Texts: Matthew 16; Isaiah 51
Jesus said, “Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven…On this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Those of you who are parents, do you remember the feeling you got when you gave your child the keys to their first car? Maybe it was a gift, or maybe you met them halfway on the price after they had saved through an after-school job. Do you remember what it was like when you realized that you just gave a 16 or 17 year old the keys which would start up a hunk of steel with an engine that could conceivably go up to 100 mph? Perhaps you thought, “What were we thinking?” You may have even prayed that in some way, some how, there was enough maturity in that teenager to handle the responsibility of owning a vehicle, and they would not try something like trying to find a long stretch of road or even a 7-mile bridge to see how fast it could go.
Peter was a bit like a teenager. He was hardheaded, stubborn, brash, and often times spoke before he thought. And yet, in this story in the Gospel, Matthew describes a scene where Jesus asks his disciples what others say about him. They go through a list of prophets: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah. Jesus dismisses all of that and presses them further. “But you … who do YOU say that I am?” Peter, who always spoke first and thought later, says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then pronounces quite a blessing on Peter for his confession. This hardheaded, stubborn brash young man gets it for once. He is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, a new name, and off they all go into the Judean countryside. I’m sure Jesus at times would look at the band of disciples he called (ESPECIALLY PETER) and say “What was I thinking?”
Peter’s story actually fills me with hope. He was just a simple fisherman, who had no end of faults. But Jesus called him out of his former life along with the other disciples to show and to teach what it means to know God, to follow God and to love each other as God loves us. He suffers his share of mishaps, and has a tendency to make a mess of things. In the end, even after his denial of Jesus at the hour of his suffering and death, Peter is restored and goes on to become the leader of the disciples and then later the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and the first bishop of Rome in spite of himself.
It is important to note that Jesus did not praise Peter or bless him because of anything that he said or did on his own. Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question did not come from observation, or human reasoning, and Jesus’ blessing is not a response to Peter’s strengths or accomplishments. Jesus is responding to Peter’s faith which in and of itself is a gift from God, a faith which allows Peter to say, “You are the Messiah.” The lesson here is that the Church, just like Peter, stands or falls on the both the strength and the fragility of our faith. God relates to the church like a loving parent, who trusts an oftentimes immature teenager with keys to a vehicle to share with the world the message of the Gospel, and how we drive that vehicle is our witness. We have the ability to do both great good and great evil, to be faithful and to also drift away.
The question, “Who do you say that I am?” is asked of us to this day. Jesus asks, “What is your understanding of who I am? What is your experience of God through my witness?” It is perhaps the most important question we can answer as People of Faith because it informs so much of how we act. This confession, this gift, this testimony becomes the rock on which the Church stands and God has promised the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
It is a promise that no power in the world, not even the powers of sin and death will be able to overcome the work of the Church and the advancement of the Kingdom of God. It is a reminder that no matter our struggles inside the church, no matter how much the Church is called irrelevant or dying that there just isn’t any stopping the Good News of Jesus Christ, and God’s Kingdom will come.
Isaiah also points to great rocks of faith. In our passage today, he reminds us of Abraham and Sarah, who were called out of their homeland and sent to a distant country, just as Jesus called the disciples to drop everything they were doing and to follow him.
With the reality of a 24-hour news cycle, no shortage of commentary in the form of newspaper columnists, television and radio pundits, and bloggers, it is very easy to get discouraged at what is going on in the world. The stability enjoyed by the Western World since the end of World War II is not nearly so stable any more. But through our faith, the same faith and trust that sustained Abraham and Sarah, the faith that enables Peter to say Jesus is the Messiah, we are reminded that the one who said “the gates of Hades will not prevail” is the same one who said “My Kingdom is not of this world.”
Isaiah also says that God is telling his people, “Listen to me.” With everything that is going on in our country, and even with everything we deal with on a day-to-day basis, sometimes listening is not easy. There are so many voices and distractions pulling for our attention, seeking to drown out the voice of God who maintains his promises and his provisions are still intact no matter how discouraged we may become. But if we do listen, we will maintain a perspective. The ears of faith still hear God’s voice above all of the turmoil, reminding us that God’s promises are sure and will outlast anything that can be thrown against them. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. The heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment … but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never end.”