Matthew 16:13-20

Rocky Starts

August 27, 2017

            A huge jet circled Victoria Harbor on its final approach to Hong Kong’s airport. On board was David Webb, a man on a mission to rescue his wife Marie. As he looked out the window, he saw a city that was a crowded and confusing mixture of wealth and poverty, the old and the new, the East and the West. David’s wife            Marie had been kidnapped by American espionage agents who wanted to lure David Webb to Hong Kong to use him to capture a mysterious assassin. Webb was clearly the man for the job, since he had been trained as a killer and knew the Far East well. But he would never volunteer to take such an assignment, because the American government had betrayed him after he lost his memory on a secret mission. Because of this, Webb was somewhat mentally unbalanced when he flew into Hong Kong in search of his wife. Looking out the window of the jet, he felt a mixture of curiosity and anxiety. There were things he was aware that he knew, but could not specifically remember. For Webb the familiar and the unfamiliar were joined, and the result was bewilderment and fear.

            David Webb is the hero of Robert Ludlum’s book The Bourne Supremacy. Perhaps you know him better by one of his aliases, “Jason Bourne.” In recent years, Matt Damon has played the role of Jason Bourne in a number of hit movies, ranging from The Bourne Identity in 2002 to Jason Bourne in 2016.

            This scene from The Bourne Supremacy is a rather rocky start, wouldn’t you say? A man with a clouded memory enters a crowded city that he knows but doesn’t know, on an assignment that he is trained for but doesn’t want, determined only to rescue the one person in the world whom he loves and trusts. Throughout the novel, David Webb faces life-and-death decisions, makes and breaks alliances, goes through an array of twists and turns, and takes stabs in the dark. He trusts his instincts, but never knows for sure if he is going in the right direction.

            His confusion sounds familiar, doesn’t it? With the exception of the exotic Hong Kong location and top-secret assignment, Webb’s life of uncertainty is much like our own. Like him, we face life-and-death decisions, twists and turns, shifting alliances and stabs in the dark. Throughout our lives, we start new jobs, relationships, school years and business ventures without any more certainty than Webb possessed. While we may not share his training or knowledge, we certainly share his anxiety as we begin new stages of our lives.

            On the road with His disciples, Jesus comes into the district of Caesarea Philippi and asks them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They report to Him what they are hearing on the street: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or another one of the prophets. Then Jesus says, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter cuts through all the confusion and says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter trusts his instincts and takes a stab in the dark, a leap of faith that’s motivated by his commitment to Jesus. Although he has seen his master’s power at work, he does not yet have complete clarity about Jesus. Still, he is willing to take a stand in the middle of a time of uncertainty and affirm that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Messiah.

            Like David Webb on his flight into Hong Kong, Peter is brave to take his stand at Caesarea Philippi, a city that is a confusing mixture of wealth and poverty, old and new, Jewish and Gentile. The place is also known as Paneas, because it contains the Cave of Pan, the Greek and Roman god who is half human and half goat. Pan is the god of the wild, and his cave is believed to be the Gate of Hades. This area contains a Canaanite sanctuary to the god Baal, and it is where King Jeroboam led the northern kingdom of Israel into idolatry. So when Peter takes a stab and says that Jesus is “the Son of the living God,” he is saying yes to Jesus and no to Pan, Baal and all of the other idols of the world.

            Jesus recognizes the commitment that Peter is making and says,

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” This is a rich statement, but it becomes even more valuable when we realize that it was originally written in Greek and spoken near the Cave of Pan. In Greek, Peter is Petros and rock is petra, so Jesus is having a little fun with words here. He is saying: “You are Petros, Peter, and on this petra, rock, I will build my church.”

            Word games aside, the intention of Jesus is clear: The one who has a rock-solid commitment is the one who will be favored by God. “On this rock I will build my church,” says Jesus, “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The gates of Hades were right there, in the Cave of Pan at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus is saying that the church has power over the Greek and Roman gods of the underworld, and over the Greeks and Romans who worship them. He promises that the keys to the kingdom of heaven will not be given to Philip, the son of Herod who ruled the area in the time of Jesus. The keys will not be given to Tiberius Caesar, whom Philip honored by naming the city Caesarea Philippi. Instead, the keys will be given to Peter and the Christian church.

            Often, when we speak of a rocky start, we are talking about a beginning that is shaky and uncertain. But in this case, Peter’s rocky start is the exact opposite. It is grounded in a rock-solid commitment. When Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responds by saying, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter’s commitment to Jesus results in Jesus making a commitment to him. Peter becomes the rock of Christ’s church, a solid foundation for rocky times.

            We live in rocky times, with plenty of ugly debates, uncertainty and confusion. But a rock-sold commitment can make a huge difference in the way we approach the challenges of life. Think of David Webb, flying into Hong Kong with deep anxiety, but willing to risk his life because of his commitment to his wife, Marie. Think of Simon Peter, walking into Caesarea Philippi with idols all around him, but willing to take a strong stand for Jesus by calling him the Messiah.

            When we make a commitment to Jesus the Messiah, we are given a firm foundation in uncertain times. By saying yes to Him, we say no to the idols of our era — idols such as sex, money and power. By being committed to Him, we receive the assurance of his commitment to us. And by accepting him as the rock for our lives, we are given the gift of His acceptance, forgiveness and assistance. While it might seem like a rocky start to say that Jesus is the Messiah, there is no better rock on which to build our lives. Amen