Peter? The Rock? (Reading Between The Lines)

Sermon delivered on January 19, 2014 at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church
(1 Cor. 1:1-9, John 1:29-42)

Andrew found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

black fire on white fireIn the Jewish Talmudic tradition, it is written that the Scriptures are the “eish da’at” –  the “fiery law” of God.[i]  It is also written – and this is the basis for all Midrash – that the texts of Scripture are “black fire written upon white fire.”[ii]

In other words, sometimes, to truly understand what is being said in the Scripture, you have to read between the lines. You have read both the “black fire,” the actual, literal words of the text, and you have to read the “white fire,” the space between and among the words. Because, while the Bible is the inspired word of God, God has purposefully designed the process of that inspiration so that to most fully understand God’s word we have to bring to bear our human imagination.

Today’s Gospel cannot be fully understood without asking what’s has been left out and what’s seemingly been “lost in translation.” If you didn’t ask those questions, if you only paid attention to the black fire, you might make the mistake of thinking that the most important person in this story was Peter and that the point of this story is Peter’s calling. And miss some very important things…

You might miss the selfless actions of John the baptizer, continuously pointing out Jesus to his own disciples, continuously pointing them to Jesus, knowing, maybe even hoping, that most of them would leave him and follow Jesus.

You might miss the fact that Jesus was so compelling to Andrew and that other disciple, who had been John’s disciples, that they dropped everything and left John for Jesus without hardly a “goodbye.” You’d miss their nearly non sequitur, disconnected dialogue with Jesus:  “What are you looking for?”…“Where are you staying?”…  “Come and see.”  You might miss that they were somehow connecting with Jesus at such a deep, non-verbal level – the way of those deeply in love that – that finishing each others’ sentences kind of connection –  “You know…”  “I was thinking…” “Me, too…” “Do you feel like…” “Yes.” – that they didn’t completely need words to communicate.

You might miss the fact that without Andrew – Andrew who was so disinterested in drawing attention to himself in this story that he almost disappears into the background –without Andrew’s effortless ability to be a connector of people, Peter might never have been introduced to Jesus, might never have been called, might never have been renamed, might still be going by the name of Simon.

And speaking of that renaming, if you weren’t careful, you might let your cultural familiarity with this story lead you to fill in a lot of blanks to which you should be paying more attention: like the actual meanings of the name Simon is being told to discard and the new names he is given.  And you might miss the fact that there’s an attempt at translation here that’s really not completely a translation: “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).”

“Simon” –  or in Hebrew “Sh’mun” – the name he is losing – means “one who hears” or “one who understands” or “one who obeys.” You think it’s a coincidence that Jesus is telling him to lose that name? I think not.

Then, as we commonly read the story, Jesus tells him from now on everyone should call him “Cephas,” which means “Peter.” Only it doesn’t…mean “Peter” with a capital “P,” that is. Really, it means “petros,” with a lower case “p,” which we translate as meaning “rock,” as in Peter the Rock, Peter the foundation, Peter on which Jesus will build the Church.  Only it doesn’t…mean Peter that kind of rock. No…that kind of rock would be “lithos”…a great big boulder of a rock that all by itself could serve as foundation for a huge building.

No…John was trying to be perfectly clear to his mostly Greek-speaking audience what this obscure Aramaic name “Cephas” really signified for this person we would come to know as Peter. In Greek, Peter means a different kind of rock…literally, “a rock you have to bend down to pick up”…a hold in your hand kinda rock… the kinda small, kinda flat, kinda rock that if you throw it just right, you can make it skip on the water: once, twice, maybe three times if you’re good, the splat…down to the bottom it goes. Now that sounds more like the Peter we know and love.

What Jesus was saying when he renamed Sh’mon “Cephas,” which means “petros” or “little rock,” is made clear in today’s epistle from the Apostle Paul.  In this letter to the church he planted in Corinth, a community whose life together was sometimes somewhat rocky, Paul gives thanks for the grace God has given them in Christ Jesus, so that they would be “lacking in any spiritual gift” as they waited for the revealing of Christ. When he tells them this, he is speaking to them not as individuals but collectively, telling them that in Christian community we don’t have the option of being well-rounded, complete individuals, but rather that we only begin to be completed as we join our giftedness and our neediness one to another.

Perhaps Jesus was telling Peter not that he was The Rock, but a rock: a special rock, a unique rock, one-of-a-kind rock.  Or better still, perhaps Jesus was naming Peter the prototypical rock from which Jesus would build the Church: one of many rocks – each with its own strengths and weaknesses – with which Jesus would carefully assemble, one atop another, strength to weakness, into the Church…the body of Christ in this world. And all of it atop a massive, unbreakable, immovable foundation stone: Jesus Christ himself.

So what does that tell us here at St. Nick’s?

It tells us that none of us here are complete in ourselves. It means the process of becoming complete does not consist of our making ourselves bigger and stronger and more skillful and more perfect as individuals. Rather, it means that the path to our completeness lies in becoming a community of imperfect people-pebbles who allow themselves to be joined together by Christ in humility, so that I can join my weaknesses to your strength, and your strength, and your strength, and each of you join your weaknesses to other’s strengths, and other’s weaknesses to our strengths, merging and emerging as a living network that becomes more complete in each new connection. And yet a living network that is never fully complete as long as there is one more person out there whom God wants to connect to our community: one more weakness that needs a strength to uphold it, one more strength that needs a weakness to care for.

That, my friends, is who are. And that, my friends, is what w


[i] Deuteronomy 33:2
[ii] Midrash Tanhuma, Genesis 1
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