Back when I was first working as a stagehand at the start if the 1990s, I had a colleague whose driver’s license said Michael but whom we all knew as Woody. I don’t know if Woody liked being called Woody, I don’t know if it was a name that he would have chosen for himself. In fact the evidence suggests that it was not preferred name.
The way that touring Rock and Roll shows work is that there is a core crew that travels with the band and then there is a local crew, people who live in the city where the band is playing and who supplement the travelling stagehands. And the two crews meet at the beginning of the day on the loading dock, everyone tells everyone else their names. Hi, I’m Martin. I’m Chris. I’m Sarah.
Woody and I were on the local crew. And at the start of the day, Woody would say, Hi, I’m Mike. And it didn’t matter. Within half an hour, everyone on the road crew was calling him Woody.
The lore, the rumour, is that the origin of Woody’s nickname was not a charitable one. That he was so called because his head was thick, like wood. If that’s true, then I understand why he wanted to be Mike. And I regret, I am sorry for not honouring the name that he wanted to be called.
In the Gospel, there is this guy named Simon. But somewhere along the way, folks start calling him Rocky or the Rock. In most English translations of the Bible he is called Peter. And because Peter is just a plain-old name in English, we can forget that this is a nickname, laden with meaning. Other languages don’t have that forgetting problem: if you are reading the New Testament in French, the name Pierre is also a noun that means rock. In Biblical Greek, Petros means rock. And in Aramaic, which Jesus and Simon speak to each other, Simon’s word/name is Kepha, which is sometime transliterated in English Bibles as Cephas. In other words, in the scene that we just heard, Jesus says to Simon:
You are Kepha. And on this kepha I will build my church.
Some English translations try to preserve that. They have Jesus say:
You are Rock. And on this rock I will build my church.
So here is the question. Much as Woody had a driver’s license that says Mike, the Rock has a driver’s license that says Simon. And I wonder: does the Rock feels the same as Woody? Does he wish that people would call him by his real name?
I am asking this question in seriousness. It may seem like it has a thoroughly obvious answer: today, so, so many churches are called St. Rock’s, St. Peter’s, and we know that the Rock went on to be the first Pope, the founder of the church. But I want to suggest that the answer might not be obvious in Jesus’ time. And might be especially unclear if we didn’t have the Gospel of Matthew. Because this is the only Gospel in which we hear Jesus use the name Rock in the way that we just heard him do.
Remember where else and how else we hear about rocks and stones in the Gospel. Rocks are things that you trip over, they are stumbling blocks. Rocks are things that are tied around your neck as punishment; here is the millstone. Rocks are things that you hurl at people as a means of execution; here is the woman who is caught in adultery. Rocks are things that you would never give to your child when the child wants bread. And – remember we heard this story just last month – rocky soil is where the seed doesn’t grow, where the word is received with enthusiasm but the hearer falls away as soon as hardship or persecution shows up. Given what we know about the Rock, about Peter, and how the story of the passion goes, it would be very easy to read that as a shot at him:
You are the Rock, the one without depth, the one who grabs the seed for a moment and then lets it go and runs when things get hard.
So, we can well imagine that in this moment when Jesus calls Simon Rock, that Simon’s shoulders slump. This is the nickname that he has been trying to shake forever. And he thought that, with Jesus and with his new friends, he had found a community that could love him as he is, that could honour his real name, that didn’t need make themselves feel bigger by tearing him down, that wouldn’t call him Rock.
You are Rock.
And Simon tries to be a good sport, he tries to keep on smiling. But you can see the pain in his eyes.
But then Jesus keeps on going. He does something that Simon totally doesn’t expect. He reinvents his nickname, he gives it a whole new meaning.
You are Rock. And on this rock I will build my church.
I imagine Simon standing there stunned. Wait a minute, he thinks to himself, wait a minute. I always thought that to be a rock is to be thick or dangerous or incapable of growing things. But Jesus is talking as though to be a rock is to be strong and solid and stable, to be that from which everything else rises.
What if? What if what Jesus does for Simon today is something that he also does for you and for me? Maybe there is a name that you have been carrying for a while, for years. It could be something as literal as an unchosen and unwelcome nickname. Or that name could be something a little more like a story, a story about how you are unlovable or a bumbler or always saying the wrong thing or never meeting the standard that everyone else meets, a story about your deep and secret wound.
And when you meet Jesus, he says your old name out loud. But unlike everyone else who has discovered your wound and named it, he uses your name not to hurt you but, rather, to set you free. He shows you how your hurt is what allows you to be empathetic, how your failure is what allows you to understand your neighbour, how your rejection is what allows you to love.
You are the Rock, says Jesus, and on this rock I will build my church.
Simon, who just a second ago felt like he had been punched in the guts, starts laughing out loud, laughing with joy.
Yes, he says. Yes! I’m the rock.
And all of his friends start laughing too, the way that friends do sometimes even when they don’t quite understand the joke. The slap their sides and howl and tears roll down their cheeks and one of them says:
Does anyone know why we’re laughing?
Maybe Jesus is thinking of this moment, of this sudden and free and joyous laughter, of the Rock, when he says:
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.