“Peter: The Rock” Colchester Federated Church, August 27, 2017, (Matthew 16:13-20) Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Our Gospel text today from Matthew has the disciple Peter front and center.  It’s perhaps not as famous a passage for Protestants as it is for Roman Catholics.  You see, for the Roman Catholic Church this is the scripture passage used to uphold the Church tradition of apostolic authority and apostolic succession.  The idea is that Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom and that authority was passed on from generation to generation (apostolic succession.)  The current pope—Pope Francis—received his authority from Pope Benedict XVI who received his authority from Pope John Paul II and so on all the way back to Peter receiving the keys to the kingdom from Jesus himself.  For in our passage Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”[1] Now there was that tricky period called the Avignon Papacy where there were two popes in the Roman Catholic Church, and it’s hard to understand how that totally got reconciled when it comes to apostolic succession.  Nevertheless it did somehow, and that’s why some Catholics may even refer to Peter as the first pope.  This is the scripture passage on which that tradition is based—Matthew 16:13-20.

Protestants like us may have a different view of this passage.  Jesus does give Peter authority by symbolically giving him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  But perhaps we can ask about the nature of that authority.  Was it because of who Peter was as a person?  Was it because of Peter’s declaration of faith?  Was authority meant to be passed on from just one person to another?  Or is that authority meant for all of us to share as Christians?  The Protestant idea of the Priesthood of All Believers can come to mind here, and that we are all empowered to do ministry in the Church.  God is equally accessible to all the faithful.  In our view, Ordination does not set a person above, Ordination sets them apart.  All of us are the hands and feet of Christ.  In the end, our answers to those questions about authority may reflect a different mindset within Christianity as a World Religion.

So we have this question of the nature of church authority that comes from Matthew’s 16th Chapter.  Though let’s just be honest—there’s something very endearing about Peter in this text.  Peter is earnest and tries so hard.  We could go on and on with all the times he messes up or just doesn’t get what Jesus is about at all.  But Peter just keeps trying.  Peter wanted so badly to walk on the water with Jesus and then freaked out and began to sink.  Peter sets his mind on human things and Jesus even tells him in that episode, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Peter of course will deny that he even knew Jesus three times.  Though thinking that Jesus declared that the church would be built on a person like Peter—that’s actually a comforting thought for the rest of us.  Because apparently Jesus sees the potential in Peter that Peter may not even be able to see in himself at first.  Jesus knows his heart just like our hearts are known by God.

It reminds me of a story told by Fred Craddock, named one of the top ten preachers in America during his lifetime.  He was an amazing preacher known as a storyteller.  Craddock told this story about a boy born out of wedlock in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.  In those days, the whole community knew about it and the boy was ashamed.  When he and his mother went into their small town people would stare at him, trying to guess who his father was.  At school, the kids said ugly and nasty things, so he stayed by himself at lunch and recess most of the time.  As a teenager, the boy began to attend a little church nestled back in the mountains.  The minister was attractive and had a commanding presence, but he was rather frightening.  The boy would go just in time for the sermon and then sneak out of the sanctuary.  He didn’t want anyone to ask, “What’s a boy like you doing in a church?”

One Sunday some people lined up in the aisle before the boy could get out, and he felt this heavy hand on his shoulder.  It was the minister and the boy trembled in fear.  The minister turned him around and studied his face for a while.  The boy assumed he was trying to guess who his father was just like everybody else did around town.  The minister said, “Well boy, you’re a child of . . . Boy, you’re a child of God.  I see a striking resemblance, boy.”  Then he swatted him on the back and declared, “Now you go claim your inheritance.”

The elderly man who shared this story with the great preacher Fred Craddock said that this moment was the beginning of his life.  Craddock was so moved by the man and his story he asked, “What’s your name?”  And the elderly man said, “Ben Hooper.”  Then Craddock recalled vaguely, his father talking when he was just a child, about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected as governor a man of questionable parentage—Ben Hooper.[2]  That minister in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee saw young Ben Hooper for who he really was.  Not just a boy whose mother gave birth to him without being married to his father, but a child of God.  That minister encouraged that young boy to go claim his inheritance, taking away some of the pain and the shame in the process and gifting him a glimpse of the grace of God.

