January 20, 2019
THE CONFESSION OF ST. PETER
Psalm 23 Acts 4:8-13 Matthew 16:13-20
63 years. Today we celebrate another year, another anniversary. More than that, though – today is our patronal feast, the celebration of the Confession of St. Peter. This parish is named for him, and we can look at Peter as a model or example of who and what this parish is called to be.
A word, first of all, about the term “confession”. In this context, it does not mean a confession of sin or expression of repentance. It means a statement of faith. Later in this liturgy, the Officiant will invite us to make this statement with the words, “Let us confess the faith of our baptism, as we say…”
Who is this Peter? We meet him early in the gospels. He is a fisherman: a working man, a man whose life and livelihood were tied to the rhythms of the land and the water, dependent on the weather – the rain, sun, and wind. The reading from Acts today labels him as an uneducated man. His name was actually Simon, son of Jonah (other gospels say John). Peter seems to have been sort of a nickname. Jesus was walking along the shore of the lake when he saw Simon and his brother Andrew fishing. He saw something in them, something that prompted him to invite the two brothers to join him in his mission of “fishing” for people. There is no hint of any question or hesitation or discussion of what this invitation meant. Simon and Andrew simply got up and followed – “immediately”, says the story. Jesus saw something in this uneducated Galilean fisherman, some quality that suggested he would be the right person to take on the mission Jesus was beginning.
From then on, Peter accompanies Jesus on his mission, as he travels around Galilee. He is sent out with the others to extend the mission to other towns. He becomes a leader within the group of disciples. Together with James and John, he forms an inner circle of those closest to Jesus. He is with Jesus at pivotal moments of the ministry: the raising of Jairus’s daughter, the Transfiguration, the garden of Gethsemane. I have a mental picture of Peter as a good-hearted but slightly impetuous guy. His faith has ups and downs. He daringly asks Jesus to call him to walk to him across the water – an act that has always felt like a challenge to me – he says, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you”. The real cry of faith comes when Peter begins to sink: “Lord, save me!” Peter rashly declares his unswerving loyalty to Jesus – “If everyone else deserts you, I will never deny you, even if I have to die for it!” – and caves as soon as he is questioned about his affiliation with this dangerous preacher. In John’s telling of the arrest of Jesus, it is Peter who strikes the high priest’s servant with a sword to defend his teacher. It is also in John’s telling that Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus is reversed by Jesus three times giving him the opportunity to declare his love. And we see Peter, in today’s reading from Acts, the self-assured spokesman of the newly-formed church. Peter is a real human being, with strengths and flaws. He argues vehemently with Jesus about the consequences of Jesus’ words and actions. When Jesus begins to tell the disciples that he must suffer and die, Peter rejects Jesus’s statement: “God forbid, Lord! This must never happen to you!” Peter gets embroiled in conflict with the apostle Paul, to the point where Paul calls him out publicly. Sometimes he just doesn’t get what Jesus is about. He stumbles; he fails; he gets up and tries again. I find it comforting to know that Christ accepts his humanity – and ours – in the service of his mission.
Today’s Gospel reading is both a climax and a turning point in Jesus ministry. Jesus and the disciples have travelled all over Galilee proclaiming the good news of God’s inbreaking reign. They reach Caesarea Philippi and Jesus wonders aloud what people are saying about him. The disciples answer that some people say Jesus is John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and other say Jeremiah or another prophet. The people identify Jesus with the prophetic figure that the Jewish scriptures said would return before the coming of the Messiah. They are not altogether wrong; Jesus stands in the long line of faithful servants of God, prophets wiling to stake their lives for the sake of God’s word to the people. The people recognize that Jesus speaks and acts with divine authority.
But they are not altogether right, either. “And what about you,” says Jesus, “what do you think?” His question is another way of asking, “Why are you following me? Why have you left everything you know? Who do you say that I am?” It’s worthwhile asking ourselves the same question. Why are we here this morning? What got us out of our warm beds and comfortable houses to brave the cold and come here? Why have we chosen to follow this Galilean peasant? Why are we on this path? What brought us here, and what keeps us here?
