Rock and Roll
Grace and Fairview United Methodist Churches
August 21, 2011
Matthew 16: 13-20 (NIV)
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
17Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.” 20Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
I can still remember the first time I ever drove. I was anxious to get started, so within a week of my 15th birthday, my Mom took me to the Driver’s License office, and I got my learner’s permit. That afternoon, she took me out for the first time. I only drove on our street that day, we worked on stopping. She would point at a mailbox and tell me to stop there, and I would. We did that for about thirty minutes, and that was it for my first drive. Over the next year, my Mom, my Dad, and driving instructors worked with me to help me learn how to drive. I think I had pretty good training, but that didn’t change the fact that when I got my driver’s license soon after my 16th birthday, my parents were nervous! They let me drive to school and to church and other activities, but for the first several weeks (maybe even months), you could see the insecurity in their eyes every time they handed over the keys. It is a natural parental reaction I think; to fret and worry about the safety of their child as they take off in a high-powered machine by themselves. Parents can’t help but wonder if their child has the maturity to handle such responsibility.
We might ask the same question about Jesus giving Peter the keys of the kingdom as he did in the Scripture reading this morning. I mean, this is Peter, after all. Don’t get me wrong, but could we claim that Peter has the maturity even of a 16 year old? He is constantly missing the point, and he regularly talks before he thinks. Just a few verses after this encounter, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” for setting his mind on human instead of divine things! And then later, Peter denies Jesus three times! How could Jesus possibly give the keys of the kingdom of heaven and build the church upon someone so unstable? Clearly, there is something more to this whole exchange. But to understand it fully, we need to go back to the beginning.
Do you remember how this whole conversation started? Jesus asked the disciples a question. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Immediately the disciples started chiming in with answers. And it seems that their responses depended on what particular faction they were a part of — whether they are partial to John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other prophet. If Jesus were to ask us that same question today, we might reply with names like Luther, or Barth, or John Wesley, or Billy Graham. I say this to make the point that people, even the disciples, project onto Jesus their particular cultural, or theological, or denominational ideals.
So recognizing this tendency, Jesus now asks a more pointed question, “What about you? Who do you say that I am?” The disciples are silent this time, except for Peter, who, as he often does, quickly speaks up in reply, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, Son of the living God.” If Jesus is surprised by Peter’s response, he doesn’t show it. And he responds now directly to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will beloosed in heaven.”
By the sound of it, Peter got a serious promotion, he really can handle those keys! If there was any doubt about his supremacy among the other disciples, surely this cleared it up! Clearly, Peter has an important job now! That’s why we have all those jokes about someone dying and meeting St. Peter at the Pearly Gates of heaven, it comes from this passage! You’ve heard a joke or two like this, right? “A fellow finds himself in front of the Pearly Gates. St. Peter explains that it’s not so easy to get in heaven. There are some criteria before entry is allowed. So Peter begins asking questions: was the man religious in life? Did he attend church? The man replies that he did not. St. Peter told him that’s bad and continues with the questioning. Was he generous? Did he give money to the poor? Charities? The man explained that he did not. St. Peter told him that that too was bad, but still searching for some redeeming quality, Peter asks more questions. Did he do any good deeds? Help his neighbor? Anything? This time, the man just shook his head. St. Peter was becoming concerned. Exasperated, Peter says, ‘Look, everybody does something nice sometime. Work with me, I’m trying to help. Now think!’
‘Well,’ the man says, ‘There was this old lady. I came out of a store and found her surrounded by a dozen Hell’s Angels. They had taken her purse and were shoving her around, taunting and abusing her. I got so mad I threw my bags down, fought through the crowd, and got her purse back, finally helping her to her feet. I then went up to the biggest, baddest biker and told him how despicable, cowardly and mean he was and then I spat in his face.’
‘Wow,’ said Peter, ‘That’s impressive. When did this happen?’
‘Oh, about 10 minutes ago,’ replied the man.”
Anyway, all these jokes have the same sort of theme. Someone dies, they get up to heaven and meet up with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. That’s because Peter holds the keys to the kingdom. This passage tells us that he has the authority to “bind and to loose.” He is the one who decides whether or not a person will enter the kingdom of heaven. But when Jesus announces that Peter will be the keeper of the keys, he is referring to the role of Christ’s followers (the church) on earth, not to decisions about who enters heaven and who doesn’t. Those decisions are left to Christ alone. And the role of the church in the world does not rest on the person of Peter, but on Peter’s witness! Notice, see, that Jesus wasn’t responding to Peter’s particular strengths and accomplishments as a disciple; remember, Peter was often being scolded by Jesus. Rather, Jesus was responding to Peter’s testimony; his proclamation that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God!”
The rock is not Peter, but Peter’s testimony. This is a significant lesson for the church to grasp today. The church is not founded on Peter, just as it is not founded on John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Luther, or John Wesley. The church’s power and permanence does not come from some authoritative person, but from the testimony of the church in the world! And that means our church is only as powerful or as fragile as each of us in our own faith. Did you catch that? The church is only as strong as the faith of the people in it! How’s that for pressure?
We hear this passage, and the mental check-list pops up. “Peter holds the keys to the kingdom. We’ve got to be ready to meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. Okay,” we think to ourselves. “That means I need to sin a little less, give a little more, and get to worship more often. Okay. I can do that.” And all of those things are important, we do need to do them, but Christ’s question points to a greater priority; faith, belief, our response to Christ’s work in our lives.
If the strength of the church in the world today were measured solely based on your faith, your testimony of Christ Jesus, how would it be doing? That’s convicting, isn’t it? It’s no wonder the church seems to be losing its foothold in the world! We talk about our faith among ourselves often, but how are we doing when it comes to sharing the good news with others?
Christ’s question of Peter and the other disciples is a question for us all. “Who do you say that I am? What is your testimony of me? What is your experience of the living God through my witness and presence?” The future of the church rests on our answers to these questions, and whether or not we are taking our answers out into the world! This is the rock on which the church is founded. This is the source of Christian authority. This is the key to the kingdom! That Christ’s followers are boldly and faithfully proclaiming the good news of Christ in the world!
The history of Christianity attests how vulnerable the Christian church is. We have numerous examples in the last 2,000 years where we have become complacent as Christians. In all denominations, in every church, we can see how easy it is to slip into this form of idolatry where we rest on someone else’s confession of Christ. “How is Christianity in America?” someone might ask. “Oh, we’re good. Billy Graham had all those revivals, and all those people came to Christ. The church is really strong!” Well, Billy Graham’s last revival was in 2005. Who’s been sharing Christ with others since then? John Wesley died in 1791. Who’s been helping the poor since then? Christ last walked this earth 1,978 years ago. Who’s been teaching about God’s kingdom since then? Friends, if you and I aren’t doing these things, then who is? That’s why Christ called Peter “the rock,” the foundation of the church, and gave him the keys of the kingdom; because his testimony, OUR testimony, is the future of the church!
This passage is not a mandate to turn inwardly in self-righteousness, seeking to make ourselves worthy of God’s presence. Rather, it is a call outward; a call to move beyond our complacency, to get rolling, to step outside the walls of the church, to stop worrying about what the church can do for me, and to start sharing the good news of Christ in the world. We need to give our testimony! And when a whole community testifies to the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, think of what can happen. The church gains authority and power and strength. The church becomes a living witness, the only living witness, that can bring life and hope!
There are many ways to answer Christ’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” But only one answer opens the doors to the kingdom of heaven. So let’s get rolling and start proclaiming the good news of Christ in the world today!