Today we mark the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter. St. Peter is often invoked as a patron saint: of locksmiths, bakers, bricklayers, net makers, and more. Actually, as I read all of those who look to St. Peter for guidance and direction, I thought about the diverse group here at St. Peter's. You all have different gifts but are united under the same saint as belonging to this community.
But of course, today is not simply a feast for St. Peter alone, but for the confession that he makes about Jesus as the Messiah. As I look at our gospel text this evening, there are three different movements I want to draw our attention to as we look into this next year as a people who make our confession alongside our patron saint. What does it mean for us as a community to say that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God?
First, this confession roots us onto this rock, petra Jesus calls it. Surely you are Peter (Petros) and on this petra I will build my church.
There's been a lot of spilled ink as to the meaning and significance of Jesus essentially giving Simon a nickname...not dissimilar from "Rocky" in our own language today. Is "this rock" Peter himself? It is his confession? Is it Jesus? Of course, different denominations give different accounts for it or place different emphasis. Our Roman Catholic siblings place this emphasis more on Peter the person and office, establishing their understanding of the primacy of Peter, the papacy, and even the infallibility of the pope. Our protestant siblings of many stripes say this rock is the confession of Peter itself: Jesus is the Messiah the Son of the Living God. Or, they may even say that Jesus was being coy, pointing to Peter and then to himself: Surely you are Rocky, but on this Rock I will build my church, pointing to himself. And our Orthodox siblings say that Peter is a sort of representative rock, standing as the original bishop upon which other bishops derive their authority in unbroken succession to today.
So, what (or who) is the rock? Like good Anglicans, our answer to this sort of question is a comprehensive: "yes!" Peter is, in a uniquely historic way, foundational for the establishment and foundation of the Church. He was often looked to as a leader amongst the original apostles. As Episcopalians, we don't go as far to grant the sort of authority that the Bishop of Rome claims for himself. But we do recognize that we are a part of the same historic and apostolic succession going back to this Peter and this confession. We also believe that this confession, that Jesus is Messiah and Lord, is absolutely foundational for us as Christians. We confess Jesus as Lord and Messiah and the Son of God whenever we gather for worship.
So I mentioned the three movements, and the first is one is a move backward. When we confess Jesus as Lord with St. Peter, we are looking back on this Great (if not complex) Tradition upon which we owe our existence. Jesus has built his church upon the Rock of Peter, the Rock of his confession, and upon his very Self and she has persisted, imperfect and beautiful as she is up to this point. As St. Peter's we deeply value that rich anglican tradition in our worship. We recite the ancient creeds, we engage in the deep liturgical traditions of our forebears, we pray the historic prayers of the saints who've come before us. And we cling to this ancient and foundational confession: Jesus is Messiah, Son of the Living God.
Jesus goes on to talk about the amazing truth of the church: the gates of Hades or death will not prevail against it. One thing I've always loved about this image is what it presumes about the church: she is on the move against the powers of death and darkness in the world. Not standing still and enduring what comes, but actively moving forward.
This second direction is onward. Isn't it a sort of saying: a rolling stone gathers no moss? We are a rock and we are on the move. (I'm deeply resisting the urge to make a rock n' roll joke...). There can be a temptation to focus on our rootedness in tradition and not believe that we must also move forward, move onward with God into the world. But I am grateful to see how St. Peter's has done that, literally in the face of death and evil. You have moved through it, you have moved onward as resurrection people. When we confess Jesus along with St. Peter, we are rooting ourselves in the tradition of our forebears by also moving onward as people who believe in the resurrection. We look at the gates of death and move onward in celebration of life, because of Jesus.
Finally, Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom, whatever he binds will be bound in heaven, whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. This, again, can have a lot of interpretations but there is a strong emphasis in the history of interpretation on the proclamation and reception of the gospel. We see this play out in the Acts of the Apostles as the gospel is spread by Peter in his first sermon and people are added to the church that day, bound in heaven.
The keys that Peter held are, by extension, given to us in a sense. Through our confession of Jesus as Messiah and our proclamation of Jesus as the Son of the Living God, we are opening the way of heaven, the way of the kingdom, to the world. We move out into the world in the power of the Spirit, proclaiming and embodying the good news of Jesus.
The third direction is outward. We move backward to our roots in tradition, we move onward in resilience and hope, and we move outward as we participate in God's mission in the world.
We see these movements at work in our own mission statement, carrying on in the example of St. Peter:
St. Peter’s is an intimate, inclusive, mission-centered church
committed to involvement in the life of our neighbors
in Old Ellicott City and beyond. (outward)
We support all persons in their spiritual journey
and celebration of life through worship of God in Christ (onward)
in the rich Anglican tradition. (backward)
May God continue to reveal to us, as was revealed to Peter, the depth and significance of this reality that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. May God continue to show us how we might most faithfully live into the Rock of our confession and the Rock of our faith, Jesus Christ himself. May we also live with an upward orientation, seeking to glorify God in all the ways in which we live and move and have our being.