“What’s in a name?”
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
September 3, 2017
(Video recording not available)
This past week, our daughter Alena needed help with one of her homework assignments. It was titled, What’s In a Name. “First question,” she said to me, “is what is my name and what does my name mean?” I told her that “Alena” means “light.” “Second question,” she raced on as she scribbled. “Why do I have my name?” I explained that her initials match her great-grandmother’s initials and that I once knew a fun person with her same name. I said, “Your middle name is the same as your great-grandma’s and your first name is French and…” She was not writing. She was not even listening. I look over and saw she had written, “Matches great-grandma” and stopped. Clearly, our work here was done.
It is a good assignment to give out—asking about your name—because we can learn a lot when we learn why we were given the names we have. I like to imagine Simon filling out one of these same homework assignments. Question One: “What is your name and what does it mean?” And Simon would write “Rock”. Which would be the closest match he could give because, it appears that no one ever had the name Petrus before Jesus gave it to him so, when it was used, all anyone would have heard was “rock” or “stone” not a real name like Peter at all.
“Question Two: Why did you get this name?” To this, Simon might write: “to praise me for being so smart.” Or, “Jesus singled me out.” Or even, “to give me a job.” And Simon would have been on to something because, as we know, his nickname wasn’t just “shorty” or “bud”. It was “rock” to remind him that Jesus would use him as the foundation of his new church.
This is how Jesus puts it: “And I tell you,” he says, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”More has been written about this small verse than any other verse of the Bible. Why? Because this is the foundational statement for the Roman Catholic Church’s case for a Pope. But as Protestants, we look at Peter and we do not see the first Pope. We look at him and we see the Church’s first new member.
Peter is himself but he is also the Church. He is every Christian who has followed Jesus. He is every disciple who has asked a foolish question but kept on going because they needed to know more. He is every sinner who has tried to be faithful, failed at it, and tried again. That is who Peter is. He is us. He is us when we finally receive inspiration and get the question right, when we finally see Jesus for the Savior he truly is.
And we are also Peter when we go right from our most faithful moment to flubbing the whole thing. That is just what Peter did and it is what we do, over and over again. He is given a name that will resound through history: the Rock, and then he is rebuked by Jesus who calls him Satan. In mere moments, the Rock has become a stumbling stone. These moments go together, one without the other and we wouldn’t really know Peter at all. Famously, the phrase, “Tu es Petrus” is carved in dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. “You are Peter,” it announces to the world in several foot high letters. But it would be most honest if right next to it were the words, “Tu es Satanes” as well. For Simon is the rock upon which the Church will be built but he can also be Satan, a deceiver. Both are true in Peter’s life.
Now we know the real reason Jesus named him Peter. It was because Jesus knew that other names were on their way. Peter was very soon to have the name “traitor” and “liar” and, before we can even get out of this chapter he will have that terrible name of “satan.” All of these names, names that would bury any of us, they are all to come and so Jesus gives him another name so that, when hard times come, Simon will know he is not just a liar or traitor or deceiver or sinner. He will know that he is also a Rock. He is a Rock, no matter what, because Jesus said he was.
It makes me realize that the most important part of Alena’s worksheet homework was when I told her that her name means light. We named her that so she will always know that she is more than any mistake she makes because she is also called light. Just so, Peter was going to need to know that he was more than his worst failing so Jesus named him Rock. Jesus has given you names too. He calls you “follower” and “brother and sister”. He names you “friend.” And he does that so you will know that you have always been more than your failings, more than your worst sin.
We might assume that the only sin we need to steer clear of is the lie we tell ourselves that we could never be a satan. And that is a problem: that sin of pride. But it is also just as much a sin if we tell ourselves that we could never be a Peter. Imagine it: Jesus gives Simon the keys to his kingdom. He wants to build his Church on him. What happens if Simon cannot bear the weight of his mistakes and, instead of remembering he is a rock, he lives his life as a stumbler instead? Simon had to realize that he was more than his worst. He had to know that he could be Peter. Otherwise he could never follow Jesus to do what Jesus needs him to do.
It would be a great sin to assume you are so perfect you could never be a sinner. But it would also be a terrible sin for you to assume you are too sinful to ever be a Peter. Because you are. Peter is simply the Church’s first new member. Jesus built his Church using him as one of the building blocks and he is building his church through you now. He has given you the keys. Do not be overwhelmed. For this is Jesus’ Church. He is the one building it. And he works to make sure that whatever rock we are will be good enough building material for his Church.
He even promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against it; against the Church, against you. Even the powers of hell cannot defeat you. And the promise of your name is that the hell that comes from outside will not win and the hell that you bring on yourself, it will not win. That’s what he did with Simon. He saved him from the hell of his own making when he said to him, “Tu es Petrus”. And, in saying it, Jesus made it true. He says it again today for “Tu es Petrus”: You are Peter. Amen.