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Unfold: Claiming New Possibilities

Since 8th grade when I was allowed to take my first high school math class and was not especially good at it, I have believed that I was bad at math. I carried that belief for a long time- really I still believe that in many ways. But it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. I can’t actually be terrible at math, because I made it through all of my proscribed math classes in high school, I took the two required maths in college, took the GRE to enter a doctoral program, and finished two semesters of statistics in order to fulfill my Doctor of Education requirements where I completed a dissertation that was about quantitative research. How can I be as bad at math as I believe myself to be when all of the evidence suggests that I’m at least good enough at it?

Or let me ask it to you this way- how many of you think you are not very good at singing? Maybe you would say that you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Or as my mom describes herself, you may be a prison singer- behind a few bars looking for the right key. And yet, here you are each week, making a joyful noise to the Lord. And actually, with a few exceptions, most people can learn to sing. It’s about learning how to use the right muscles the right way, learning how to use your breath and to listen. You might think you’re bad at singing, or you might just believe you cannot change.

What I’m describing here really is a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. A fixed mindset says, “I’m bad at math” or “I can’t sing.” A growth mindset says, “I don’t feel confident in my math skills, but I know if I work hard I can be good enough,” or “if I practice singing and learn from good teachers, I could probably sing pretty well.” A fixed mindset is “this is just who I am.” A growth mindset is “I can’t wait to see who I become.”

For years, educators have been promoting the idea of a growth mindset for their students. Believing you can learn something seems to be an important first step towards learning it. Research shows that students with a growth mindset are more likely to accept a new challenge, to persist in their work despite hardship, and for some students, the growth mindset is tied to their ultimate achievement.[1] The Harvard Business School suggests that successful entrepreneurs must have a growth mindset in order to achieve their goals for their business.[2] Experts even believe that a growth mindset is associated with a better ability to learn from one’s mistakes.[3]

So when we look at the disciple we know as Simon Peter, we can see all of his messy mistakes and judge him with a fixed mindset. We could remember how often Peter says dumb things or seems to ask questions that get on Jesus’ nerves. We could remember how at the Transfiguration, in the midst of sheer holiness, Peter gets the idea to build some little huts to contain it. We could remember that Peter is impetuous- when he sees Jesus miraculously walking on water, he steps out onto the water as well. He walks until his fear overtakes him and he begins sinking. We can remember that Peter, in the Garden of Gethsemane, faced with Jesus’ arrest, draws a sword and cuts a young man’s ear off to Jesus’ frustration. We can remember the three times Peter denied Jesus in order to save his own skin. We could, quite simply, look at Peter and see him as a bumbling fool who Jesus puts up with for some reason. We could see him the same way we often see ourselves- chaotic, messy, confused, asking dumb questions, always a beat behind. Or we can see Peter with the eyes of grace, with the eyes of a growth mindset, with the eyes of Jesus and see Peter’s potential.

Our text today begins in Caesarea Philippi, a stronghold of the Roman empire. It had fairly recently been rebuilt and renamed in honor of Caesar and its local ruler Philip, son of Herod the Great. It was inextricably linked to the politics of the day, but of equal importance was its long connection to the religion of the empire. The whole area was full of shrines to various gods and the river that ran through the city came from an underground spring. It was believed that the river was an opening into Hades, the underworld. It was the farthest north that we know of Jesus going, some 25-30 miles from the Sea of Galilee where he spent so much time. So, it is not a coincidence that it is here, in this land full of political and religious power, that Jesus looks at his disciples and says “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Surrounded by all these entities, both religious and political, who are constantly striving and competing for power, Jesus wants to know who people believe he is.

And so, the disciples answer, bandying about different possibilities. And Jesus asks them directly. “Who do you say that I am?” And it’s Peter, bumbling, goofy Peter who says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The words echo off the mountains that surrounded them in Caesarea Philippi and resound into our hearts.

Let me pause here for just a moment to clarify something about Peter. His real name, his first name, was Simon. He’s called Simon all along, but here in this story Jesus gives him a new name, Peter. The name Peter is derived from the word Petros which means rock. The gospel writers must have known him by this new name because they often call him Peter or Simon Peter. But he began as Simon, son of Jonah. Years ago, I read that if we’d known him today, especially here in the south, we’d probably call him Rocky Johnson.

Jesus hears this clear statement of faith and tells Simon that God has given this understanding to him. And he gives him a new name, Peter, the rock. “And on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Now, another quick, but important aside- our Catholic siblings have long interpreted this to mean that Peter himself was appointed by Jesus as the first bishop of the church, and that through Peter, Jesus enacted something called apostolic succession. This is where the idea of an appointed pope comes from, although that idea was developed much later. We Protestants have a different view. We believe that the rock on which Jesus will build the church is not Peter himself, but on the confession Peter offers- that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And just a fun bit of Greek for you- Jesus names Peter “petros” the masculine form of the word, but when he says, “upon this rock I will build by church” it is “petra,” the feminine form which matches the feminine word “ekklesia” which means church.

