Grace Presbyterian Church
January 19, 2020, Epiphany 2A
You Shall Be Called “Rocky”
“Dumb as a bag of rocks.”
I’m guessing you don’t need to be told that this is an insult. It’s a phrase that was popularized on the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory, but is only one variant of a general theme that might also be expressed simply “dumb as a rock” or “dumb as a box of rocks.” And it’s probably some kind of rhetorical cousin to one I grew up with, “dumb as a sack of hammers” (and no, hammers and rocks aren’t the same thing, but they do share a certain quality of what we might call denseness).
Mind you, it’s also true that rock can be thought of as solid (that’s the basis of an old favorite hymn, after all – the “solid rock”) the way a rock appears in the psalm of our responsive reading today, as the basis for a firm foundation. In another pop culture reference, there was an insurance and financial services company that boasted of its solidity and security with the advertising slogan “get a piece of the rock,” paired with a logo depicting no less than the Rock of Gibraltar.
To be sure, rocks (great or small) have their uses – great foundation material, nice decorations in a garden, skipping them across a river – but you can still see how they might fit into the insults noted above. You’re not going to look to a rock to solve complex mathematical equations or deep philosophical conundrums.
Yet our reading today ends with Jesus, no less, greeting Andrew’s brother Simon, not with “hello” or anything like that, but with the announcement “You are to be called Cephas” (which John the gospel author helpfully translates for us as Peter). The name “Cephas” comes from the Aramaic word for “rock”; “Peter” is the Greek equivalent.
So in other words, the first thing Jesus says to Simon, before Simon even has a chance to speak, is “I’m gonna call you Rock.” Or maybe even better, “Rocky.”
We come to this place as John, the witness in the wilderness, is directing his disciples towards Jesus as “the lamb of God.” Jesus passes by as John is with two of his own disciples and John repeats this proclamation, with the unspoken subtext being “follow him! Go, already!” It’s not impossible to imagine John practically shoving the two disciples off in the direction Jesus was walking. Finally they do follow Jesus, and his first words to them – the first words Jesus speaks in this gospel at all – are “what are you looking for?” The two disciples ask where Jesus is staying, he invites them to “come and see,” and it seems they end up spending the day with Jesus.
We are given no clue what they talked about or did, but it was apparently quite convincing for one of the two, named Andrew. Not only did he immediately go and find his brother Simon, but see what he says to him: “We have found the Messiah.” Something between John the witness’s own testimony to Jesus and what Andrew heard from Jesus himself brought Andrew to this startling conclusion, a claim not to be taken lightly in that day and age.
Now Andrew is mostly known otherwise for being the one to help set the feeding of the five thousand in motion in John 6, by bringing to Jesus’s attention the boy with the five loaves and two fish. In none of the gospels does he come off as one of the “big names”; normally you hear most of Peter, James, and John, and this fourth gospel sometimes makes a big deal of Thomas. But bringing people to meet Jesus, whether it’s the boy with the loaves and fish or it’s his own brother, that’s a pretty good legacy to leave behind in scripture.
But Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus and the first thing Jesus does is…change his name?
In John’s gospel, one of the most consistent characteristics of Jesus is that he sees, particularly that Jesus sees people at their deepest level. Just a few verses later in this chapter, Jesus will greet Nathanael, another disciple-to-be, with the proclamation “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (insterestingly, this comes just a few beats after Nathanael has made a derogatory remark about Jesus’s hometown). Think also of the clandestine nighttime visit Nicodemus made to Jesus in chapter 3, in which Jesus is answering Nicodemus’s questions before Nicodemus even has a chance to ask them. Or think of the midday encounter with a woman at a well in chapter 4, while Jesus and his disciples were in Samaria, in which Jesus seemed to know all about her, right down to her marital history. John is keenly interested in presenting Jesus as one who sees into the human condition, indeed into the human heart, from the very beginning.
So what is it that Jesus sees in Simon that prompts him to bestow the somewhat two-sided name “Rock”? (Or maybe “Rocky”?)
After all, this isn’t exactly a common name for us. Oh, the name “Peter” is now, once it showed up all over the gospels and the book of Acts and a couple of small epistles towards the end of the New Testament. I doubt, though, that most parents who name their child “Peter” are really thinking about this Greek word’s original meaning.
