Sermon notes: Peter’s confession

Christ_Peter_keys_wikiSermon notes, Confession of Peter (Preached 1/20/13 at St. Peter’s/Ladue; Matthew 16:13-19; Acts 4:8-13)

We have just heard one of the most argued-over passages in the entire Bible – and that’s saying something. Just what, exactly, is going on in today’s gospel reading?

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter, in his capacity as the leader of the apostles, speaks for the rest of the group, making his confession, his statement of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus tells him, “You are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

We don’t know if Peter was given his nickname – Kephas, Petrus, Rock – before this milestone event, but the confession and Jesus’s play on words certainly cemented it forever. The passage of time has polished it to a high gloss: There is no record of anyone being called Kephas or Petrus before the time of Christ, but there have been untold quantities of Christians given variants on that name in the twenty centuries since.

Jesus goes on to say, “”I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in heaven.”

That phrase is God’s special gift to cartoonists, who can always draw a St. Peter-at-the-pearly-gates gag whenever they’re short of ideas. But what does it mean?

That’s where we get into the arguments. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and that in giving Peter the “keys to the kingdom,” Jesus was establishing the papacy. From there, they have progressed to a belief in papal infallibility.

Other branches of the Church, not surprisingly, disagree with that view.

For one thing, there’s not actually any contemporary evidence that Peter ever lived in Rome or died there; that’s a tradition that developed later. Paul, who was in Rome, mentioned a lot of Christian leaders, but he never wrote a word about bumping into Peter. That’s not too surprising: Peter’s work took place in Antioch, in Asia Minor, and Jerusalem. Rome was a long, long way away.

Besides, it’s doubtful Rome even had a bishop in the early years of the Church there. Bishops were a later, post-apostolic development.

St. Augustine of Hippo believed that Christ was giving authority to the Church, not just to Peter. That’s the position of the Orthodox Churches, along with Anglicans and most Protestants. The Orthodox see the Church on Earth as infallible, but “infallible” is not a word with which we Anglicans are particularly comfortable.

The exchange, however, is still significant.

Peter is the most clearly drawn of the apostles, both in the gospels and in the Book of Acts. Frankly, he’s almost the last person you’d expect to get a nickname like “Rock.” On some days, he’s more like “Noodle,” going limp as soon as he hits hot water.

Peter changes his mind at inopportune moments. He starts to walk on water like the Master, and then wimps out and has to be rescued. Peter’s always saying the wrong thing, talking without thinking, even contradicting Jesus when he tells the disciples that he must suffer and die – and getting smacked down for it.

When Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, it’s Peter who pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest. Jesus has to fix that one, too. Most famously, after the arrest, Peter denies that he even knows the man he’s been following for the last three years.

In other words, Peter is a kind of stand-in for the rest of us, weak, sinful and eminently fallible. And yet Christ chooses him to provide authority to the fledgling Church.

Peter was always the natural leader of the little group of apostles, but by the time we see him in the reading from Acts, he has grown into the larger role of a spokesman and leader of the Church.

Peter, accompanied by John, has healed a crippled beggar, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” That draws a crowd, Peter preaches to them, and the Jewish authorities arrest both apostles. The next day, the leaders of the Temple ask them, “By what power or what name did you do this?”

And Peter continues his sermon. An “uneducated and ordinary” man, he has been called forth to speak not only to the crowds but to the teachers of the Law, and we see him doing it with power and eloquence.

In that speech, he identifies the true rock on which the Church is built: Jesus Christ. “The stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.”

And what is the Church? The Catechism (which you’ll find in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 845) provides the official word. The Church is the community of the New Covenant, the Body of Christ. The Church continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, carrying out Christ’s mission, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

The Church is us, connected in faith beyond time and space, a vast throng of believers following Christ. Like Peter, we are imperfect; like Peter, we stumble and fall on a regular basis. Like Peter, we frequently misunderstand just what Jesus is getting at.

But, like Peter, we are called. The Greek word “ekklesia” means “assembly” or “gathering;” it also means “called forth.” We assemble here to hear God’s Word and receive the sacraments; we go forth into the world to share God’s love in every way we can.

