Sermon preached at St. Andrew's Church in the 4:30 p.m. Service of Choral Evensong by the Rev. Dr. David P. Gleason, Senior Pastor, the First Lutheran Church of Pittsburgh.
Daily Office Year Two, Proper 24
Psalms 114 & 115; Ecclesiasticus 4: 1-10;
Matthew 16: 13-20
He had taken them north from Capernaum toward the headwaters of the Jordan, into the district of Caesarea Philippi. It was a beautifully refreshing place; just right for revealing a hard truth to his disciples, the truth about their destiny and obligations as his followers.
That is where Jesus asks the question. That is where he puts to his disciples the question. He first poses it impersonally. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” His disciples report the facts. They tell him the content of local conversation; they report what is being said. Some are saying that he is John the Baptizer, last of the great prophets, returned from the dead. Others say that he is Elijah, a great prophet of old, resurrected to new life.
He asks again. This time, more directly and personally. “But who do you say that I am?” He has clearly already identified himself as the Son of Man. But Peter speaks for the twelve in offering the celebrated answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Now be sure you understand Peter’s answer. It is not as if the disciples are finally “getting it.” Or that they are suddenly struck by the stunning realization that their friend, Jesus, is actually the Messiah. His relationship to them has always been that of a Messiah to his followers. They already know that. They received his call to follow him. They witnessed his power in action as he worked miraculous healing. He commissioned them and sent out as ambassadors of a messianic mission, a mission to save his people. And they hearkened intently, and with some fear, to the judgment implied in his parables. They saw lots of evidence of his identity as the Messiah.
But now, in a beautiful, refreshing setting, Jesus poses a question that demands intensified commitment. Peter answers for them all. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And now they are all bound to the Christ, bound to the one destined to die. They are bound so tightly to him that they are separated from virtually everyone else. They are completely separated from Jesus’ enemies, but they are also set apart from many of his admirers. They are distinct from those who see in Jesus a John the Baptizer returned to life or an Elijah resurrected from the dead. They are separated from anyone and everyone who maintains that he plays a part in preparing the world for the kingdom of God while failing to see in him the very presence of God.
Peter’s confession, on behalf of all the apostles, constituted a commitment to the Christ, to the anointed Son of the Living God. No other title could demand so great a commitment. Once one has confessed him as “Christ,” there is no choice but to follow him, no matter where the following may lead. The question is: Do the disciples understand that? Do they understand the necessity of following him to the Cross? Do they understand the necessity of walking the way of the Cross themselves?
Jesus responds to Peter’s bold declaration that he is the Christ, saying, “And blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! 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, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
The apostolic spokesman, the one quick to accord Jesus the title, “Christ,” gets himself a new name. Petros. Peter. Rock. The name is not meant to be descriptive of this man once called Simon son of Jonah. The former Simon possesses no solid, rock-like characteristics. In fact, while he evidently is capable of a bold declaration of faith, he is equally capable of misunderstanding the mission and ministry of Jesus entirely, and of denying any identification with him.
Peter gets his new name not because he is a miracle worker, visionary, or prophet. He is not renamed as the leader of a new community or even as a lover of justice and charity. He is called “rock” only because he has faith and he confesses that faith in Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. There is no other reason for his new name or the promise attached to it, the promise that on this rock Christ will build his church.
Peter represents everyone who follows Christ. Whether he is courageously treading water or foolishly launching out into the sea and sinking like a stone, whether he is full of understanding or a man “of little” faith, whether he is confessing the Christ or denying him, Jesus sees in him the raw material of his Church. In Peter, he sees us all, with our moments of bold faith and quivering doubt, with our charitable works alongside gross self-indulgence. He sees in Peter the material that is to be shaped by his grace into a holy people. He sees the future community of faithful disciples and courageous confessors. Jesus turns away from Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes and looks instead to Peter and the other eleven and he sees in them the Church, the sanctified people of God who will carry the Gospel into the world until time is no more.
The powers of death, not even the gates of Hell, can vanquish this community, this Church. Its life is the life of Jesus, the Son of the living God at work in the world. To this community, the Christ has given power to bind and loose. He has given his Church the authority to maintain the regulations of an ethical life and imposed upon it the responsibility of rendering ethical judgement. Binding and loosing are all about making distinctions and rendering judgements. In response to Peter’s confession, Jesus makes clear his intention to build a new community whose teachers will not be scribes and Pharisees and whose teachings will not be the tradition passed on by the elders of Israel.
It will be a new community in which everything points to Jesus. He will lead the community by way of his Word, a Word that will live in the preaching and teaching of those he calls to apostolic ministry. This community, the community of the Church catholic and even of this little parish church of St. Andrew, is built upon the confession of Peter, the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
That is our common heritage in the Gospel. We Episcopalians, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and others are the people who, after two millennia, still confess the faith of Peter. We are still certain that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And we are still his Church. We continue to bear the responsibility of binding and loosing, of maintaining the ethical regulations of godly living, of making distinctions and of rendering judgments.
Unfortunately, we have not been doing a very good job of handling the keys to bind and loose. We are uncomfortable with distinction making and we feel unqualified to render judgments, even upon our own sinful lives. We would prefer to leave all such matters to the living God and to his Son, the Christ. But faithfulness to him requires us to maintain the godly standards of a community of true faith. It is our obligation to bind, as well as loose, to make distinctions and to render judgments. To not do so is to be unfaithful to his will.
The distinctions we make and the judgments we render, however, must, like each of us, be shaped by God’s grace, by his merciful and compassionate love even for children who stray from his way or wallow in doubt and disbelief.
To confess the faith of Peter, to be the Church built upon that faith, to fulfill the obligation of binding and loosing, means first of all to submit ourselves to the holy discipline of godly living and to throw ourselves on the mercy of God when we fail to fulfill it. It means, when we inevitably sin, to completely throw ourselves on his gracious mercy, trusting that he will loose us from our sin and bind us in love only to himself.