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The following sermon is one of many by the Rev. Foster Freed of the United Church of Canada that will be presented on this site over the next few months and years. Foster is one of best preachers I have been privileged to hear in my years of ministry. Foster is the pastor of a large and growing congregation (Knox United) located in Parksville on Vancouver Island in the Province of British Columbia.
A Sermon Preached at Knox United Church, Parksville, B.C.
on August 25th 2002 (Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
by Foster Freed
At the outset, let me observe that this morning's reading is one of the New Testament's most significant. It is found in all three synoptic Gospels: in the 16th chapter of Matthew, the eighth chapter of Mark (which is presumably the original) and in the ninth chapter of Luke. In each of these Gospels, though most obviously in Mark and Matthew, this episode represents a turning point. With Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah (which is the theme of this morning's reading) and Peter's subsequent failure to recognize the true meaning of Jesus' Messiahship (which is the theme of next Sunday's reading) all three Gospels arrive at a critical juncture. To that extent, all three synoptic gospels are in agreement.
And yet, for all their agreement, Matthew in his telling of the story, includes important details that are found neither in Mark nor in Luke. Listen. Listen first to Mark's Gospel.
"Jesus asked them, But who do you say that I am? Peter answered him, You are the Messiah. And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him." That's Mark's version.
Now listen again to the version from Matthew we heard earlier.
"Jesus 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."
That's quite a mouthful, isn't it? And it raises a number of issues that have divided Christians along all sorts of fault lines.
Most notoriously, it has divided Roman Catholic Christians from both their Eastern Orthodox and Protestant brothers and sisters. You see, in the traditions of the Catholic Church, this verse is seen as a key foundation for the office of the Pope. And so the argument is made that Jesus was handing over a distinctive spiritual authority not only to Peter but to Peter's successors, the subsequent bishops of the city of Rome, in which church Peter is believed to have been the first bishop, in which city Peter is believed to have been martyred.
Protestants, for their part, have tended to respond that the promise is only made to Peter, not to his successors. Besides, or so runs a classic argument, it is not so much Peter himself who is made the foundation of the church, but rather Peter's confession (his recognition that Jesus is the Messiah) that is the foundation of the church. No wonder we Protestants delight in singing that "the Church's one Foundation, is Jesus Christ our Lord!"
For the record, I believe there is a measure of truth in each perspective. Protestants are right to remind Catholics that there is nothing whatsoever in this verse about Peter's successors. Protestants are also right to remind Catholics that any authority given to Peter is valid only to the extent that Peter remains faithful to his insight: namely, that Jesus is the Messiah. But Catholics, I believe (and more and more Protestant scholars seem willing to concede this), Catholics are right to claim that it is not only Peter's insight that is authoritative, but that Jesus is conferring at least some measure of authority on Peter himself, and through Peter on the church and its subsequent leaders.
Mind you: all of this presupposes that Jesus actually spoke these words to Peter. And that is another fault-line that this passage creates. Not only a fault-line between Catholics and other Christians, but also between liberal and conservative scholarship. Conservative scholarship believes these sayings about Peter really came from Jesus; liberal scholarship has tended to believe that Matthew's church inserted these sayings into Mark's original, as a way of conferring special authority on the ministry of Peter.
And this is, of course, one disagreement that will likely rage until the end of time. For my part, I am struck by a growing tendency among even liberal scholarls, to regard the sayings about Peter as authentically coming from the lips of Jesus: preserved in a tradition that was available to Matthew but not to Mark. Three arguments seem especially convincing. First, that where we have a source that was used by Matthew, he is exceptionally respectful of that source; he shows no tendency simply to make things up. Second, that the pattern of Greek in this passage appears to reflect an underlying source in either Hebrew or Aramaic, making it likely that these words about Peter come from an ancient tradition. Finally, there is impressive corroborating evidence in Paul's letter to the Galatians, where Paul grudgingly acknowledges familiarity with traditions that give Peter special authority.
At any rate, that is my rather convoluted way of saying that I take this material at face value. I believe these sayings come from the lips of our Lord. Which means I have no choice but to ponder their meaning for today. And, as my sermon title indicates, I have a sense that their meaning for us today is caught up in this whole notion of the keys: the keys that were handed to Peter. Keys to the kingdom of heaven. Keys that will bind and loose on earth, so that (to quote from Matthew) whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. But what, pray tell, does any of that mean?
Well: at a minimum, it means that a profound authority has been conferred upon Peter, upon other church leaders, upon the church itself. And our temptation, I fear, has been to err in one of two ways in the face of such authority: the first turns the church into a dreadfully serious business, an institution that takes itself far too seriously. In reaction, we then go to the opposite extreme (the danger we now face in the United Church) by not taking the Church's distinctive mission seriously enough. But surely it is possible (not easy, mind you, but possible) to take the work we have been given as the church seriously, without taking ourselves seriously. And so yes, as distant descendants of those earliest Christians, as distant descendants of Simon Peter and the others, we ought never underestimate the weightiness of the work we have been given: the gospel we proclaim, the prayers we offer, the bread and cup we share, the care and compassion we offer in Christ's name. Let us never underestimate the importance of that work to God's work: its power to do great good, and (God help us) its power to do great harm (think about the residential schools, or about sexually abusive clergy), its power to harm when we betray the trust that has been placed in our corporate hands.
