For centuries this text has been used to define the authority of the Church. The Roman Catholic Church understands this passage to establish apostolic authority passed on from generation to generation. It begins with Peter receiving the keys to the kingdom from Jesus and continues to the current Pope Francis. While Protestants do not affirm this interpretation of the text, we can agree that the authority Jesus gives to Peter is central to our understanding of the authority of the global Church – the Body of Christ. The church’s authority comes from our understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ.
I remember when our boys turned sixteen and we handed over the keys to a vehicle capable of going 100 mph. Was this really a wise decision? Were they mature enough to handle the responsibility? It’s a little like that in this story for Jesus. Was it the best decision to hand over the “keys to the kingdom” to this guy who didn’t seem to have the maturity of even a 16-year-old? Time after time Peter showed lack of understanding, hasty judgment, and stubbornness. Before and after this event Peter does many things that do not show competent leadership. And yet, here Jesus elevates Peter to this special status…the Rock upon which the church will be built. That is where I think we make a mistake in reading this story. Peter is simply another broken and hurting human being just like the rest of us. Jesus says clearly that Peter did not figure out the answer all by himself; it was revealed to him by God. It is not Peter who is special in this story – it is Peter’s Testimony that is “The Rock”.
For me this changes the idea of “apostolic succession” completely. Jesus did not establish his church based on the capabilities or the righteousness of a human being and expect it to succeed. Jesus established his church on human testimony that came from God. And that testimony is the answer to this profoundly challenging question: “Who do you say that I am?” The answer to this question is at the heart of your personal testimony and the testimony of the church through the ages. The answer is why the church exists at all. At the beginning of today’s text, Jesus asked who the people say that he is. As we look through the various answers, we realize that their responses depend on what faction they are part of. At the time, people developed loyalties to particular religious figures – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or another prophet. For each one, their view of Jesus depended on who they wanted Jesus to be like. Today this becomes a problem for us when we interpret Jesus through the lens of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Billy Graham, or Pope Francis. We tend to identify Jesus from within the context of our own comfort zone. We project onto Jesus our particular cultural, theological, and denominational allegiances. When Jesus then turns to the Disciples and asks the $64,000 question, he expects a different kind of answer. He expects them to have a deeper, more complete understanding of his true identity.
This morning we are going to take some time to discuss how we answer that question. Who do YOU say that Jesus is?
[Here we allowed the congregation to respond.]
- Describe your relationship with Jesus.
- Do you remember meeting Jesus for the first time?
- Can you talk about a specific moment?
- How is your life different after meeting Jesus?
- Why is Jesus unique?
- When was Jesus particularly important to you?
- What did Jesus help you overcome?
- How do you imagine the future because of Jesus?
[We wrapped-up the conversation and led the congregation into a summary understanding of how our testimonies, like Peter’s, are what builds the church.]
What I hope we notice here is that we all have different, though similar, experiences of Jesus. And, when we really look at our testimonies, we realize that there isn’t much there that was our doing – the bulk of our testimony is about what God does. That really is the point here. When Peter answered the question, what he really says is: “What I have experienced in you, Jesus, is that you are the Messiah, the one who has been sent to us as a gateway into the kingdom of God.” The church is not founded on Peter, just as it is not founded on John the Baptist or Elijah, Martin Luther or John Wesley. The church is founded on the testimonies of these and thousands of others who dared to say: “I have experienced the Living God in Jesus Christ in a powerful and personal way and I want to tell you about it.” The church exists every day in the tension between our fragile answers to Jesus’ questions and the power of Jesus in the answers.
“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?”
This is the Rock on which the church was built and on which it still stands. It is not that Peter had some special ability; it is that he had a special testimony. Jesus handed the keys to the kingdom over to an immature, fragile, and unstable group of people based on their story, not their ability. Jesus knew that the journey would be difficult, but that the Holy Spirit would lead the way. The history of Christianity, of course, demonstrates how vulnerable we are to complacency. We have seen when we forget what our testimony is and what it really means to us. We notice how we slip into the idolatry of denomination, class, race, and politics. We forget who Jesus is and who he is calling us to be. We disengage from the church – the Body of Christ – and our testimony becomes silent. Our text this morning calls us back. It challenges us to move beyond our particular political and denominational factions. It begs us to set aside our theological emphases and our respective loyalties. It asks us to speak truthfully to one another in and through our differences about the impact of Jesus Christ in our own lives. When we testify about how Christ meets us in our own weakness to make us stronger, we speak not only as individuals; we are individuals within a community and the community begins to speak. When the faith community testifies to the Good News of the Gospel, we liberate the “priesthood of all believers” and the authority if the church becomes a living witness. Together we shout the answer to the question: “Who do you say that I am?” In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.