January 21, 2018
The Confession of St. Peter
Donna G. Joy
Today we are celebrating the Confession of St. Peter. Each year at this time, we reflect on Peter’s confession within the context of this Parish of St. Peter: past, present, and future.
I think it is interesting that despite the many ways in which Peter is highlighted throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, along with his significant role within the context of the building of the first century church, on the day each year when he is commemorated, the focus involves just one particular brief moment in Peter’s life, that is his confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” I think this begs the question: Why, on the one day each year when he is commemorated, do we focus on this single incident above all else for which he is recognized as a follower of Jesus, and leader of the first century church? We do this – we focus on this confession of Peter’s faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God – because it is this confession (which – for Peter and all who follow - can only come from God) – it is this confession of Peter’s faith that is claimed by Jesus as the rock on which Jesus’ church shall be built. Each week, as we gather here – along with Peter and all the Saints past, present, and future – as we are empowered by God to confess our faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God – we do so because Peter took that bold first step, and that first step – that first confession - became the very foundation of our faith.
We are told that the place where this confession occurred is the district of Caesarea Philippi, and this detail is important. It is situated a significant distance away from where they would normally be, far north in the land of Israel, well outside the territory of Herod, a good two days’ walk from the sea of Galilee. It is in this rather distant place that is known for its Greek-Roman culture - its worship of foreign gods – that Jesus announces he will establish a church, and based on Peter’s confession, claims him as the rock upon which his church shall be built.
As I reflect on this piece of the story, it occurs to me that as Jesus asks each of us this question today: “Who do you say that I am…” he does so knowing that we too have travelled far from where we once would have normally been. Jesus asks us this question knowing that we too find ourselves in the midst of a culture that is no longer rooted in faith; a culture that worships any number of secular gods: gods of consumerism, Hollywood stars, status, hockey, football… Perhaps the most prominent god of our time is technology: a recent article in the Globe and Mail suggested that the designers of smart phones knew at the onset that our brains would inevitably develop a kind of addiction to the screen which would create unhealthy dependencies and over time actually damage parts of our brain.
Just as a bit of an aside, I do need to be clear that none of these things I’ve mentioned as false gods are necessarily – in and of themselves – bad. It is O.K. to enjoy any or all of these things, but when they become elevated to that which we primarily worship – when they become elevated to that which is more important to us than anything else, including our faith - then the balance of life and faith has been seriously eroded; compromised. And the erosion of this fine balance has been woven into the fabric of this culture in which we live.
As Jesus asks us this question today within the context of the 21st century, we need to recognize that we have travelled far from what at least appeared to be a more simple – less complicated – time, back in the 1950’s… a time when society overall had more modest expectations in terms of what was required for a happy and content life… a time when church was placed firmly in the center and life of society – a society that was to some degree more unified around common goals and hopes. Again, just as a bit of an aside – I think it needs to be said, that life in the 50’s was also seriously flawed – colonialism, for instance, was also very much at the heart of the culture in which we lived.
My point, though, is that for better or for worst, that was the world we knew; that was the world that was familiar to us, our parents, our grandparents, and we have travelled far from there, and now find ourselves in this unfamiliar place in time. In a sense we have traveled from a familiar ‘Capernaum’ and find ourselves, now well into the 21st century, in a very different ‘Caesarea Philippi.’ And as we consider this, we also have every reason to trust that it is the same Jesus who has brought us to this time of immense transition, just as he brought those first disciples to that place unfamiliar to them, possibly even disturbing and threatening. And within the context of this place – this time – he asks his first question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
I would say that within the context of this particular far-away place to which we have traveled, people might say – and in various ways often do – that while Jesus is nothing more than a mythical figure, we have a desperate need to portray him as real. Others may say that he was a prophet, an important leader of his time… often these same people will say that he is irrelevant; that he is NOT the one filling us with power, and courage, and strength. These people will say that this power, courage, strength is of our own making; it is not God given; it is within the hands of our own humanity.
It is within the context of this far-away place that Jesus asks each of us the second question: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter, whose response qualifies him to become the rock upon which the church is built, says: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
N.T. Wright reminds us that the phrase ‘son of God’ – at that point – did not yet mean ‘the second person of the Trinity.’ This connection was not made until after the resurrection. At this point, before Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the phrase ‘son of God’ was a biblical phrase, indicating that the king stood in a particular relation to God, adopted to be his special representative.
So, with this in mind, Peter is saying: You are the one, true king; you’re the one Israel has been waiting for; you are God’s adopted son, the one of whom the Psalms and prophets had spoken. In other words, in Jesus, God’s promise has been fulfilled. Jesus embodies God’s love, peace, courage, wisdom, selflessness, sacrifice. In and through Jesus, God has actually dwelled among us and through our baptism, we become born into this sacred life of Jesus where through the gift of the Holy Spirit we may always be empowered by the love and peace of Jesus, along with his courage, wisdom, selflessness, sacrifice.
This brings us to Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession, where he says: “Blessed are you… For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” It seems clear to me that this shatters the current cultural trend around new age spirituality which, as I have mentioned, tends to suggest that humanity has no need for God; our strength comes from our humanity. This is shattered as Jesus says, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” This gift of faith – this confession of faith - cannot come from humanity itself; it can only come from God.
Indeed, Peter says “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and it is here Peter receives his new name from Jesus, which means rock, or stone. Because of the confession of faith, Peter – himself – would be the foundation for this new building. Jesus had told the story of a wise man building a house on the rock, so now Jesus himself declares that he’s going to do just that. We might imagine the great city of Jerusalem, built on the rocky heights of Mount Zion. In some Jewish traditions, the Temple in Jerusalem was the place where heaven and earth met to become a unified whole. N.T. Wright makes the point that Jesus is declaring that he is reconstructing this centerpiece of God’s world.
And as we all know, Jesus is not talking about building an actual building; he is talking about building a community, consisting of all those who follow in the tradition of Peter, confessing their faith in Jesus as God’s anointed king. This movement, this community, began in that place, at that time, at Caesarea Philippi, with Peter’s declaration; Peter’s confession of faith.
We, at St. Peter’s, are blessed to be worshipping and sharing ministry in a community that carries Peter’s name. We are diverse. Not one of us is perfect, or likely even close to perfect, as Peter was far from perfect. As we delve into the stories involving Peter, we discover that he could be considered boisterous, often outspoken; he was a sinful man and ashamed (at times feeling unworthy of Jesus’ love). He denied Jesus three times. He abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. Immediately after this story this morning, Peter argues with Jesus when he is told that Jesus will have to suffer many things. It turns out that when Peter made this confession, he was under the impression that the work of this Messiah would not involve such sacrifice and suffering. Peter was often as thick as a brick, completely missing the point that Jesus was trying to make.
I don’t know about you, but I find this reminder of Peter’s flaws somewhat liberating. It says to me that if there was room for Peter to become the very rock upon which this community is to be built, then there must be room for me, my sin, and my countless imperfections. With Jesus at the center of all this, our strengths and gifts are celebrated; in a sense they transcend our sinfulness and murkiness for which we sometimes feel ashamed. So, as we confess our faith within the context of this unfamiliar place in time, we celebrate our identity as the Body of Christ, working together, collaborating in worship, ministry, and ministry.
Together, this community has travelled from the 1960’s and through the decades that have followed into this rather unfamiliar place in time, where Jesus asks the question: “who do you say that I am?” And we most solemnly respond, as Peter did, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”