It is significant that Jesus had wandered over to Caesarea Philippi, deep in imperial territory, before asking his disciples who they thought he was. After they repeated a few rumors going round, Jesus asked who they thought he was. Simon Peter piped up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt. 16: 16) Jesus’ commendation showed that Peter had caught on to something important: it was not Caesar, whose neighborhood they were hanging out in, but Jesus, who was the real, true Lord. But what kind of Lord was Jesus?
When Jesus called Simon “Peter,” meaning rock, to honor his correct answer, perhaps Jesus was reminding Simon of the words of Isaiah: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.” (Is. 51: 1–2) Simon Peter, like all Jews, was hewn from the rock of Abraham, the one called to leave his own idolatrous country for a land God would show him where he would make out of Abraham a great people. If Peter is a rock like Abraham, then Peter, too, will leave the idolatrous imperial culture surrounding him and will allow God to make yet another great, new people out of him and the other disciples. What kind of people? What kind of culture?
In writing to the Romans, Paul admonishes them to follow Abraham out of the idolatrous empire in which they live: “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.” (Rom. 12: 2) And what does this transformed people with renewed minds look like? Paul has just told the Romans that such people present their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [their] spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12: 1) The imperial culture is all about using power to make sacrifices of others for the sake of the Empire. The culture of Christ is all about making a sacrifice of self as did Jesus, so as to make all of our lives an act of self-sacrificial worship. Although emperors always think more highly of themselves than they should, Paul warns us not to think more highly of ourselves than we should, “but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Rom. 12: 3) Paul then goes on the enumerate the measures of faith as a distribution of gifts of the Holy Spirit so that each of us makes our bodies living sacrifices of worship in various ways, making up the Body of Christ.
Being transformed by the renewal of our minds entails a radical makeover. It’s not just a matter of changing one’s mind about what book to read next. Paul is writing about a radical turnaround in one’s attitude to power. The first step is to be very vigilant about the power we happen to have in relation to other people and how we use it. Even if some of us have rather little power we need to be acutely aware of how we use what little we have. Do we try to get an upper hand against other people one way or another rather than looking for ways we can lay down our selves in service to them?
It turns out that Peter himself hasn’t caught on to the kind of ruler Jesus is. When Jesus talks about laying down his life, Peter resists and is rebuked by Jesus. This turn of events should caution us about the difficulties of the makeover that is being asked of us. Like Peter, we are likely to revert to imperial thinking just as quickly as Peter did. This is not surprising since the default reflex movement is to act like an immovable rock if we are threatened. Yet Jesus says he is going to do the opposite of that. Which is to say, the rock we stand on in the culture of Jesus is the rock of being vulnerable to the forces of Empire. Whether we are going to take the way of vulnerability, the way of giving ourselves for the sake of others, even when such gifts of self are not appreciated or are even actively scorned is a question that presents itself to us day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. We can easily get tired of asking this basic question so constantly, but if we persevere even when we are weary, we will eventually find that God makes a living but vulnerable rock not only out of Peter but out of each one of us.