THE FEAST OF ST. PETER
“And I say also unto thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
If you were to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you would encounter an imposing statue of Saint Peter on your left as you approached the main entrance of this magnificent edifice. Giuseppe De Fabris’ statue reaches some twenty feet high, depicting St. Peter standing with a scroll in his left hand, and a large, golden key in his right. Of course, this image of the Apostle comes directly from the Gospel reading appointed for this Feast of St. Peter, where we encounter Jesus and the twelve resting from their travels on the beautiful and refreshing seacoast of Caesarea Philippi. And there, he turns to his companions and asks, “Whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am?” Now, this is an interesting question: What he’s asking is for an explanation: how people are explaining the appearance of the ‘Son of Man’?
Now, let’s understand the term “Son of Man” for in scripture we find it used in these ways: (1) as a poetic synonym for “man” or “human,” as in Ps. 8:4 “what is man that you are mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (2) We see God regularly address the prophet Ezekiel by the title “son of man” (2:1, 3; 3:1, 3). And (3) in Dan. 7 “The Son of Man” is identified as the glorious man whom the prophet sees coming with the clouds of heaven to approach the Ancient of Days. “The Son of Man” is a frequent designation of Christ found in the NT. And, you will find that it is Jesus’ favorite designation of himself. When speaking of himself as ‘the son of man’ he is implying both his messianic mission and his full humanity.
So again, Jesus wants to know how the people are explaining this seemingly Messianic event happening in the life and ministry of Jesus: who is this rabbi who calls himself “the Son of man?” “Well”, reply the Apostles, “some say you’re John the Baptist, some say Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Now by this we know that the masses believed Jesus to be a ‘man of God’ a prophet sent to Israel like so many before him. But more importantly, what this response tells us is that the people did not yet understand who Jesus was which is why they did not recognize Him as the Messiah foretold of in Israel’s scriptures; they saw the man but did not recognize God himself; the second person of the Holy Trinity- incarnate: Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God.
Now here comes the big question, perhaps the most pivotal question in all of human history. Jesus asks of his disciples, “but who do you say that I am?” And why do I apply such weighty importance to this question? Well, this was THE decisive moment in which the separation of the New Testament ἐκκλησία (the church) from the Old Testament theocracy was to be made. The hour had come for the utterance of a distinct Christian confession. “And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In other words, you, Jesus are the Son not only of man but of God: “very man of very man, very God of very God.” Peter’s reply on behalf of his fellow Apostles is more than an answer: it is a confession of Jesus Christ, which is the center and heart of the whole Christian system. It is a confession of Jesus Christ as a true man (Thou, Jesus), as the promised Messiah (are the Christ), and as the eternal Son of God (the Son—not A son—of the living God). It is thus a confession of the mystery of the Incarnation in the widest sense, the great central mystery of godliness, “God manifest in the flesh.” “Who do you say that I am?” You, Jesus, are the God-Man and Savior of the world.
In reply, our Lord reveals to Peter the mission that he intends to assign to him, that of being the “rock”, the visible foundation on which the entire spiritual edifice of the Church is built: “And I say also unto thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” But what is “the rock” upon which Christ will (is) building his church? We could say that Peter’s spirit-given confession of Jesus as Messiah is ‘the rock’, his confession. For it is the confession of the new Pentecost-people of God, upon which the church is built. Or to put it more succinctly, Jesus is saying, Upon this rock, I will build the faith you have just confessed.
Upon your words, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” I will build my Church; because you are Peter.” But there is more going here because the confession is that of a man, with flesh and blood, a man who gives breath by divine enlightenment to the confession upon which the church of Jesus Christ shall be built. We cannot separate the words from the man, or the confession from the one who makes it. The church is a people… the people of God. And it is a confessing people, who hold in unity, one common profession of faith, and with this men, women, and children are brought into the Divine family of God, into Christ’s church.
Hear the Apostle Paul, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” And it is the Apostolic confession of Peter which we profess together each week marking us out as a peculiar people, a royal priesthood, Sons and daughters of the kingdom, “I believe in One God, and in One Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…” This we have come to believe, not through flesh and blood, but the gracious initiative of God the Father and by the illumination of the Spirit. Peter is the rock, the man who professes Jesus to be the Son of God, and upon the Apostles and all who by grace believe and say the same, is the church being built up, day by day, and in every part of the world.
