On this Rock

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10th Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 51:1-6
Matthew 16:13-20
Peder Stenslie

Peter and the other disciples never seem to get things right. Again and again, they misunderstand Jesus' parables. They frequently fail to grasp the way of the Kingdom of God. They often cannot comprehend what Jesus is doing or saying. We frequently hear Jesus scold them for their lack of faith, their lack of understanding, their lack of spiritual maturity.

Just last Sunday we heard Jesus’ frustration as he asked Peter, “Are you still without understanding?!” because Peter just couldn’t get what Jesus was talking about.

The disciples just never seem to get things right.

Today's lesson, however, is an exception. Today, Peter gets it right… really right. When Jesus asks him, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus is delighted, and seems genuinely surprised by this answer.

Peter, who so often fails to understand… fails to get it right… this Peter, today, sees the truth and speaks it. With great excitement, Jesus praises Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!”

This delightful surprise begs the question: How did Peter manage to get it right this time? The answer to that comes in Jesus’ explanation: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” In other words, Peter got it right because God… not Peter… was the source of the insight.

Then Jesus follows up his praise with a promise: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” What Jesus means here is that it is through this wonderful miracle… this received gift of the spirit which fills us with insight and boldness… it is in this way that God brings his kingdom into the world.

So how exactly does this happen… that God reveals truth and we understand it? That God gives his Spirit and we receive it?

And how can we — like Peter in today’s Gospel — get it right? When we have to make decisions… especially important and hard decisions, how do we choose wisely? As we make our way through life, how do we make sure we take a good and healthy path?

These are not simple questions… and, of course, there are no simple answers. I did, however, think about this a lot during the time my family and I were in Norway.

We happened to be there when the bombing and massacre occured on July 22nd. And we were there through the days that followed as the nation tried to comprehend and respond to the horrifying events that happened.

There are simply no words to convey the unimaginable terror and senseless tragedy that occured on that small island called Utøya… or the terrible sorrow that followed.

A single hate-filled man dressed himself up as a policeman and went out to the island where a political youth organization was having a week-long retreat. Once he arrived, he began shooting and killing.

The young people were defenseless and trapped on an island surrounded by deep, cold water. By the time it was over, he had killed 77 people. Nearly all the victims were young, just kids really.

I’ve tried to understand how a man could be so full of hate, so empty of humanity, so cowardly… but it is beyond me.

I’ve tried to imagine how horrifying it must have been for these young people to face this beast out on Utøya. After reading many harrowing accounts given by survivors, I just can’t fathom the terror and despair they must have felt.

I’ve tried to somehow imagine the loss and sorrow experienced by family members and friends who lost forever the company of these remarkable young people, but I can’t.

Since we’ve been back, I’ve kept up on my computer a page from a Norwegian newspaper that shows photos of all the victims. There you see their beautiful, smiling faces. If you click on their photo, you can learn about who they were… their families… their personalities, their interests and passions. (link: http://www.vg.no/nyheter/innenriks/terrorangrepet/minneord/# )

There was 19 year old Lene Maria Bergum. She was the oldest of four children in her family. Ever since she was little, she had a passion for animals… especially horses. She managed to buy a horse with her own money when she was 14 years old and she loved to spend time with it. She was very curious about the world around her and wanted to travel. She was described as a very open, warm and tolerant person.

Another victim was Johannes Buø. He was just 14 years old. Everyone found it easy to like Johannes. He had a quick and delightful sense of humor and was a natural leader. He was curious about life. He was interested in other cultures and in issues of social justice. He loved dogs and snowmobiles and was already looking forward to winter.

These are just two of the 77 whose lives were ended on Utøya.

As impossible as it has been for me to fathom the hate, terror and loss experienced on Utøya, there is still one thing about this tragedy that has stretched my imagination even more… and that is the response by the people of Norway.

Naturally, the first reaction was shock and then came terrible grief. But then something incredible emerged out of the wreckage of July 22nd. In the newspapers and on the TV, we heard Norwegians speak about their resolve to answer this act of hatred with love. We heard this from the country’s highest leaders and from common people in the street.

Within a couple days, these individual voices joined together and grew into a mighty chorus that filled the whole nation.

It was a twitter comment by an 18 year old woman that came to express the collective will of the country. We heard it repeated again and again: Hvis én man kan vise så mye hat, tenk hvor mye kjærlighet vi kan vise sammen. “If one man can show so much hate, think how much love we can show together.”

Two days after the massacre, a parade of roses was held in Oslo for the purpose of remembering the dead, comforting the grief-stricken and holding the whole nation together with love and care. 250,000 people showed up. People gave speeches, including the prime minister and the Crown Prince. Famous musicians played and sang songs of comfort for their countrymen. (link:


At the same time, people gathered in other cities and in towns and rural districts all across Norway. They gathered by the hundreds of thousands. All expressed their determination to be and to build a nation totally different from the one imagined by the gunman.

To witness this theme of supporting one another with love… this image of the whole nation joining hands and fearlessly committing themselves to building a society and future full of compassion, openness, diversity and decency…. It was incredible.

I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. One could see and feel healing and hope fill the country. One could see strength well up in the people.

As I observed this, I wondered…. “How did this happen? How did they get it so right?”

And then I hear the surprised and delighted voice of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “Blessed are you, little Norway, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father in heaven.”

Sometimes, God reveals truth and we understand. Sometimes, God gives his Spirit and we receive. And when that happens, the rock, or foundation, upon which the Kingdom of God can be built is laid. A future full of hope, compassion and rich, vibrant life opens up before us.

This summer, I think the people of Norway showed the world what that looks like. But in our own lives, we are still left to struggle with the difficult day to day questions: “How do I get it right? How do I choose wisely? How do I take a good path?”

The prophet Isaiah, in today’s Old Testament lesson wants to help us as we face these hard decisions about what we choose to do and be in life… about how we choose to make our way through life.

He writes: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” (Isaiah 51:1b)

In all we do we are to remember our creator who called us into being. We are to remember what life we were created for. We are to remember that Jesus is the son of the Living God… and we are to let him lead us.

I began my sermon today by claiming that the disciples never got it right; but that’s not really true. Their time with Jesus was a time of growth and learning. After Jesus died and he was no longer with them, they would eventually accomplish amazing things.

They would bring diverse people together and lead them to something new. They would overcome great challenges and face terrible danger. Some would give their lives in service to Christ. Through all this the Spirit of God would build the rock upon which the church would be built. The life and light of God’s Spirit would move in and through them and do wonderful things.

In the same way, God’s Spirit will work in you. This is why Christ has called you to be his disciple. He wants you to know and remember who he is. He wants you learn from him why you were created. And most importantly, he want you to know that he will be with you always to bring forth in you the blessing and grace and life you were created for.