Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 21, 2005
The Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20
Sermon: "The New Community of God"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “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. I will give you the keys of 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.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
The New Community of God
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost - August 21, 2005
My first year in seminary I met a fellow student by the name of Mark. Mark had been in the Navy and he was a knowledgeable military historian. When he found out I was from Charleston we got into discussions about the Civil War Era. Mark, of, course, was from a more northern extraction. In these discussions, Mark always reminded me that the North had won the war.
Now, in the front of the chapel, there is a large stained glass window. Jesus is standing with his right arm raised and the disciples are gathered all around him. It is also important to know that there has been some discussion about two of the disciples in the window. Two of them seem to bear resemblances to two great southern generals. While the question has been raised, the school denies the possibility. In fact, we will never know.
One day, right after chapel, Mark decided to tease me again about the outcome of the Civil War. Knowing the story of the window, I decided to tease Mark in a major way. I turned to him and I said, "Mark, Let's go to the stained glass window behind the altar for a minute." He said, "Why?" I replied, "It is time to end this debate about the war between the states once and for all." He said, "What does the front of the church have to do with that?" I replied, "Come with me and I will show you."
We walked to the front of the church and stepped behind the altar. I turned to Mark and I said, "Mark, do you see that disciples dressed in purple standing under Jesus' raised right arm?" He said, "Yes, what?" I said, "Mark, you are an historian. Doesn't that disciple bear a striking resemblance to Robert E. Lee?" He said, "Now, that you mention it, he does." I replied, “Well. Mark, you know what that means, don't you?" He looked at me quizzically. I said, "Mark, that disciple is standing under Jesus' right arm. That disciple must be St. Peter. If that disciple is indeed Robert E. Lee, then he must be St. Peter. Do you not understand?" He said, "Bill, what are you talking about?" I replied with a big smile, Well, Mark, the north may have won the war, but the south holds the keys to the kingdom." To this day, Mark and I still talk and joke about that incident.
Yet, it is true that there has been a tradition of the church that St. Peter holds the keys to heaven. Many jokes have been developed over Peter standing at the gate with the keys in his hand allowing people entrance. In fact, we have developed traditions concerning keys in Roman and Protestant churches. In the Roman church every Pope is seen as a continuance of Peter's line of discipleship. The Pope is given a symbolic set of keys. In some Protestant faiths, Anglican and Episcopalian included, the keys of the church are handed over to a new rector.
Over the years, the symbolism of the keys and the symbolism of this passage has been slightly misinterpreted. For some people and some churches, the keys indicate great authority on spiritual and physical matters. Whatever the priest says goes is kind of the way it works. Usually, that holds up until the priest wants to change some point of worship or move Aunt Sadie's gift to the church. Then, all of a sudden, the priest is out of whack.
Another way this passage has been misinterpreted is along denominational lines. The Protestant church has believed that Jesus was going to build the church on Peter's confession of faith. Peter confessed Jesus as Lord and that confession was to be the building block of the new church. Peter's confession was to be the foundation of the new church and all must follow that pattern. The Roman belief was that Peter's position as the foundation is repeatable. In other words, this incident can be passed down from one person to another. The new Pope is the new Peter and the church's foundation is continued to be built along those lines.
However, the reality is that Peter's confession was unique. The true identity of Jesus was revealed to him by God. Jesus chooses him to be the foundation, the rock, upon which Jesus will build the church. Jesus will be the builder. Peter will be the foundation. Peter is the foundation for a new community of believers. This community is not built on 5,000 years of interpretation of Mosaic Law. This community is built on the belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
That statement does not mean the Old Testament writings are not important. They are. They show us the nature of God even from the beginning. However, the new community is not trapped by the misinterpretations of that Law. The new community is built by Christ. Jesus shows us the way of the living God. This way is symbolized by teaching, by caring, by loving and by willing self-sacrifice. It is characterized by a love so great that nothing on earth can overcome it. The new community is characterized by a God who loves so deeply that the living God is willing to experience death in order to show us how much God loves us.
In some respect it is rather interesting that Jesus chose Peter to be the rock. Peter has moments of great faith. Peter has been given great knowledge at times about Jesus and the nature of God. Yet, Peter is also one of the great mess-ups of all times. He constantly puts his foot in his mouth. He constantly makes mistakes. He tries to walk on water and takes his eyes off of Jesus. He tries to tell Jesus he can't go to Jerusalem to die. He denies he even knows Jesus three times. Yet, Jesus still loves him. In fact, Jesus chooses Peter to be the instrument upon which the church will grow after Jesus is resurrected.
Jesus' choice of Peter is good news to us. Peter was very much like anyone of us. We have those great ah-ha moments. We have those times when we are so close to God that we feel we could just reach out and touch the hem of the heavenly robe. Then there are those times when we can't say or do anything right. We deliberately choose not to follow God's will, but follow our own. It is as if Jesus was on the road to Jerusalem and we were standing there saying no.
However, even though we make our mistakes, we can be and are ministers of God in this world. We are a part of the new community of the church that attempts to follow Jesus. We are the continuation of Jesus' work in the world. Jesus will not let this work fail. The church, the new community of God, will continue, because God's love is never ending, always present, always faithful. Like Peter, we are simply asked to respond.
And all of God's people say, “AMEN.”