The New Testament revolves around three primary characters-Jesus, St. Paul, and St. Peter, whose feast is today. Simon Peter appears in both of the major parts of the New Testament: first the Gospels, which are about the life and earthly ministry of Jesus; and then the Book of Acts and the epistles, which tell us what happened to the church after Jesus’ ascension. John the Baptist is the bridge character between the Old and the New Testaments, and St. Peter provides a bridge between the two sections of the New Testament itself.
Whenever Peter appears in a story in the Gospels, we should always first try to identify ourselves with him. He is so much like us — he wants to be loyal and good, but he doesn’t always understand too clearly what is really going on — and, also like us, Peter has some difficulty facing up to his shortcomings and his real motives.
After the Holy Ghost comes down upon the apostles at Pentecost, Peter is different. He understands the Scriptures more clearly; he has a more definite sense of what God is up to in his life and he shows new capacity for growth and change. The more we get to know Peter, the more he becomes the image of what the Holy Ghost can do in our own lives if we cooperate.
Today’s Gospel for St. Peter’s Day is brief, but full of enormously important teaching. Jesus asks the disciples what the people in the crowds he attracts are saying about him. Jesus is not running for office, but he nonetheless wants to keep his finger on the pulse of public opinion, and he is setting up the way to reveal something crucial.
The disciples report that some people say he is John the Baptist, some say he is Elijah; others say he is Jeremiah or one of the other Old Testament prophets. Jesus does not dwell on any of that. Instead, he turns the question around on the disciples and asks them, “But what do you think about me — whom say ye that I am?” And Peter blurts out, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
St. Peter’s reply to the question lays out the two main things we believe about Jesus: first, he is the Saviour God promised Israel in the Old Testament; the Messiah, the anointed one, the Christ — and, second, he is God, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity.
Jesus says, “You are a happy man, Simon, son of John, because you must have got that answer directly from God — no one else could have told you, and you could never have figured it out by yourself.”
Then Jesus gives Simon a nickname and proceeds to make a pun with it. The Greek word for “rock” is “petra.” So Jesus says, “You are Peter – Rocky — the Rock; and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”
People use this verse in debates about the pope. Tradition tells us that Peter was pope — the Bishop of Rome. The Roman Catholic Church makes claims about his successors in that office based in part on the fact that Jesus said he would build the church on Peter. Others argue that the rock was not Peter himself, but what Peter said about Jesus in this morning’s Gospel.
There isn’t any doubt, though, that Peter was the chief disciple, and there isn’t any doubt that Peter was in on the founding of many of the most important churches in the apostolic age — Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome being only the most obvious examples. We can acknowledge that Peter was, in that sense, the rock on which Jesus built the church.
But that does not mean we have to accept the more extreme claims about the pope. Nothing in the Bible or in the early traditions of the church suggests that any man who is a successor to St. Peter as pope is automatically the bishop of everybody everywhere or that he is incapable of being wrong when he speaks authoritatively.
At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The key to heaven is forgiveness. Jesus gave Peter the authority to forgive sins, and he gave the same authority to the other apostles later on. In a few minutes Fr. [“name”] will exercise that authority for us, because the church passed it on to him though her bishops. He will make the sign of the cross to assure us that what Jesus did on the cross is forgive our sins.
The church is built upon both rocks — both Peter and what he said about who Jesus is. The Prayer Book says the church is apostolic, because we continue steadfastly in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship. The teaching of the Apostles is in the New Testament. The fellowship of the apostles is in the succession of believing bishops. Both the teaching and the fellowship trace back directly to the rock, who is Peter himself. The core of the teaching is that Jesus died to forgive us. The fellowship is the way that forgiveness gets to us.
As Jesus says in another place, “Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will liken him unto a man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not; for it was founded upon a rock.” And that is why — no matter how bad things might ever appear — the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.