Dr. Richard Swanson, a New Testament professor explains the importance of Peter’s confession writing, “this means that God must be the God of resurrection, because nothing less will be required if the world is to be turned right-side-up. Too many radical reactions to the brokenness of the world contribute only reactive violence, and thus advocate that we all jump into the meat-grinder together. Only death comes out of following that advice. To confess that God is God of resurrection is to dare to hope that life is possible, and that hope is not simply a pleasant illusion.

And Peter’s confession also means that he expects that God is lively and active in the present moment. God is not, according to Peter, a sentimental vestige of a past world in which people believed in such beings. God is not a static symbol for generalized hopefulness. God is an actual, active participant in human history. Peter is claiming that God is working to bring life into a world that has been regulated by death.”[4]

Regardless of how you interpret Peter’s role, one thing is clear. Peter, bumbling, lovable but nutty Peter, is important. He has a place here, and it isn’t being the clown, it’s being a leader. It’s doing the work, sharing wisdom, proclaiming the truth of Jesus. It’s in growing. It’s in telling the truth about a God who is restoring the world. And he doesn’t always get it right- the very next story in Matthew is one in which he gets it totally wrong. But Peter never stops in his pursuit of living what he believes.

And so friends, I ask you this: Who do you say Jesus is? What does your life proclaim about the truth of who Jesus is? Peter was many things, but he was also transformed. In the book of Acts, we read of Peter robustly leading the church with vision and authority. We read of the ways he grows in his own understanding until he preaches a gospel of inclusivity- he finally understands what Jesus was doing. Peter spent the rest of his life living out the reality of his response to who he understood Jesus to be.

So who do you say Jesus is? How is your life pointing to the truth of Jesus? There are a whole lot of Christians in the world who are working awfully hard to do something, but it isn’t really about telling the truth of Jesus. It’s about power, greed, control. But when you truly believe, when you understand that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who saves not through might and violence but through sacrifice and restoration, and when you understand that Jesus is the son of the God who is alive and active in the world not here to condemn the world but to seek and save and love the world, you start living differently. You start loving people you didn’t think were quite so lovable before. You start believing that people are more than the boxes you’ve put them in. You start believing that you are more than the box people have put you in. You start seeing that there are possibilities all around us.

When you believe and understand who God is, you respond with growing beyond the bounds you thought possible. You begin to understand what the apostle Paul means when he says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The world wants us to pursue power, control, and violence. Transformation looks like humility, compassion, peacemaking, generosity. When you know who God is, the world opens up in new ways.

Let me give you one small, simple example. This was a story shared on social media yesterday from Rev. Todd Jenkins, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Greeneville, TN. He writes, “I finished my sermon prep at 11:00 this morning. The whisper said, “Why don’t you shower, run a few errands in town, and make that visit you didn’t get to make on Thursday afternoon?” When I was packing up to leave the house, the voice whispered, “Take your laptop, go by the church, and print your sermon notes while you’re in town.” I always print my sermon notes when I get to church on Sunday morning, but I put my laptop in my backpack and loaded it into the car.

As I drove to town, I mentally sorted through the list of things I planned to do, trying to determine which order would be most efficient. Before I had everything sorted, the whisper said, “Go by the church first.” so I did. I went in, printed my sermon notes, and paused for a few minutes to consider the most healthful and hopeful way to address Mother’s Day during tomorrow’s Prayers of Petition and Intercession. That’s when the doorbell rang. The woman was very distraught. Her son was in the hospital, 45 minutes away, in critical condition. She was desperate to go see him, but her car’s gas tank was empty and she didn’t have money to fill it. She said she’d been to most every church in town, and I was the only one who answered the door.

I packed up my laptop, and she followed me to a gas station, where I filled her gas tank. After she drove off, heading to the hospital to see her son, I sat in my car for a few minutes. The voice whispered, “You don’t always have to use words for a Mother’s Day prayer. Sometimes you can pray with your actions.”

This big, beautiful world is full of possibilities- ways that we can serve one another, ways that we can join in God’s work of loving and healing. The leadership of this church is working on new ways to include everyone in the ministries of this church, and I hope that next week you’ll join us during the coffee hour to learn more. But whatever your ministry is, know this: if you proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, then God looks at you and says, “upon this rock, I will build my church.” May we build a strong foundation. May our words and actions speak the truth of who God is. Amen.

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