The disciples are silent. Then Peter, ever the spokesman, answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Maybe he was surprised at the words coming out of his mouth. Maybe he kind of blurted them out. Jesus is the one who has come in fulfillment of all Israel’s hopes and dreams. And in response, Jesus tells him that this knowledge could not have come from any human source. It is not based on rumours or hearsay or the opinions of others. It came, and could only come, as a revelation from God.
Jesus blesses Simon, son of Jonah, and gives him the name Peter. Up to this point in the gospel, we have seen the name Peter used by the writer, because the gospels were written for the believing community and they all knew who Peter was. This is the first time we hear the name Peter on the lips of Jesus, and there is a play on words, or a play on names, going on here. In the Aramaic Jesus spoke e very day, he says, “You are Kephas, and on this kepa I will build my church.” In Greek, “You are Petros, and on this petra I will build my church.” What is the rock to which Jesus refers? Some scholars say it’s Peter himself, as the first to identify fully and completely Jesus as the Messiah. Others say the rock is Peter’s faith which led him to this conclusion. I prefer the interpretation that says it is the words, the content of Peter’s confession that are the rock on which the church is built. It is the identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, that is the foundation of the church. Flesh and blood, human beings, cannot reveal this to us. How we identify Jesus needs to be based on a relationship with him, a life-long conversation with him, informed by scripture and the weekly gathering of the people who acclaim Jesus as Messiah and Son of God.
This is one of only two instances in the Gospels where we hear the word “church”. Paul uses the word a lot in his letters, but it’s very rare in the gospels (the other instance comes in Matthew 18:15-20). What does Jesus mean by this? The word ekklesia, which is translated “church”, at its root means assembly. The church is the assembly, the company, the community of those who acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. We don’t go to church; we are the church. The fact that the building where we gather is also called church confuses things a bit. A meeting place is necessary, but only because it’s a place for the community to gather. If the church is the assembly of those who confess Jesus as Messiah, then nothing, not even death, can prevail against it. Hades, the place of departed spirits, is powerless to imprison those who belong to the community of the Messiah.
Then, Jesus says to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Through Peter, the church is given authority to bind and to set free. What we do and say on earth has repercussions in the heavens. The heavens bear witness to the people and things we bind, and the people and things we set free. When we restrict justice only to the powerful and enact laws that impact unfairly those most vulnerable, heaven is impacted too. Towards the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us that when we treat the most vulnerable – the hungry, the imprisoned, the stranger or foreigner, those without clean water – with compassion and simple human care, we have done it for him. What we do on earth matters, and it matters also in heaven.
Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. A living God is a dynamic God, a God who continues to speak into our context. Look around. Where do we see things being bound and others being loosed? Where do we see freedom and liberation emerging, even in small ways? How are we as a community binding the forces of death and destruction that seek to engulf us? Peter’s confession took place in the region of Caesarea Philippi, a seat of Roman imperial power rebuilt and named by Philip, son of Herod the Great, in a major piece of political sucking-up to the emperor Caesar Augustus. The imperial context of his confession is impossible to ignore. Where is the church acting today to loosen the forces of empire that still wage war against our humanity, that still seek to subject people to the lies of power and domination and consumerism? There is great power in faith, but it is power with, not power over.
Finally, Jesus orders the disciples not to reveal his identity to anyone else. Why? How can the church be built if the true nature of its head is a secret? The answer is that revelation is in the lives lived, a life of love for God and service to others, a life spent in the pursuit of peace and justice. By every kind action, every supportive word, every denunciation of injustice, the ekklesia of God is built, living stone by living stone. On this sixty-third anniversary, on this patronal feast of the Confession of St. Peter, let us commit ourselves again to becoming and being the community that proclaims Jesus the Messiah and Son of God for the binding of injustice and the loosening of the barriers to life in all its abundance. Amen.