Now 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.
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Would you pray with me? Amen.
Foundations are the most critical component of any building. No matter how beautiful or intriguing the floorplan and finishings are, a building with a weak or compromised foundation will not stand the test of time.
Over the past year I have learned more about the architectural elements of this particular church building than I probably wanted to know. Some of our Trustees and I have crawled and maneuvered into parts of this building that some of you will never see or didn’t even know existed. As we’ve renovated over the past year, we’ve looked back into time intrigued by building practices and materials that have held this building together. The floors that your feet are firmly planted on at the moment are over 110 years old. They are original to this part of the building. Under these beautiful hardwood floors is a crawl space with just enough space to move around if you’re very small or willing to crawl on your belly. Once you cross the threshold of the door to my left and enter the Fellowship Hall, there is no longer a crawl space. That addition to the church was built almost right on top of the ground. Only a layer of new carpet and subflooring separates your feet from the firm ground.
I wonder if those who sketched the drawings, framed the building, and put down the hardwood floors ever imagined that their handiwork would still be standing over 100 years later. The foundation is standing the test of time thus far. Lord willing, this space will see its 200th birthday because it was a solid build the first time around.
In the United States, especially in the southeastern parts, it’s hard to come by buildings, churches, and homes that are well aged because the Civil War decimated the landscape. You have to head up to New England and the Atlantic coastline to find those churches that are as old as the Declaration of Independence. Christianity in the United States is fairly young in the grand scheme. I know many of you have traveled outside of the United States, a fair amount to Western Europe, and gazed upon some of the most spectacular architecture and art in former areas of Christendom. Notre Dame. Berlin Cathedral Church. St Basils Cathedral. St Peters Basilica.
These domineering houses of worship adorn the skylines of Europe’s major metropolitan areas-some having been rebuilt and expanded over the centuries by popes and emperors. The foundations of these holy spaces have stood the test of time. Older still are the churches and monasteries that dot the landscape of Lebanon, Jordan, Greece, North Africa, Israel, Turkey, and Syria. The oldest surviving church building in world is reported to be Dura-Europos Church in Syria. It’s almost 1800 years old. It’s unknown presently whether the space is intact or whether it was destroyed by ISIS.
Houses of worship have a way of creating thin spaces where heaven and earth meet. This space functions in that way every time we gather for worship. The great cathedrals of Europe, the ancient churches of Constantine’s reign, and the stick built churches of sub-Saharan Africa function in this way for communities of faith as well. I’m the first to marvel at church architecture and the way that earthen materials are shaped by artisans to make theological statements. The Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City is currently one of my favorite communities that has witnessed to God’s salvation story in the way the church was designed (and I’ve never even stepped foot in Kansas City before).
As much as I love a beautiful house of worship, I seriously doubt that Jesus had any sense or hope that his ministry would be memorialized in brick and mortar structures. At best, sacred spaces orient us toward fully loving God. At worst, we love sacred spaces and have no knowledge and personal experience of God’s redemptive grace. Our attachment can be more to the floor plan of the church than the God who is glorified by the ministry made possible by the sacred space.
The heart of this morning’s gospel lesson is not so much a lesson about church history and building architecture; it is about the identity of Jesus and the authority given to Peter to lead the assembly of Christ followers on this side of Easter. The episode begins with Jesus arriving in Caesarea Philippi and he inquires about his public perception. He asks the disciples what his reputation is among the crowds and the cities they have visited. By this point Jesus had been publicly baptized, taught the crowds about blessedness in the kingdom of heaven, healed individuals with leprosy and paralysis, walked on water, and miraculously fed thousands of folks in two separate occasions. He has also made a name for himself by going toe to toe with the Pharisees and Sadducees over differences in theological details.
Jesus is asking: How’s my image? Who do people think I am? What’s the public perception of this ministry of healing, teaching, and feeding? So the disciples start listing off the top 5 most recognizable individuals in ancient Judaism. Maybe you’re John the Baptist (remember that John had just been murdered some time before this conversation). You’re probably Elijah coming back since Elijah never died in the first place according to 2 Kings.
