Our story this morning takes us back to a critical moment in Jesus’ ministry. For some time now Jesus has been wandering about the country side, teaching and healing. His disciples have been at his side, absorbing his being. Now, in a private moment Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They respond, “A prophet of God, perhaps Jeremiah or Elijah.” Esteemed company indeed.
But then Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” His query is met with silence. Underneath all of what the disciples have witnessed has been the unspoken question, “Could he be the long awaited messiah, the savior, who will redeem Israel, and bring about the end of history as we know it?” It is a terrifying question, for to declare Jesus the messiah if in fact he is not the messiah; well, that would be blasphemous — you could get killed for saying such a thing.
So when Simon has the courage to say, “You are the messiah, the Christ, the son of the living God,” it is a remarkable moment. Jesus does not rebuke Simon, instead he blesses him, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by human beings — by some kind of opinion poll — but rather this was revealed to you straight from God.”
Now of the three Gospels that include a version of this story — Matthew, Mark and Luke — only Matthew adds the words that followed in this morning‘s reading. Jesus gives Simon the name “Peter,” which means “rock”, and says, “Upon this rock I will build my Church.” (There are only two places in the Gospels where the word “Church” occurs, and the other one is also in Matthew’s Gospel.) Jesus goes on to say that the gates of Hell will never prevail against the Church, and that Jesus will give Peter the “keys to Kingdom of Heaven.” This is pretty heady stuff. It is this verse of scripture upon which the Roman Catholic Church bases the tradition of the Pope as the successor of Peter.
Now if you’ve heard me preach for a while, you know that I don’t think there is any way that you can avoid the conclusion that within Scripture there is a lot of what we might call the “human element” alongside the divine inspiration, making it impossible to view Scripture as “the infallible or inerrant word of God.” These particular verses which Matthew adds strike me as one such example of what I’m talking about. What I think we have here is the early Church putting words into the mouth of Jesus in order to under gird their authority. I don’t think that this was done maliciously; I assume they believed the Holy Spirit was with them to conjure up these particular verses. It makes explicit what was already implicit — that the authority in the church is traced back to those who had actually walked and talked with the man himself. Nonetheless, it has an unavoidable political aspect to it insofar as it strengthens the authority of those who hold the power in the church by implying that Jesus went out of his way to establish their authority.
A week ago Saturday I made a point of watching the forum at the Sattlebrook Church where the two candidates for president took questions from Pastor Rick Warren. I was intrigued by the idea of the candidates addressing questions concerning faith and the moral implications of a whole range of issues, particularly in so far as one party has managed in recent decades to sell themselves as the exclusive “party of Christians.”
I found myself, however, disappointed by the event because in the end it struck me as merely another political event, with both of the candidates concerned primarily with saying what they thought would help them get votes, which is, of course, what politicians do. But having this take place in a church with a pastor struck me as distasteful. I found myself clinging to the ideal that if you’re going to say something in God’s house, as best you can, strive to have it be the truth.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised since this is simply what is involved with the business of politics, which makes it all the more remarkable what follows these “political” verses inserted to under gird the authority of the Church. If the campaign managers of either Obama or McCain had been working for Peter and helping to shape Matthew‘s Gospel, I’m certain we would never have heard about the next thing Jesus said about Peter.
Following his blessing of Peter, Jesus proceeds to talk about how he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die. Peter, shaken by the idea, tries to “advise” Jesus, attempting to persuade Jesus that he has his mission wrong — that he need not suffer and die. Whereupon Jesus calls Peter “Satan”; “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind on human things rather than divine things.”
No airbrushing has taken place on this portrait of Peter. The blemishes have been left in tact. Even though he is the rock upon which the Church is built, on at least one occasion Peter spoke on behalf of Satan. By implication the church authorities, indeed the Church itself, is quite capable of doing the same.
This is, in fact, consistent with what we hear elsewhere of Peter, who is portrayed as consistently inconsistent. There are always two sides to Peter. Two weeks ago we heard about how Peter was the only one of the disciples with enough balls to ask Jesus to call him out onto the water, the only one who experienced — if ever so briefly — what it was like to walk on the water with Jesus. And yet in the very next moment Peter is the only one who ends up soaking wet, admonished by Jesus for being so full of doubt.
On the night of his arrest Jesus tells his disciples that they will all fall away, and Peter passionately tells Jesus that no matter what the others do, he will not abandon Jesus. At that precise moment what Peter was saying may well have been true, but the passionate conviction of one moment doesn’t necessarily translate into faithful action in the next, and so we end up hearing of Peter three times denying he ever met Jesus.
And so we have this portrayal of Peter as one who at certain moments speaks for God, and at others for Satan. He is the man of faith and he is also the man of doubt. He is reliable; he is unreliable. He is saint and he is the sinner. And Peter is the Church; Peter is us.
Over the last couple of months I’ve been writing a play that I intend to produce with the youth of our church in April, with the production of the play serving as an unorthodox confirmation class. I’m trying to explore in the play what it means to come to faith. What is involved in staking your life on the belief that God is real, that God is loving, and that God has a plan for our lives, which is how Jesus presents God to us?
Writing the play, I was led me to think about why some people embrace faith in God, and others don’t. What occurs to me is that more often than not the most important factor in determining whether a person embarks on the life of faith is a pretty down to earth one: “Have I seen others live the life of faith with integrity and with love, in a convincing way?”
A great preacher of the last century, Philip Brooks, was once asked why he was a Christian. He paused to consider his answer, and the questioner assumed he was about to hear some great theological reflection. Instead Brooks said this: “I think I am a Christian because of my aunt who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.”
A Christian is someone who knows one.
There is that old story of the Russian Cosmonaut back in the early 70s who came back from a trip to outer space and declared that he had searched the heavens and had not found the God of which Christians speak. To which a Russian bishop replied, if you have not found this God on earth, it is not likely that you would find him in the heavens.
One absolutely unique aspect of Christianity is that it portrays a God who shares in our suffering. In this critical moment in Jesus’ ministry, the question at hand is, Where is the messiah of God headed? Jesus is clear that the messiah is going to take his place with all of us who suffer.
The idea scares Peter, which is only natural. If it‘s left to us, we’d chose easy street. But easy street isn’t where life is lived.
It helps that Peter’s so human. I don’t know about you, but I find perfect people unhelpful when it comes to figuring out how to live the life of faith. If I were to see someone who seemed to have it all together in terms of their capacity to love, someone who never feels anxious or afraid, always confident, well, I believe I would find their example discouraging, because I know I’m far from perfect.
Peter gives me hope, because over time the grace of God worked in his frailty to deepen his soul. He came to know first hand the truth that the greatest sinners are those who think they are saints, and the greatest saints are those who know they are sinners. Perfect people, if such exist, are strangely opaque. It is redeemed sinners like Peter through whom the light of God shines. May it be so with us as well.