Parents don’t name their child “Rock,” at least not very often. The famous actor was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., long before any Hollywood mogul slapped the name “Rock Hudson” on him. And the former University of Miami football player turned pro wrestler (and now turned actor) Dwayne Johnson made sure to avoid any confusion about its meaning by choosing the stage name “The Rock” for his professional career – no confusion about not being so bright there. For that matter, to be fair, our perception might also be shaded by the movie character Rocky Balboa, as played by Sylvester Stallone in all those movies, who for all his boxing triumph doesn’t really come off as the sharpest knife in the drawer.
So what is Jesus getting at with this new name for Simon? Is it all about firmness and stability? But unlike in Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus doesn’t add on the bit about “upon this rock I will build my church,” so can we be absolutely sure that’s what’s up here? Is there something about, maybe, being just a bit of a bonehead at times?
Why not both?
In this season of Epiphany, the Sundays after the revealing of the Christ first to those eastern Magi, one of the ongoing characteristics of the gospel readings is that in some way each of those scriptures point to something about Jesus being revealed. In last week’s reading the baptism of Jesus was the occasion for that opening up of heaven and the Spirit descending like a dove, pointing to Jesus as God’s beloved son.
In John’s gospel, especially in the earliest chapters, Jesus is presented, as noted before, as one who sees. What is revealed here is a Jesus who knows us before we know him. Again, later in the chapter when Nathanael is caught off guard by Jesus’s unexpected greeting to him, Jesus responds that he “saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nor is this particularly new to John’s gospel. One can go as far back as Genesis and its account of Hagar, the slave girl of Sarai who had been given to Abram in an ill-considered attempt to hasten the birth of the son God had promised them. When Hagar fled into the wilderness from her mistress’s mistreatment, the angel of the Lord found her and spoke to her, leading Hagar to name God as “the God who sees,” even someone as lowly as her.
So Jesus sees Simon. The tricky part is, though, that Jesus really sees Simon. He sees in Simon both the good and the…less good.
He sees in Simon the rock. He sees the faithfulness that will endure. He sees in Simon the dogged determination to remain with Jesus that will provoke him to say, later in this gospel when many followers have deserted Jesus, “to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” He sees the disciple who will be determined to follow him to the very last, no matter the threat.
But Jesus also sees in Simon the rock-headed one. He sees the one who, in Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels, will be the one who catches on to the “Who do you say that I am?” question with the right answer – “You are the Messiah” – only to turn around and blow it by reprimanding Jesus for talking about his upcoming suffering and death, the act that gets him blasted with “Get behind me, Satan!” And Jesus sees the one who, in all his determination to follow Jesus all the way through, still ends up denying Jesus three times.
And, seeing in Simon both “the Rock” and, well, the bag of rocks, Jesus calls him anyway. There’s no thought of casting Simon aside because he was going to be such a pain to deal with sometimes. Simon is called, flaws and all.
And of course, flaws and all, Simon, or Peter, does hold on for dear life, even despite his own failing and fumbling. Jesus pulls him back from his awful betrayal, and by the time we get into the history of the early church in the book of Acts who is out there in front, speaking boldly for the fledgling clutch of believers in the face of an indifferent world? It is none other than this same Simon. Or Peter, or Rock, or Rocky.
Same thing happens with us, you know. Jesus sees us, all the way through, flaws and all, and still calls us. Not necessarily to anything quite so lofty as ol’ Rocky’s calling, but we are still called to follow. Maybe Jesus doesn’t hang a new name on us, except for his own – our mark of being his. But still, in all our weakness and stumbling and flat-out getting it plain wrong and even sometimes being as dumb as a bag of rocks or a sack of hammers, Jesus sees the good parts too, and calls us, and guides us and pushes us and sometimes cajoles us into serving with our whole selves, never leaving us without what we need to serve in the way we are called.
Your good news for today: Jesus sees us, knows us, and calls us anyway, even when we’re more rock-headed than rock.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #263, All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name; #460, Break Thou the Bread of Life; #726, Will You Come and Follow Me; #417, Lord Jesus, Think On Me