Pent. 13
Matt. 16:13-20

Jesus and his twelve disciples went into the mountainous area of Caesarea Philippi. This region was loaded with religious significance. It was the birthplace of the Greek god Pan. There had been shrines to the Syrian fertility god Ba’al, and Herod the Great built a temple to the godhead of Caesar. From its caves flowed the River Jordan, so the area was of great religious significance to the Hebrews as well.

Here Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied that some said John the Baptist, others say Elijah. Jeremiah, or another prophet. “But who do YOU say that I am?” Jesus asked. Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus called Peter indeed blessed. God, not flesh and blood had revealed that to Peter. Upon this rock Jesus will build His Church, against which the gates of Hades will not prevail. Peter has the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. Peter had worked it out. He got it right. He has awesome responsibilities.

This passage in Matthew has been of major historical significance for the Roman Catholic Church over against Protestantism, the Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion. The Romans have used it to argue for the primacy of the See of Rome, which they say alone has the power for absolution and excommunication. Now I am not going to rehash the debates. Obviously I am a traditionalist, orthodox, hold the creeds, believe in apostolic succession and justification by faith. Suffice it to say that the term “rock” has been variously interpreted by scholars as Peter, Jesus Himself, faith, doctrine, or the first stone in the building of the community of the faithful. It seems to me that part of the problem is that we are working with images and metaphors, which connote rather than denote. The images are loaded with implications. Hence there is some merit to each of the above interpretations.

So how do you and I make some sense out of this passage? Those of you who have sat through my Bible classes know that I ask relatively simple straight-forward questions such as, “What’s going on here?” and “What are the basic human issues that are involved? From the perspective of those two questions, we can see the following:

First of all, the disciples were put on the spot. Who is Jesus? It was oral exam time. They had to work it out. Not just mouth what others think. Who did they think Jesus was?

Secondly, they had to get it right. When Jesus asks His question, He asks it over against the background of the nature gods of Ba’al, the Greek gods such as Pan, the pantheon state god of Caesar, and living God of Elijah, Jeremiah and Isaiah. Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who is part of the historical saving action of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moreover, Jesus is so closely identified with the hope of the prophets, that He is the Messiah. He is the Son of God. Jesus affirms, blesses, Peter. In so doing He states that the gates of Hades will not prevail. Since Hades is the realm of death, Jesus is saying that death will be overcome; and, he is pointing towards His resurrection. Peter not only had faith, he got it right.

Thirdly, Peter is given the power to bind and loose. Whatever Peter does will have great consequences for the Church, and for the propagation of the Gospel. Where the Gospel is preached, men and women will be led to salvation. Where it is not they will not be led to salvation. What Peter does counts. Peter has to take responsibility.

So in this passage Jesus is saying to Peter, and the others, work it out, get it right, and take responsibility. These basic issues of cognition, veracity, and responsibility are fundamental to the foundation of a living faith and a living Church.

Now this sounds pretty abstract. What does this have to do with you and me? Quite frankly a lot. Our lives, and the life of the Church, depend on our working it out. Who do you say Jesus is? You and I have to answer who Jesus is for us. Is He a friend, an ideal, unimportant or important? Does He make a difference? For a lot of people, who we would probably call nominal Christians, Jesus doesn’t mean much. I spent some time this summer with a couple who have had successful academic careers teaching on the college level. They are looking forward to retirement. But they are sad. There is a hollowness and a purposelessness to their lives. They have nothing of great significance to live for. They have no personal relationship to the living God. They are wandering in a purgatory of meaninglessness going through the motions of a life which they find lonely and bland. Wonderful, decent people who are lost. They are smart, but they haven’t worked it out. They haven’t been open to the action of the living God in their lives. They, you, I have to work it out, for faith is an active engagement, questioning and relating. Working it out is an on-going process.

Secondly, we have got to get it right. It is very tempting now days to allow ourselves to be seduced by the gods of nature and to say, “Any god will do.” The religions of mythology where the Crow is sacred, or the religions of “New Age” or of “witches” are ancient temptations. Gnosticism is not dead. Inside knowledge of God is a tantalizing lure. The god of the state wheedles its way into Christianity where nationalism and the church are synonymous. For example, even now in the Ukrane there is a fierce rivalry between the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ukranian Orthodox Church, and the Ukranian Autocephalous Church. This is tragic, for Christ should be seen as the head of the Church and the source of unity. These churches which have millions of adherents fail to see that their foundation should be the faith of Peter and trust in Christ Jesus. All else should be irrelevant. On the one hand it is important that a people as a whole know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. On the other hand, when the areas of the Church and the state become blurred then you have serious problems, whether in the Ukrane or in the land of the Moral Majority. You and I not only have to work it out, we have to avoid heresies and the gods of the state. It matters what you think and what you believe.

Thirdly, like Peter, we have to take responsibility for the impact of our lives. This means taking responsibility for our sexuality, our emotions, wealth, reason, etc. Our lives have ramifications which are obvious and others which are subtle. The kindness of a man started my thinking about becoming a minister. The hypocrisy of another man greatly changed my whole attitude towards pastoral care. We can at times be so liberal that our brains fall out, or be so conservative that we are just plain mean. Can we expect our children to worship God if we are haphazard in our own faithfulness? Can we expect forgiveness from our children if we have been parsimonious with our praise? Can the Church grow if we are not evangelical? Can a marriage performed in the Church thrive if it is not lived within the Church? You and I are called to live lives which are creative, positive, devout, compassionate, and principled even in our old age. To be responsible is to live a life of active piety, to continue Christian formation, not to be passive nor mere autonmatons.

To work it out, get it right, and take responsibility Ü that is what Peter had to do. That is what the disciples had to do. That is what you and I have to do. To work it out, to get it right, to be responsible for the Gospel Ü these are the elements which comprise the rock upon which the Church and our lives rest. When we work it out, get it right and are responsible, you and I build upon that rock. We become “living stones.” You and I build up the household of God in this world and the next. Amen.