Take a good look at the rock in this photo. It’s called basalt. It’s volcanic. See how rough it is? See all the holes and divots? Do you think it would make good building material?
When Henry and I were on pilgrimage in the Holy Land last November, we saw that Jesus’ contemporaries built with these materials in Galilee—but it wasn’t ideal. When the Romans came along and rebuilt the synagogue in Capernaum a few centuries after Christ prayed and healed there, they imported white calcareous stone from a distant quarry for the synagogue. They used the rough, dark volcanic rock as a foundation, but they wanted something smoother and more beautiful on top.
Before visiting the Holy Land in 2017, I didn’t think of volcanic rock when I read Jesus’ declaration in scripture: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” I thought of the grand edifices of Rome, reaching high into the sky with their towering strength, perfect proportions, and smooth-sided stones. But that’s not what we’ve got here.
Yet, this rock fits. Peter was volcanic. Think about his initial emotional reaction to first meeting Jesus: “Get away from me, for I am a sinful man!” He was also slow to get Jesus’ message. Even at the last supper, he was telling Jesus, “You aren’t going to wash my feet!” Jesus has to explain that Peter won’t be part of the community without this washing, so then Peter goes all in, to the other extreme: “Not just my feet, but also my hands and head!”
I used to imagine Peter’s fellow disciples nodding their heads when Jesus called Peter a rock. They might have called him hard-headed, and possibly even rock-brained, for some of the things that he did. He could be really dense sometimes—but at other times, he really “got it.” Jesus’ declaration that he would build his church on the rock of Peter came in response to Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ.
Until I came to this church and touched these rocks, I viewed Peter through the lens of my imagination. We all do that, and there’s no harm in it. But we miss things when we do.
When Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” Jesus accepted Peter as he was, where he was. Over time, Jesus shaped Peter enough, smoothing the rough edges of this cratered, craggy, pockmarked rock into someone who could be good enough to lead his band of disciples into an unknown future.
Now, I wonder if Jesus didn’t actually have a twinkle in his eye when he said to Peter, “On this rock I will build my church.” Peter was impetuous, fiery, and dense—just like volcanic rock. I wonder if the other disciples looked at Jesus, looked at the volcanic rocks around them, and said, “Whaaat?!”
Fortunately, God works with us as we are, in the here and now, with this rock, this fallible and fabulous human being—each of us.
The church pictured here is built on the rock where tradition says Jesus fed the disciples after his resurrection. Peter had denied Jesus when Jesus was arrested—after promising he wouldn’t. After Jesus’ resurrection, both Jesus and Peter needed time together on this rock. They needed to share a meal and have a reconciling conversation. Peter needed reassurance that he was still Peter, the rock. He needed to hear that Jesus still loved him and needed him—to feed and tend the flock Jesus had gathered.
Peter needed the healing of heart and soul that would free him to move forward in faith—and he received it. Fortunately for Peter, and for us, God never gives up on us. It’s never too late to begin again.
In this Eastertide, I invite you to think about the ways in which you might be like Peter, or like Paul, or like Martha, or like Mary of Magdala—all fallible and fabulous human beings that God invited into ministry anyway. What healing conversation needs to take place between you and Jesus? What reconciliation needs to occur so that you can more freely and fully serve God in Christ?