God sometimes sees in us what we may not see in ourselves.  God sees potential, even and especially in you and me.  And I have a feeling that’s what happened when Jesus encouraged Peter to claim his own inheritance by giving him the keys to the kingdom.  Peter was a humble fisherman.  Yes sometimes he just didn’t get what Jesus was trying to convey at all.  He sank in the Sea of Galilee.  He tried to dissuade Jesus from the cross.  He denied even knowing Jesus three times.  Though if we think ahead to the Book of Acts, we find Peter declaring for all to hear that Jesus is the Messiah and taking people in droves to be baptized and working with Paul to spread the Gospel despite the consequences.  Peter ends up being completely redeemed for some of his shortcomings we may encounter throughout the Gospels.  Jesus saw potential and Jesus had trust in Peter to carry on his teachings after he was no longer physically here on earth.  Peter is flawed and Peter is faithful—just like the rest of us.

So another way to contemplate this passage besides just focusing on Peter as one person Jesus conveyed authority to is by thinking of Peter’s testimony.  Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is.”  And he hears answers like John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.  “But who do you say that I am?”[3]  Still a pertinent question two thousand years later.  Who do we say that Jesus is?  We’ll have different names.  We’ll use different terms.  Our theologies may not all be the same.  That’s a good thing—this question is meant to have a diversity of answers to capture the fullness of Jesus.  One can imagine that the disciples begin to think about this question their teacher just posed to them.  Though it’s our guy Peter who blurts out for all to hear, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”[4]  After hearing this response, Jesus asks for all of them to help him keep a low profile.  Then blesses Peter and acknowledges that God revealed Jesus’ identity to him.  On this rock the church will be built.  You will receive the keys to the kingdom, Peter.

All of that happens after Peter’s testimony.  Presbyterian Pastor Jin S. Kim contends that “The rock is not Peter, but Peter’s testimony.  Therefore, while this passage has been interpreted to give the church empirical power and permanence, the underlying lesson is that the church is as resilient or fragile as each of us in our own faith.  The church exists daily in this tension of power and powerlessness.”[5]  Which is such an interesting interpretation.  It takes the focus away from Peter and his endearing qualities (and his flaws) and puts the focus on Peter’s testimony.  To this moment where everyone else was speechless and Peter was brave and bold, speaking from his heart the truth about how he saw his teacher and friend Jesus of Nazareth.  One can imagine that Jesus knew Peter had it in him all along since Jesus sees potential.

Here’s the thing, Rev. Kim’s words ring true—the church is as resilient or fragile as each of us in our own faith.  And our testimony can make a real difference.  It matters that we are a church of radical hospitality and inclusive welcome.  It matters that we respect where each other may be on our journeys of faith and that we covenant to walk beside one another.  It matters that there’s a diversity of beliefs here and that we can talk to one another respectfully even if we don’t agree on everything.  It matters that we care for one another, and that we care about the youngest among us all the way to those who’ve been part of CFC for decades.  Will people ever know that about us if we don’t testify?

If the church is as resilient or fragile as each of us in our own faith—it matters that we have one another.  Because there will be times when we are overflowing with the love of God and have the utmost trust in God’s ways.  And there will be times when we are trudging through the wilderness, distrustful of even God and feeling rather alone.  When we’re overflowing with God’s love—we can reach out to the floundering.  When we’re floundering—we can accept the hand of those overflowing with God’s love.  That’s the kind of authority that Jesus gave to every single one of his followers, to love one another as God has always loved us.  May it be so.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 16:18, NRSV.
[2] Fred B. Craddock, Eds. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, Craddock Stories, 156-157.[3] Matthew 16:15.
[4] Matthew 16:16.
[5] Jin S. Kim, Pastoral Perspective of Matthew 16:13-20 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 3, 384.