Three men were standing in line to get into heaven one day. Apparently it had been a pretty busy day, though, so Peter had to tell the first one, “Look, heaven’s just about reached its quota for the day, and I’ve been asked only to admit people who have had particularly horrible deaths. So what’s your story?”
The first man replies: “Well, for a while I’ve suspected my wife has been cheating on me, so today I came home early to try to catch her red-handed. As I came into my 25th floor apartment, I could tell something was wrong, but all my searching around didn’t reveal where this other guy could have been hiding. Finally, I went out to the balcony, and sure enough, there was this man hanging off the railing, 25 floors above ground! Furious, I started beating on him and kicking him, but he wouldn’t fall off. So finally I went back into my apartment and got a hammer and starting hammering on his fingers. Of course, he couldn’t stand that for long, so he let go and fell—but even after 25 stories, he fell into the bushes, stunned but okay. I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I ran into the kitchen, grabbed the fridge and pushed it over the edge where it landed on him, killing him instantly. All the stress and rage got to me, and I had a heart attack and died there on the balcony.”
“That sounds like a pretty bad day to me,” said Peter, and while he found the man’s behavior reprehensible, he was reminded of the grace of Christ that had forgiven him his denials and missteps, and let the man in.
The second man came up, and Peter explains to him about heaven being full, and again asked for his story.
“It’s been a very strange day. You see, I live on the 26th floor of my apartment building, and every morning I do my exercises out on my balcony. Well, this morning I tripped and fell over the railing. Luckily, I caught the railing of the balcony on the floor below me. I knew I couldn’t hang on for very long, but suddenly this man burst out onto the balcony. I thought for sure I was saved, when he started beating on me and kicking me. I held on the best I could until he ran into the apartment and grabbed a hammer and started pounding on my hands. Finally I just let go. But again I got lucky and fell into the bushes below, stunned but okay. Just when I was thinking I was going to get up, this refrigerator comes falling out of the sky and crushes me instantly, and now I’m here.”
Peter had to concede that that sounded like a pretty horrible death, so he let the second man enter.
The third man came to the front of the line, and again Peter explained that heaven was full and asked for his story.
“Picture this,” says the third man, “I’m hiding inside a refrigerator…”
We could sit all day and tell jokes about Saint Peter guarding the Pearly Gates—there seems to be no limit to them. The image of Saint Peter being the one standing at the gate at all hours to determine who gets in and who doesn’t is one interpretation of this morning’s scripture reading from the Gospel of Matthew. “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus told Peter, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19)
This week’s lectionary reading is also the basis for the Roman Catholic tradition that Peter was the “first pope,” and that each succeeding pope inherited the spirit of Peter’s apostolic leadership from his predecessor. There’s a whole lot of church history and church imagery tied up in just these few verses, some of it amusing, some of it questionable, but all of it important in its way.
The conversation between Jesus and his disciples is a revealing one. When asked who people say the Son of Man is, they rattle off a list of possibilities: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Christians today aren’t so different. When asked who Jesus is, we might answer in all sorts of different ways: a wise teacher, the Great Physician, the Good Shepherd, a great prophet, the Judge judged in our place. We take our answers from what we have been taught by Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, Charles Wesley, George Fox, etc. We have a whole litany of ways we think about Jesus, according to the way we were taught to think or according to our own experience of Jesus in our lives.
The same was apparently the case for the people speaking about Jesus. The idea that he was a resurrected prophet, even if it wasn’t quite right, is still a very high measure of who Jesus was thought to be! But then Jesus asked a more pointed question: “What about yinz? Who do yinz think I am?” (And yes, he said “yinz”— he wasn’t just talking to Peter, but to the twelve.) But it was Peter who spoke up first, saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
It seems this answer pleasantly surprised Jesus, who said, “You’ve been blessed, Simon bar Jonah! No one here could have taught you that; it must have been revealed to you by my Heavenly Father!” Now, as far as Matthew is concerned, Peter didn’t necessarily say anything profound in this scene. When Jesus had climbed into the boat after Peter walked on the water, all the disciples had worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God!” (Matt. 14:33). Peter’s confession, at this point in Matthew’s gospel, is nothing new or groundbreaking.
This is also supposed to be the story of how Simon got his new name. While Matthew, our narrator, has been calling him Peter from the beginning of the story, often referring to him as “Simon, who is called Peter,” it is here that Jesus actually bestows this new name—or nickname, as the case may be. That’s because back in those days, no one used the name “Peter.” There was no such name. Nowadays, we probably all know someone named Peter, or Pedro, or Piotr, or Petri, or Pierre, or Patrick. But not back then. Back then, “Peter” was simply the Greek transliteration of the Latin word for “rock,” and it seems to me that it was meant to be a nickname. This is the first time that Peter is actually called Peter by Jesus or any other speaking character in the Gospel of Matthew. Although the narrator has called him Peter all along, it’s only because he knew the story before he told it.