“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Now, what we find recorded in Holy Scripture is a strong analogy between the events of Peter’s life and the Church. Think of today’s Epistle reading from Acts. Christ has ascended and persecution is reigning down on the church in Jerusalem under the cruel hand of Herod, who martyrs James the brother of John by the blade of the sword. His next target? Peter, who Herod arrests and throws into prison (which is very pleasing to the unbelieving Jews to whom Herod plans to bring Peter before. Now don’t miss this detail, Matthew says that this happened at the time of Easter. A righteous man is wrongly arrested and imprisoned. This occurs at Easter (which we know is during the time of the Passover). And the plan is to place the fate of this man in the hands of the Jewish people.
Is this sounding familiar? It’s as if the very same thing that happened to Jesus is recapitulating itself in the life of Peter. The way of Christ is to be the way of Peter: there is a correspondence between Christ and him upon whom he will build his church. Which tells us, that the way of the Church is and will always be the way of Christ. “If the world hates you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.”
And here we begin to touch upon the great mystery of Christ and his church, the sacramental reality of Christ in us and we in him. We are called to share in the Lord’s sufferings and to bear the same reproaches of men. St. Peter clearly understood this, for he too suffered at the hands of Israel as our Lord did as well. Peter’s mission was as the prophet Ezekiel as heard in today’s Old Testament Lesson, “And God said unto Ezekiel, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day. For they are impudent children and stiff hearted.”
Peter is imprisoned and facing dire consequences: beatings, floggings, perhaps even death at the hands of his brethren. But the Lord is with Peter, in Peter. For this story about Peter doesn’t end in death but in deliverance. Listen to this, “And when Herod would have brought him forth [before the people], the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.” Overshadowed by the harrowing gates of Hell, Peter is delivered.
“The chains fell off.” They could not hold him and friend, neither can the gates of Hades contain the church of Jesus Christ. The hostile fortress of Hades looms over and against what appears to be a defenseless and feeble church, but the Lord has proclaimed to Peter and to us indestructible life: ‘The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it!” Why? Because Christ is building his church; Christ is with and in his church as he was in a Roman jail cell with Peter. In truth, the promise that Jesus makes to Peter is even greater than those made to the prophets of old: they, indeed, were threatened only by human enemies, whereas Peter will have to be defended from the “gates of the underworld,” from the destructive power of evil. What wonderful and comforting words spoken on a beach to Peter concerning the future of the Church, the new community founded by Jesus Christ, which extends to all of history, far beyond the personal existence of Peter himself. It extends to you and to me, and to all the faithful confessors of Jesus the Son of God. Persecution is and always will be followed by Divine deliverance.
Towards the end of his Bishopric St. Peter wrote “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial that has come upon you, as though something strange was happening to you. But rejoice that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed at the revelation of His glory. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Indeed, none of you should suffer as a murderer or thief or wrongdoer, or even as a meddler. But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear that name.” Church, don’t be surprised when suffering comes upon you. And when it does, bear the name of Christ, no matter the consequences.
In fact, we should pray that should the day of persecution come, we would have the faith and love of St. Peter. In his history of the Church, St. Hegesippus records the following, “Then Nero, sought matter against Peter to put him to death. Which, when the people perceived, they entreated Peter with much ado that he would fly the city. Peter, through their importunity at length, persuaded, prepared himself to avoid. But coming to the gate, he saw the Lord Christ come to meet him, to whom Peter, worshipping, said, Lord, whither dost thou go? To whom Jesus answered and said, I am come again to be crucified. By this Peter, perceiving his suffering to be understood, returned back into the city again, and so was he crucified” upside down on a cross in the public streets of Rome. Friends, the cock of impending death crowed, and this time, Peter did not deny the Lord. Rather, he gladly followed him back into the city where he bared the name of Christ unto death.
Hade’s wielding the sword of death shall not prevail against Christ’s church, for Christ has promised joy from sorrow, and triumph from suffering. This paradox is most vividly given to us in the bread broken and the wine poured out, both images of suffering and death. And yet, both transformed into the very means of life. As you come to this Holy Communion, be strengthened in body and soul and reassured: Christ, as with Peter, is with us his church. A chain cannot hold nor any man destroy the people of God. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” Beloved, let us embrace the words of St. Peter, whose very life and example speak to us today: “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should entrust their souls to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” Amen+