We can go further, I think: we can say more about those keys that were placed in Peter's hands. And I was struck, this past week by the two contrasting images that emerged as I pondered Peter and his keys. One of those images came from my study of some of the fine commentaries I perused, commentaries that are fairly unanimous in their understanding of the keys, explaining that Peter is being given the authority which rabbis traditionally held (and in some Orthodox Jewish circles still hold) to make binding decisions in the areas of doctrine and ethics. And I found myself contrasting that with an image that has become a staple of pop culture (and all kinds of very funny jokes): the image of St. Peter and his keys, standing guard at the gates of heaven. And as I weighed those images, as I contrasted those images, I was left with a question.
Why is it that the image most non-churchgoers have of the institutional church, tends to draw so heavily on the rabbinical image: the image of a group of right-minded folks who delight in laying down all sorts of doctrinal absolutes they themselves don't really believe, and all sorts of ethical absolutes they themselves never manage to keep. And I know that's a miserably unfair caricature: we're not like that. And yet, the fact remains that the church, as far as the world is concerned, seems to be far better at binding then at loosening. Far better at the creation of binding doctrinal norms and ethical rules, than at the setting loose of God's people for lives of hope-filled freedom in the midst of a horrifically complex world.
And I think most of you know me well enough to know that I am repudiating neither doctrine nor morals! The shelves of my church study are lined with many volumes of theology: with a decided preference for those theologians who view theology as nothing more than sustained commentary on the church's teaching, the church's doctrines. As for ethics, again I hope you know me well enough to realize that I am not so naive about the human race as to believe that we could get along without at least some guidelines (which had generally better take the form of rules, regulations, and laws) to assist us in governing our unruly passions and our boundless pretentions. I know that, and I hope you know that I know that.
But! I also know this. Simon son of Jonah, this Peter on whose confession the church is founded, immediately (as we will see next Sunday) managed to make a botch of the whole business, entirely misunderstanding the true nature of Jesus' mission. This same Peter then proceeded to deny Jesus not once, not twice, but three times on the night of Jesus' arrest. Furthermore, it was this very Peter (according to John's Gospel), who could think of nothing more productive to do after witnessing the risen Christ, than to return to Galilee and get back into the fishing business. And then, some 20 years later, when you would think he had finally managed to get things sorted out, it was this same rock-like Peter who received a good tongue-lashing from the apostle Paul. Why? Because Peter had withdrawn from table fellowship with fellow Christians, simply because they were Gentiles. You see: Jesus founded the church on the back of a man who was a repeat recipient of divine mercy. Someone who fell often, but who was allowed to stand again. In other words, Jesus placed the keys to his kingdom in the hands of someone who had as much reason as any human being who has ever walked the face of this earth, to acknowledge his radical need for God's mercy-drenched grace.
And oh, how I wish, how I wish, that the Church did a better job of presenting the Gospel in that way. How I wish we displayed more facility at showing the world that Christ's mission was and still is, and that therefore the church's mission always has been and still is, fundamentally a mission of divine mercy. That any wisdom, any doctrine, of which the Church might dare to boast, is grounded fully and exclusively in the truth of divine mercy; that any virtue, any ethical achievement of which the Church might dare to boast, is grounded fully and exclusively in the goodness of divine mercy. The mercy that picks us up each time we stumble, each time we fall.
I'm reminded of St. Augustine's famous quip. That the Kingdom of heaven will be built not from the perfection of virtue, but from the forgiveness of sins.
I'm also reminded of the decision the present occupant of Peter's chair made two weeks ago, during what will likely be his final trip to his homeland. John Paul's theme throughout his visit to Poland was Divine Mercy, reminding us that it is mercy that will lead us into the work of justice. Mercy and justice not as opposites, as we sometimes suppose, but as realities that go hand in hand. Mercy leading us, divine mercy leading us to justice.
Finally, I am reminded of a wonderful song: one of the last songs written by a remarkable evangelical Christian song-writer, who was taken from us far too young: Rich Mullins.
"Let mercy lead, (let mercy lead!)
let love be the strength in your legs,
and in every footprint that you leave,
there'll be a drop of grace."
I like that. The good news being....
....the good news being that it is just such grace, that it is just such mercy, that now has a name. Mercy now has a name (we call him Jesus!), mercy now has a story (we call it Gospel!)...
...and also, also mercy now has a community of followers (we call it church!): a key-wielding community of followers, that lives for the express purpose of telling the world, and better still of showing the world, the face of God's unyielding love.
"Jesus said to them: But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered, You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
copyright - Sermon by Rev. Foster Freed 2002 - 2006 page by Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 2006 please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.
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