Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Matthew 16 – Sons of Jonah

16:17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona...

Simon Barjona – there’s something about the man you just can’t help but like.

Maybe it’s the way he wears his heart on both sleeves.  Maybe it’s the way he opens his mouth first, and worries about putting his foot in it later.  Maybe it’s the way he’s always ready to start something, but never around long enough to finish it.

Maybe it’s the hopeless transparency of the guy, all bluster and bravado on the outside, but all too obviously nothing but mush underneath.

Maybe it’s the look in his eyes, when he tells you about the things he loves the best, the wind, the waves, the ever-changing skies, and the fish – oh yes, the fish: when he tells you one of his “fisherman’s tales” about the greatest catch he ever took, probably the greatest catch in the history of the world, a catch so big that it all but tore his nets to shreds, and came within a whisker of capsizing, not one, but two of the best darned boats on the water.

Of course what he doesn’t tell you is that afterwards on the quayside he completely went to pieces and embarrassed himself in front of everyone by prostrating himself at Jesus’ feet and imploring the Master to depart from his unworthy, and admittedly rather fishy, presence.  [Luke 5:1-11]

But that’s just typical Simon; that’s just Simon all over: you can love him or hate him, but you have to admit there’s never a dull moment when Simon Barjona’s around.

Even the Master appears to find him amusing at times.  Take the nickname he has for him: Peter, “The Rock” – solid, dependable, steady, reliable.  Talk about tongue-in-cheek!  There could hardly be anyone less solid and dependable, more impulsive and unstable, than good old Simon, “The Impetuous”.

In fact, if it’s a nickname you’re after, then I daresay a better moniker for the Simon Barjona I know and love might be something along the lines of Gusto, “The Wind”: always huffing and puffing, always blustering about, never there when you need him, completely overpowering when you don’t.

Which in a way is what makes the events of that day all the more stranger.

We were visiting Caesarea Philippi with Jesus, when he asked us, “Who do people say that I am?”  [Matthew 16:13-23]

There didn’t seem to be any harm in telling him some of the weird and wonderful things people have been saying about him, so we decided to give it to him straight: “Some people are saying you’re John the Baptist returned from the dead, of all things!  Some people are saying you’re Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the other old-time prophets, come back to deliver us from the Romans.”

“But what about you?” he asked.  “Who do you say I am?”

And that’s when Simon came out with it: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”

Now of course there’s nothing particularly unusual about Simon making a melodramatic, off-the-wall remark – it would probably be more unusual if he didn’t! – but what were unusual were Jesus’ next words: “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by God.  And I tell you, you are indeed Peter, and upon this ‘rock’ I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!”

You could have heard a pin drop.

In that moment, “Peter” wasn’t an amusing nickname anymore; “Peter” wasn’t just a private in-joke amongst The Twelve.  Suddenly, Peter was the rock that everything we’d been hoping for would be built on; Peter was the stone God would use to crush our enemies; Peter was the platform upon which we’d build our dreams.

And then he had to go and spoil it all by telling us that he was shortly to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die.

Simon was typically forthright in his opinions on the matter: “No, Lord!  I won’t let them do this to you.  I won’t let you do this to yourself!”

And Jesus’ views on the subject were equally unambiguous: “Get thee behind me, Satan!  You are an offence to me.  Your heart is set on the things of man, not on the things of God.”

So which was it?  Was Simon a rock, the recipient of insights that could only have come from God?  Or was Simon an offence, with his heart set firmly on the things of man?

In the days that have followed the events of Caesarea Philippi, I’ve done a lot of thinking about that.  And I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that the answer to both questions is, yes.

Simon is basically just a simple fisherman, the son of a fisherman, who was the son of a fisherman before him.  Simon isn’t called Barjona for nothing.  Simon is every inch “the son of Jonah”.  After all, wasn’t Jonah swallowed by the biggest darned fish of all?!

But at Caesarea Philippi, it seems to me that the “son of Jonah” was swallowed by something bigger still.  It seems to me that at Caesarea Philippi a certain “simple fisherman” caught a little more than he bargained for – a catch to rival any of his most extravagant fisherman’s tales.  It seems to me, a fisherman’s eye was needed that day, to catch a glimpse of what was hidden beneath the surface, to catch a glimpse of something extraordinary, something that was right there in front of us that every one of us had failed to see.

On more than one occasion, Jesus has been asked to prove his credentials by means of a “sign from heaven”; but whenever they ask him for a sign, he always tells them the same thing: he tells them the only sign they’ll ever get from him is the “sign of the prophet Jonah”.  [Matthew 12:38-39, 16:1-4]

Even now, as we follow him on the journey up to Jerusalem he spoke of, I don’t think any of us are really sure just what exactly this “sign of Jonah” is; but maybe, just maybe, that’s where it takes a “son of Jonah” like Simon, to grasp seemingly by instinct, what so many of us have consistently failed to comprehend.

You see, when Simon recognised the tell-tale signs of divinity in a man many of us had simply taken for a prophet and teacher, that was the moment when everything changed for me; that was the moment when everything changed for us all.

That was the moment when I finally understood – that a man like Simon, impulsive, unstable, impetuous Simon, could at the same time be solid, dependable, rock-steady Peter; not through teaching or training, not through effort, discipline or determination; but through that one glimpse he caught in Caesarea Philippi of God in the person of his Son.

Yes, one glimpse was all he caught that day, but that one glimpse turned out to be the greatest catch he ever took, probably the greatest catch in the history of the world, a catch so big that it all but tore his defences to shreds, and turned his life upside down forever.

What has all this to do with me anyhow, you ask?  What’s my interest in Simon Barjona?  Why do I seem to know so much about him?  And where did all my crazy theories about Jesus come from?

Well, I might not be a Simon, and I’m certainly no Peter, but like him, I’ll always be my father’s son; like my brother, I’ll always be a son of Jonah.

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