“Simon, I’m going to start calling you ‘Rocky,’” Jesus said, “because it’s on this Rock that I will build my church.” Peter would play an important and influential role in the early church, eventually becoming the senior leader of the Church in Rome. In the book of Acts, when Peter had a vision declaring that old kosher laws were no longer binding, and then went on to interpret that vision to mean that Gentiles were as clean in God’s sight as Jews (Acts 10-11), the Christian community, led by James, the brother of Jesus, ultimately agreed with him. Simon the Rock was given the keys to the kingdom, and told that what he bound would be bound and what he loosed would be loosed, meaning that authority over the community would be vested in him by Jesus, and his interpretation of the gospel would be binding.
That’s an awesome responsibility to place on the shoulders of someone… well, someone like Peter. After blessing Simon with his new nickname, Jesus sternly ordered his disciples not to reveal to anyone that he was the Messiah. In the Gospel of Mark, that phrase makes sense. According to Mark, Jesus was keeping his identity a secret, because the authorities were always breathing down his neck. In Matthew, though, there is a different reason for Jesus’ request: the future apostles seemingly didn’t understand what Jesus’ being the Messiah meant. And until they did, it wasn’t safe to let them run their mouths.
Without question, my all-time favorite Broadway musical is Jesus Christ Superstar. This musical adaptation of Jesus’ final days, controversial in its time, shows exactly why Jesus might sternly order his disciples to keep their mouths shut. When it is suggested by Simon the Zealot that Jesus use his popularity with the crowds to stage an overthrow of their Roman oppressors, Jesus responds by saying, “Neither you, Simon, nor the 50,000, nor the Romans, nor the Jews, nor Judas, nor the twelve, nor the priests, nor the scribes, nor doomed Jerusalem itself understand what power is, understand what glory is, understand at all.”
That’s precisely the scene that played out in the second part of this morning’s reading. Jesus had, at this point, begun explaining to the disciples what being the Messiah meant: that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders. But Peter (of all people) took Jesus aside and rebuked him! “God forbid it, Lord!” he said. “This must never happen to you!”
But Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Grrr… Simon it’s no wonder I call you Rocky, ‘cause you’re dumber than a whole box of them! Are you Satan himself? Stop obstructing God’s mission! Peter, you’ve got your mind on human concepts of power, rather than on heavenly concepts of power.”
It occurs to me that if I were the director for a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, it might do to have those singing and dancing with Simon the Zealot dress like evangelical pastors and televangelists. “Keep them singing their devotion,” Simon advised, “but add a touch of hate at Rome. You will rise to a greater power; we will win ourselves a home! You’ll get the power and the glory!” From the Moral Majority to the Christian Coalition (don’t click that one unless you want to spend your time reading something repugnant), the Jerry Falwell, Jrs., of the world have aspirations to political power and influence that Jesus specifically speaks against in this week’s lesson. Following our current reading, Jesus goes on to describe the kind of leadership he is looking for: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). The moral influence of Christians comes not by cozying up to the powerful in government; such grasping will only cause the Church to squander any moral authority remaining to it. Jesus has zero interest in worldly power and glory, calling one of his favorite disciples Satan for even suggesting that Jesus should aspire to such things!
How did a guy like Peter—whose nickname might just as well have meant “Blockhead”—end up getting the keys to the kingdom? How do young parents ever willingly hand a set of car keys to a young, impulsive 16-year-old? When you look at Peter’s track record, you get the sense that he’s got nothing that we don’t have—he appears dimwitted, often rash and impulsive, speaks out of turn, and doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on around him half the time. To make matters worse, he also denied he knew Jesus at all, when being asked made him feel uncomfortable. This guy holds the keys? This guy gets to run the outfit after Jesus is gone?
The other side of the “Peter’s no better than we are” coin is that we’re no better than Peter, either. In fact, Peter seems to be a very good representative of how Jesus’ disciples tend to turn out. We barely understand the faith we profess. We have sufficient faith to do truly miraculous things, but mostly don’t, because, in the end, we lack the nerve. We’re just uncomfortable enough with being associated with Jesus (and, more particularly these days, associated with some of Jesus’ so-called followers) that we deny that association in order to save our reputations. We believe the Church of Jesus Christ should have positive moral influence in our society, but too many think that means we should have power and authority in governing, even though Jesus has taught us that leadership comes through love, service, and self-sacrifice.
What we want is to be comfortable; what Jesus asks is nothing less than self-sacrifice.
The Rock on which Jesus is building his church—still to this day—is not Peter, but rather Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. This truth has been revealed to us by God’s own self. And while the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, each and every one of us—everyone who confesses Jesus as Messiah and God’s Son—is a block, a rock, a stone or a brick that Jesus himself is using to build his Church. What is accomplished through the Church is not our work, because it is not our ministry. What is accomplished is the Mission of God in Jesus Christ. Flesh and blood has not revealed to us that Jesus is our Savior and the Son of God, but our Father in Heaven!
That is the Solid Rock on which Christ has built his Church. All other ground is sinking sand.