“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated Elijah and Elisha and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”
If you’re not Elijah then you’re probably Jeremiah or one of the minor prophets. They’re all good guesses and they position Jesus’ identity in line with the prophets and forebearers of the faith who called Israel back into covenant with Almighty God. Even if the hearsay wasn’t quite right, at least the case of mistaken identity positioned him among the Who’s Who of ancient Israel.
Great. The crowds have their opinion but who do you say that I am? Who is Jesus of Galilee to you? What experience of Jesus do you have to shore up your claim on his identity?
What happens next is one of the most important moments in all of the gospels. The confession of Peter occurs. He makes the clearest and most direct Christological statement seen anywhere in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. He has correctly identified the Messiah, the anointed one, the one promised by God to restore the covenant with Israel. Standing there in flesh and blood before Simon Peter is Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. Peter was quick to answer Jesus’ question and surprisingly he answered quickly and correctly. Jesus blesses Peter and in the same breath indicates that it was divine revelation that helped Peter correctly identify Jesus as the Messiah. Peter didn’t figure it out on his own-God helped him make the realization,
Now in this next part a few things happen. First off, Jesus renames Simon son of Jonah. This is where Simon gets Peter added to his name. Jesus called him a rock or Cephas in Aramaic. In Greek, rock is petros. The anglicized version of Petros is Peter. After the renaming, Peter is promised the church and the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Even Hell itself and the power of darkness will not prevail against the church. Peter is then given the authority to lead the church and sustain its ministry in calling for changed hearts and lives. He is given the authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sins through the promises of Jesus Christ. Remember that Peter is the primary preacher and teacher for the church in Acts long before Saul of Tarsus ever showed up.
A lot of ink has been spilt over these verses. They are seen to legitimize the Roman Catholic Church’s claim that the papacy is descended from this promise to Simon Peter. Peter was believed to be the first bishop of Antioch and then the first bishop of Rome and thus the first pope. These verses are seen to shore up the church’s self declared authority to mediate the grace of God and the forgiveness of sin.
What do you think Jesus had in mind when he told Peter he’d be the cornerstone of the gathered assembly of folks seeking out Gods reign in their midst? Would he still have been given the keys if he had answered incorrectly the question about Jesus’ identity? Some days Peter is the last one among the disciples you want as the foundation of the church. He gets paralyzed walking on water. Jesus chastises him for little faith. Jesus rebukes him and calls him the equivalent of Satan. He denies Jesus at the height of his arrest and trial. Today just happens to be Peters shining moment when he doesn’t say something stupid that is deserving of correction or rebuke. But today is the exception. Most days he is a screw up as far as faithful discipleship is concerned and he’s the one that gets the keys to Gods kingdom. That’s a telling sign of Gods creativity when the misfit is entrusted with leading the universal church.
What began as an identity issue for Jesus becomes an identity issue for the church. Who do we say that Jesus of Galilee is? What have we experienced that informs our understanding of identity? What can we say about him? What are we doing as consistent follow through on our statements about his identity? Do we still trust Peter and those like him to lead us into Gods reign?
One final comment and this one is for my contemporaries more than anyone else. The church in Western Europe and the United States is changing and doing so rapidly. Cathedrals are nearly empty of the below 50 crowd in Western Europe. Christendom is over. More folks than ever have no faith affiliation in our communities. I hear it often that the church’s hypocrisy, judgment, phobias, and back biting is turning off folks across the board. I get it. Who wants to share in a community where those things are common? Peace, unity, and agape style love are far more attractive qualities you’d like to find in a church. Inherent in those critiques of the church are unspoken expectations that the church is a country club for the perfected saints when really it’s a trauma center for the least, last, lost, and beaten down. The church is jam packed with folks like Peter on his worst days of deceit, and even then Jesus promises him the keys of heaven. What Peter does in his Christological confession is instill a hope that a deeply broken church led by a disciple who blunders more often than he succeeds always has the charge and power to reflect Gods kingdom of grace in every corner of creation.
Church, what do you have to say about the one called Christ and the rock upon which his church is built?