. It's complicated. There has been much goodwill and honest acts of contrition and repentance. There have also been some acts of violence and lawlessness. But when we look deeply at what is happening, at the profound rhythms reverberating through our nation, when we look with the eyes of faith, we can truly see that God is moving among us - calling those who are white to repentance, giving voice to those long silenced, giving hope to us all, and opening our hearts to seek justice more earnestly. It has come as a surprise - that's the way things are with God. God's action always comes as a surprise. We didn't figure it out. We didn't plan it. We didn't finance it. No one predicted it. It's not human stuff. It's the hand of God moving among us, and it is our job to say, "So, God, this is what you are doing among us. How can we be a part of it?"

In the little town in Maryland where I live, there are two parallel main streets. One main street runs through the mostly African American part of town, and the other main street runs through the largely white business district. In years past, African Americans walked down one main street, and whites walked down the other. Two separate worlds, only a block apart. A few weeks ago, however, with the unanimous approval of the City Council, a group of artists and other concerned citizens arrived with cans of paint, rollers, and brushes on the main street that used to be the domain of whites and painted on the street in large letters the words BLACK LIVES MATTER.

To see those words on the white main street was a surprise. It is also controversial. Some people don't like it at all. They say, like the stumbling block Peter said to Jesus, "God forbid!" This must never happen!" But like Jesus said back to Peter, "You've got your mind on human stuff, not on God's will." People who look with eyes of faith see yet another sign of what our surprising Jesus, the Son of the living God, is doing in the world, calling us to justice in our broken land, teaching us the truth that lives our society has not always valued do indeed matter, and we want to get behind Jesus and follow.

Isn't it interesting that the same disciple - Peter - could be both a solid Rock and a stumbling block? That's the way it is with us, too. We are not always quick to see what God is doing in the world, and when we do, we're not always that happy about it. We spend a lot of time, stumbling blocks that we are, not walking in the way of Jesus but just getting in Jesus' way. But this is, after all, Jesus the Messiah who saves us from our sins, and he is always offering to us stumbling blocks the grace that allows us to become disciples once again, solid rocks on which Jesus can build his church.

On the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit blew like a hurricane, guess who it was who stood up to tell the crowd the surprising good news of what God is doing in the world and that this gospel was for them and for their children. It was Peter - the stumbling block now become a solid Rock once more.

And just like he said, Jesus built his church on that.