We can take courage in the example of Peter; we can confess our faith and live it, too, as Peter did. I can’t think of a more appropriate patron saint, like us flawed and foolish, and, like us, blessed beyond all measure in the power and love of Christ.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: the Confession of Peter

Sermon notes, the Confession of Peter (Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/St Louis, January 15, 2012)

The Gospels contain a veritable solar system of personalities. At the center, of course, is Jesus, the Sun around whom all others revolve. He is the Alpha and Omega, the focus and the reason for the story.

In our solar system, the Sun contains most of the mass – more than 99 percent of it, a full 332,900 times as much as our planet Earth. You could say the same for the Gospel accounts: Jesus is the source of light and life and energy for the rest of the people we encounter in them.

None of the rest of them approach Jesus in importance; his gravitational field pulls in fishermen and Pharisees, rich and poor, common men and uncommon women, the healthy and the crippled, centurions and Sadducees. In almost every case, we see them reflected in Jesus’s light, as they interact with him and are changed and reshaped by him.

Some stand out: John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany and their brother Lazarus. And then there is Simon bar Jonah, known as Peter, who in today’s gospel reading is the first to give Jesus a straightforward answer to his question, “But who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” he says, thereby earning a lasting nickname, “Rock” – Cephas, Petros, Peter – and his equally lasting place as the first among the apostles.

I should drop my solar system analogy right now, because I’m going to take it too far and find myself comparing Peter to a gas giant. But if Peter were a planet, he would be the greatest of them, Jupiter, instantly recognizable, and with more than a hint of turbulence swirling just below the surface.

In Jupiter, that’s evident in the Great Red Spot, a storm that’s been swirling around now for centuries. In Simon Peter, we see an impulsive nature that both helps and hinders its owner.

Today’s reading, in which Peter’s spontaneous words gain him the highest praise, is immediately followed in the Gospel of Matthew by a scene which is its polar opposite. When Jesus began to tell his disciples of the fate that awaited him in Jerusalem, Peter said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” To which Jesus replied “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.”

The Gospel of Luke tells us that it was Peter who, when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, pulled a sword and lopped off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. Shortly before that, he had promised Jesus that he’d follow him anywhere, even to death, a promise he almost immediately followed by vigorously denying that he even knew Jesus. (Who? me? a Galilean?)

We see this spontaneity everywhere in the story of this most colorful and memorable of the disciples. He and his brother Andrew were the first to drop everything and follow Jesus. When Jesus walked on water, it was Peter who decided to do likewise – and then panicked and began to sink, earning another memorable phrase from Jesus: “Oh ye of little faith!”

Peter sometimes stumbles and on at least that one occasion thinks that he will drown in his doubts. He denies Jesus at a critical moment, and once in a while he forgets his master’s teachings. But his overall trajectory is stable and as fixed as those of the planets, following his Sun, his Lord, growing in faith and strength in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter, the erstwhile fisherman, an “unschooled, ordinary (man),” as a leader of the new Jesus movement, speaking to the crowds with assurance, inspiring them with his faith and words and wisdom.

Later, we will see Peter healing the sick and the lame in the name of Jesus Christ, teaching and baptizing, both performing miracles and being the recipient of them. As the Church grows, and factions inevitably follow, we will also see him as the leader of the Circumcision Party, which held that all true followers of Jesus must first follow the Jewish Law.

Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah is a watershed moment in the Gospels. In another watershed, in Acts, we will see him converted to the conviction that the Holy Spirit speaks to all people, and that to deny that is to oppose God. This is a fundamental change in attitude. It’s a change of a degree that few with an established position to defend could make, to admit “I was wrong” about such a basic issue.

The disciples were transformed by their knowledge of Jesus and their faith in God. Peter speaks to us in his humanity, in his tendency to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind, in the unfiltered honesty of his reactions.

He inspires us with his faith, the faith to emulate his master even when he lets his fear tip him into the drink, and even when he is led off to his own cruel crucifixion. He inspires us with his growth as both disciple and leader. He inspires us with his courage in changing his mind on the side of acceptance and love, on abandoning long-established tradition in favor of a greater one.

