This text, I believe, is one of the most controversial or even challenging of many of the statements Jesus made. The Roman Church has built its claim of legitimacy upon this statement and has created huge, lasting effects. Millions of lives have been jeopardized or lost, seismic theological and political fissures have been created based this text.
A closer look, however, may reveal something much deeper and foreboding than who is the actual rock of the church. Many years ago, Rev, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon at his home Church, Dexter Baptist, based on the theme "How to Believe in a Good God in the Midst of Glaring Evil". It was one of the most fascinating sermons for me as a seminarian, and it has shaped my response to many of life’s more challenging situations. I hope many of us at some time take the time to read it. What stood out for me was his response to the lasting damage of the evil of slavery and Jim Crowism which lay heavily upon the lives of African Americans like a pall of death. This same feeling came to my mind this week as I helped my children with a summer reading project for which I had to explain the struggles of sharecropping to them. Then later that evening, as I listened to President Obama’s fearful warning to our nation, the realization of the power and nature of evil came to the forefront of my thoughts.
My friends, the readings for today presents us with the pervasive and fearful nature of evil. The Pharaoh who began the cruel persecution of the Israelites, was driven by fear, ego and greed and came to power with a horrible agenda; oppressing all those who did not look and think like him. Exodus 1:8-9 “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.” Soon the enslavement of adults, followed by the slaughter of children was combined with the desire for cheap labor to build up the wealth of the few; this cruelty became the economic growth engine. It was a time of great evil, and the people cried out to God in anguish and fear. These are the factors which may often allow a powerful people to believe in the absence or impotence of God and believe their own power was and now is the greatest and most important belief in one’s own exceptionalism or greatness. This situation causes great despair and fear. It is such a deep-seated fear and despair Dr. King responded “disbelief in a good God presents more problems than it solves. It is difficult to explain the presence of evil in the world of a good God, but it is more difficult to explain the presence of good in a world of no God.”
Yet, I believe Jesus in this Gospel story did something extremely remarkable often overlooked. Caesarea Philippi was a city built on a huge rock on the foothills of Mt. Hermon. It was an old city first rebuilt by the Greeks who dedicated it to the Greek God, Pan. Pan was one of the fertility Gods and this old city could be likened to our modern red-light districts. It was known as an evil, foreboding place filled with underground caves. A spring was located below the caverns, and the belief was if Pan was pleased, water would flow freely to help the crops outside of the City. Later, when the Romans conquered the region, King Herod Phillip renamed it Caesarea Philippi to honor Caesar who claimed to be a God as Herod himself sought to be a lesser God. Yet, this area held on to its reputation as a red-light district and a place inhabited by evil. So, everyone noticed when Jesus and his disciples enter Caesarea Philippi; but they all looked from afar.
For Jesus now to look at this place, known for being evil, foreboding and claimed as a place to worship other gods, and to boldly declare it as the place He would build His church was a revolutionary proclamation. To look at evil and declare that not just Jesus, but all who place their trust in Him are greater than the evilest of thoughts, ideas or places provides us with an eternal hope in the power of God. This is what St. Paul sought to capture in declaring in Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
My friends, to act boldly in the face of evil is the call of the people of faith; whether this people are ordinary health care workers walking into COVID-19 wards, ordinary congregants motivated by Dr. King to leave churches and march for freedom and get into good trouble or those today, ordinary people, who are fighting for the protection of the United States Post Office and our sacred right to vote remains the same people of faith. Today, we stand like the disciples of Jesus as he points towards all that embodies evil and declares, “And I tell you, you are the rock, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Jesus urges you to be the Israelites who walked away from Pharaoh’s world; be the good trouble maker who broke Jim Crow’s back; be the Black Lives Matter voice that shakes the walls of structural racism; be the hands which pull down statues of lies and mass treason to build new structures over the caves of evil and be the light which shines into caverns of greed and cruelty.
God is with you for you are the presence of good in a world of evil. Jesus Christ within you makes you, makes all of us the rock!