The first Rocky movie came out back in 1976. It told the story of Rocky Balboa, a small-time boxer with big determination and an unexpected opportunity to take on a champion heavyweight fighter. It was a true come-from-behind cheer-for-the-underdog story that resonated with many people. It was a story close to the heart of what it means to be an American.
Whenever I read the story of Simon Peter getting a new name from Jesus, as he does in Matthew 16.13-20, I can’t help but think of Rocky. The disciples have been following Jesus, seeing him do all kinds of amazing things, and being a part of miraculous actions Jesus has taken.
As they moved closer to Jerusalem, on the journey that would culminate in Jesus’ death and astonishing resurrection, Jesus asks Simon Peter and the rest of the disciples who people say the Son of Man is. The disciples answer, ‘’Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’’
There are interesting connections with each of those associations. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin who had also baptized him, had just been killed while he was in prison. Maybe some thought he was taking up the mantle of John, preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Elijah was believed to have never died, since he was taken up in a chariot. Maybe it was Elijah returning to them, appearing as Jesus.
Jeremiah is mentioned only in Matthew’s gospel. It may be that the Matthean writer wanted us to make note of the connections to Jeremiah’s pronouncements, his prediction that Jerusalem would fall and then be restored. There was great hope that Jerusalem might be restored through Jesus’ leadership and a movement toward a new community.
When Simon Peter blurted out, ‘’You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,’’ Jesus said he was blessed and that he had been given this knowledge by God. Then Jesus told him he would have a new name, Peter, Petros, in Greek, which means rock or maybe, Rocky. You will be called Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church.
Jesus was looking ahead toward the establishment of his church. But his confidence in Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He obtained a degree in psychology from the University of Oklahoma before attending McCormick Theological Seminary. He lives in Sherman with his wife and three sons. Peter, Rocky, didn’t last long. After Jesus explained that his Messiahship would come through suffering, humiliation, and death, but then that he would rise later, Peter was the first to refuse, to tell him no, it could not happen this way.
Rocky seemed not to be such a strong foundation, after all. How often do we not quite understand what God is doing or how God is doing it? Jesus was showing the strength of his Messiahship by pointing toward servanthood, caring for those in need, and choosing what is weak in the world to bring down the strong and oppressive hand of those who held it over them.
Peter must have trembled when Jesus told him to get behind him; not a very rocky trait. But after Jesus’ resurrection Peter did become the Rock that Jesus knew him to be. And the church was built upon the actions Peter willingly took.
Like Rocky Balboa, Peter came back with a newfound strength that enabled him to do what he thought he might never do. Peter eventually lived into his new name, becoming the rock upon which the church was built. Jesus calls us to be shaped and formed into a rock, to be known as the foundation stones upon which new generations are able to build their faith, that they may follow as servants, caring for those in need, taking up the cause of the ones who are underdogs. Like Peter and like us, they may not always understand what God is doing. We may need to have corrections along the way and reminders that we are to follow. As we do, we walk along the very foundation stones laid down for us by generations of followers who have discovered what it is to be a disciple of Jesus.
Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He obtained a degree in psychology from the University of Oklahoma before attending McCormick Theological Seminary. He lives in Sherman with his wife and three sons.