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” said Simon bar Jonah to Jesus. And Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, for flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

And blessed are we when we can follow his example in admitting our doubts but staying on the path. Blessed are we when we continue to grow in maturity and in understanding. Blessed are we when we can admit our mistakes and try to make them right. Blessed are we when we follow our Lord wherever he leads us, secure on the rock of his truth.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The Confession of Peter: Rock on

I am a rock.

(Adapted from a sermon preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue, 1/17/10)

On joining Facebook, I was immediately struck by the vast number of completely pointless quizzes at hand to help consume whatever time you may have available. Facebook makes it easy to create and post these quizzes, which then spread like the sniffles through a classful of preschoolers.

They are almost infinite in their variety: “Which TV Mom are you?” “What famous opera singer are you?” (They’re all sopranos.) “What NFL player are you?” “Which famous theologian are you?” (C.S. Lewis – much better than Calvin, or Torquemada.) “Which of the five elements are you?” “What kind of Anglican are you?” “What cruciferous vegetable are you?” (Okay, I made that one up.)

So when Jesus, punning, says to Peter, “You are rock,” – “Cephas,” in Aramaic, “Petros,” in Greek – “and upon this rock I will build my church,” the Facebook regular’s first question is naturally going to be, “What kind of rock are you?”

As we all learned back in elementary school, there are three basic kinds of rock: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. Igneous rocks are formed from magma from the Earth’s core, either pushing its way through the planet’s crust or flowing, red-hot, from volcanoes. They’re hard and durable, like the granite used for the piers of the Eads Bridge.

Sedimentary rocks are composed of matter that accumulates, like the layers of limestone that we see on every hillside cut by highway construction here, built over the course of millions of years, from minerals and the remains of the creatures who swam in the warm, shallow seas that once covered this area.

And then there are metamorphic rocks, which started out as igneous or sedimentary and then were changed, by temperature, or by pressure, or by contact with other elements. Marble, the beautiful stone most prized for sculpture, was just limestone until it was heated and squeezed and recrystallized.

Igneous rocks are the most common – perhaps 90 percent of the total. They can be worn down over years, but it takes a lot to change them. Sedimentary rocks are widely found at the surface; they are the easiest to crush, or cut, or even dissolve. Metamorphic rocks are less common.

When we return to our imaginary Facebook quiz – “What rock are you?” – we can guess that a lot of people are going to be igneous rocks. They’re stubborn; they don’t change, they don’t learn, until they’re worn down or cut down by something even harder than themselves.

Others are sedimentary, without a lot of strength in adversity, easily sculpted by the forces of wind and water, like the wonderful formations in Red Rock country out west. And then there are the metamorphic, which, instead of being destroyed by changing conditions, turn into something new and sometimes valuable.

Let’s look at Simon Peter, whose trajectory is the most familiar to us of any of the early disciples: he was as one of the first to follow Jesus, and a natural leader among his peers. He’s a sturdy fisherman who grew up handling sails and ropes and tackle. Although he’s with Jesus from the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, Peter doesn’t always seem to paying full attention to his master’s message.

He is a blunt man who says whatever comes into his head, whether it’s the smartest thing to say or not. He frequently acts on impulse – attempting to walk on water and then losing his nerve; swinging a sword and slicing off the ear of a servant of the High Priest when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane; plunging into the sea fully clothed upon spotting his risen Lord. He sometimes suffers for his impetuous words and deeds.

But between the time that he utters the great, basic truth of today’s gospel – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” – and the time we see him in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter evolves – metamorphoses – into a thoughtful speaker and a strong leader of the Church, able to submit when it’s necessary for the good of the Gospel, but strong and unyielding even in the face of suffering and eventual martyrdom.

If brash Simon Peter seems an odd sort of rock on which to build God’s Church, remember that his Master, Jesus, was another: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” on which the weight of the entire building rested. Sometimes gold and precious gems may be hidden in the dust covering what seems to be quite ordinary gravel. Sometimes the finest stone may be overlooked.

What kind of rock are we? That all depends on us – and on God.

Through our experience of Christ, we can be changed from obdurate igneous or soft sedimentary to something new, something beautiful, something worthy of being a building block in the Kingdom of God. It all depends upon how we – like Peter – respond to the challenges and imperatives which life and faith impose on us.

– Sarah Bryan Miller