A New Name

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For the four weeks leading up to and going beyond Easter, we’re looking at the life of Peter.  Because he’s so often at the center of both the brightest and darkest moments in the Gospels, he has always been a source of hope and inspiration for those endeavoring to follow Jesus.

Some people get special nicknames.

In the world of sports, George Hermann Ruth became “Babe.”  Slugger Ted Williams was “the Splendid Splinter.”  Kobe Bryant dubbed himself “Black Mamba.”

In the realm of artists and celebrities, rock guitarist Gordon Sumner became “Sting” after he wore a black-and-yellow striped shirt to a recording session.  When Michael Lee Aday was short of cash as a college student, he bet someone $100 that he could survive letting a VW Beetle drive over his head.  He not only survived and collected the money, but also got a new nickname.  “Man, you must have meatloaf for brains,” said one bystander.  “Meatloaf” went on to become an A-list singer-songwriter.  Carole Penelope Marsciarelli, as a little girl, tried to save as many pennies as she could to buy a horse.  The actress and director ultimately became known as “Penny” Marshall. 

Lovers are famous for bestowing intimate names on each other.  Love monikers are often associated with food (“Peaches,” “Sugar”), body parts (“Angel Face,” “Blue Eyes”), and animals (“Tiger,” “Kitten,” “Honey Bear”).  I know of one husband who calls his wife “Honey Pie Dew Melon Face,” which appears to defy classification. 

Some nicknames signal unique accomplishments.  Revolutionary War general Francis Marion became “Swamp Fox” after routinely evading British troops in the backwoods of the Carolinas.  Harriett Tubman earned the name “Moses” for leading fugitive slaves to freedom in the North. 

Then there are the changes of name that signify a transformation in character or role. 

In The Man of La Mancha, the musical adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ famous tale of Don Quixote, the would-be knight showers his love on Aldonza, an ordinary peasant girl.  In his mind she becomes the beautiful and virtuous Dulcinea.  Gradually she “lives into” and “lives up to” her new name, which becomes her new identity. 

On the pages of Scripture, Abram becomes Abraham (“father of a multitude”).  Sarai his wife becomes Sarah (“mother of nations”).  Jacob their grandson becomes Israel (“he wrestles with God”). 

And in one of the most head-scratching, analyzed, preached-on, wondered-at, and argued-about texts in all the Bible, Jesus forever changes the identity of his most outspoken disciple. 

“Who do you say that I am?” he asks the Twelve.  Peter unhesitatingly replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” 

“Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of John, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.  And I tell you that you are Peter [petros in Greek] and on this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it’” (Matthew 16:17-18).  Jesus renames his friend.  He is now “Rocky.”  Or as Clarence Jordan identifies him in his Cotton Patch version of the Gospel (a paraphrase of Matthew in the language of the American South), “Rock Johnson.” 

What does it mean?

In this signature moment, Jesus first affirms that Peter has answered his question correctly.  He is indeed the long-awaited Messiah spoken of by the prophets, the fulfillment of Israel’s ancient yearnings.  And he is more than just another human descendant of King David.  Unlike the fake deities whose temples stand before them in Caesarea Philippi, he is the Son of the Living God – the God who is really there. 

For the first time in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus uses the word “church.”  The Greek word is ekklesia, “those who are called out.”  Jesus’ mission as the Messiah is to call out and call together those who are ready and willing to follow him.  They will become a new kind of family, a new sort of community that will begin, by God’s grace and power, to help heal this broken world – one heart at a time. 

Notice the first person pronouns: “…I will build my church…” Jesus is not forecasting a new organization that will be launched by Peter or Paul or Thomas Aquinas or Martin Luther or Joel Osteen.  The church belongs to Jesus.  It always has.  It always will. 

And it will succeed.  “The gates of Hell will not overcome it.”  At this point Jesus may have gestured toward the yawning cavern in the high rock wall behind him.  The pagans who inhabited the area had long believed that at the back of that cave there was a portal to Hades.  It was a place fraught with terror.  But hell will be no match for Jesus’ called-out ones.  It’s worth noting that this verse is frequently misunderstood, as if Satan has the initiative and the church is forever fighting for its life.  Just the opposite is true.  The church of the Messiah isn’t on the run.  It’s storming the gates of Hell.

Besides, when was the last time you were chased by a gate? 

All of this has been enthusiastically embraced by Bible scholars over the years.  The points of disagreement concern the role of Peter.

Catholics point to this text in Matthew 16 as proof-positive that Jesus ordained Peter as the first pope.  If Peter became the first bishop of Rome (certainly a possibility, according to tradition), and if being the Rock means Jesus was granting him a permanent office (also a possibility), and if every succeeding bishop of Rome is supposed to inherit that office (that’s quite a stretch), then Jesus’ statement about building his church on the Rock means that the Vatican should have ecclesiastical and spiritual authority over every follower of Jesus.    

Protestants have a different take.  Even though Peter is renamed “Rock,” Jesus’ expression “upon this rock” refers not to Peter himself but to the bedrock of his faith.  On this view, Peter’s powerful declaration of trust in Christ is a kind of first deposit – the first of many such expressions of loyalty to Jesus that will deepen and extend the reign of God on Earth. 

After more than 500 years of exegetical disagreement – sometimes resulting, tragically, in pitched battles with actual weapons of war – the two sides have not yet arrived at common ground. 

If it seems that Catholics have overstated the role of Peter, it certainly seems that Protestants have understated it.  Granted his new name and unique role, Peter appears to be far more than “just another disciple.” 

Peter is the Rock. Now he gets to live into and live up to his new identity.  

This is the high-water mark of his discipleship.

Unfortunately, as we’ll see tomorrow, things change in a hurry.