Reading(s): Matthew 16:13-20. This sermon was given by Sally Kerson at St Mark and All Saints.
Over the years I have held keys to many buildings, other than my own home, and each time have felt the responsibility that goes with having them in my possession and the fear of mislaying them, which I admit to doing frequently and then begins the inevitable searching of bags, cars, pockets etc. It is so frustrating and uses up precious time until they are found. Dave Walker who is famous for his church cartoons once drew a carton based on a former Vicar of this parish who was just as bad as me for mislaying his keys, in fact he was worse! The cartoon Dave drew depicts keys being left by mistake in the dog basket, on the photo copier, in the font, in the children’s instrument box, however not shown was where the Vicar did once leave them, in a box of candles which I discovered in a church. Of course, he was pleased to know they had been found as they had disappeared for a couple of weeks! Oh, and the other item he mislaid was his diary which we all had to go in search of from time to time.
Today’s gospel reading mentions keys, namely the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But the gospel begins with Jesus asking his disciples ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ he was curious to know what others were saying about him particular who he was, but more importantly he wanted to know what his closest friends understood about him and that is why he asked ‘But who do you say that I am?’ and of course if they didn’t know, then he obviously wasn’t getting over his message very well. Peter answered correctly saying ‘you are the Messiah, the son of the living God’. Top marks to Peter. Jesus was so delighted he said that it is Peter (whose name in Greek means rock or stone) that he will build his church on and, what is more, offers him the keys of heaven. This is why you will see crossed keys on the emblem of St. Peter the apostle.
Now I am no Greek scholar but as I said the name Peter means ‘rock’. In the Greek text this word is masculine (spelt petros) and describes a small piece of rock (something like a pebble). However, apparently the word used in the phrase ‘on this rock ' in the gospel reading is feminine (spelt petra) and describes a large boulder or a rock. Although Peter was to become one of the rocks on which the church would be built, it appears that Jesus was using a play on words that, in effect, he made the very opposite point. We might paraphrase Jesus’ words as follows: ‘You’re a small rock, Peter, but upon the greater rock that you have confessed, the truth of who I am, I will build my church.’
Jesus knew Peter very well, especially his failures and mistakes for Peter didn’t always seem to understand situations very well; foolishly trying to build tabernacles at the Transfiguration and on another occasion (when thinking he was saying the right thing) he tried to argue Jesus out of his destiny and Jesus has to say ‘Get behind me Satan’ not what you expect the head of the church to be called! He was the disciple who had all the bravado to walk on water, but also enough doubt to begin to sink and enough despair to cry for help. When asked to pray for Jesus in his hour of greatest need before his arrest, Peter falls asleep. When the guards turn up, and at that point Peter is possibly feeling a bit guilty, he completely losses his temper and cuts off a guard’s ear and Jesus instantly comes to the rescue and heals the guard. And the same night he denies knowing Jesus three times because he is afraid of the crowd and finally, he runs away and hides because he is afraid of the authorities, leaving Jesus to be beaten and crucified alone.
Some might find the fact that Jesus gives Peter such authority a bit confusing. I personally find it encouraging. It means God can use anyone to build his church, often the most unlikely and flawed person. God can often work through our most desolate of times, our most scandalous of behaviours, which of course we rightly should feel ashamed of. It is always still up to us whether we will play our part in these plans. It is up to us whether we are willing to acknowledge and shed light on these most outcast parts of ourselves and our past, the parts we don’t want anyone to see, the parts we don’t pay attention to, the parts we need to mend.
Are we rocks, stones or pebbles when it comes to our faith and the life of the church?
Many of us, if not all of us, would like to think that we are rocks, holding the church up with a force that cannot be broken, always there to defend it when others want to put the church down as being irrelevant to today’s society. Being faithful and making sure that the church is not a stumbling block for those who are finding it hard to reconcile their faith in God. Or perhaps we are more like stones, the kind of person who is dependable, working for unity, interested in others, especially in the weakest and unsettling times and there for everyone. What about those pebbles, the smallest of stones that I particularly associate with the sea and the soothing sound the water makes as it gentle rolls over them on a beach? When we look at a pebble are we aware of how small we are in relation to everything else? Are we the person who tries to accomplish great things through being humble and sincere? So many people in a church work silently in the background, often doing jobs that are never seen, let alone thanked for, they are those pebbles that the sea washes over constantly being cleansed and renewed. I believe we can all be rocks, stones and pebbles at some time in our life and we all have a part in building up Gods living and faithful church on earth.
And as for the keys of Heaven, they have been with us for the whole of our lives but remember keys can serve two purposes. The same key can both lock and unlock. It can both bind and loose. We have the keys to God and one another, to relationships, to compassion and they are turned in the direction of freedom when we allow ourselves to be seen in all our brokenness and pain and fear, sharing with one another what is hurting. Most importantly we must listen, listen to the vulnerability of others and of course listen to our own vulnerability. Slowly setting us free to believe in a loving and caring God who only wants the best for us all in an often harsh and sad world. As for Peter he grew up from those early mistakes and eventually he fully accepted his call and boldly lived it. But it took a while; it wasn’t an easy journey and not instant sainthood. Just as it is for us all, there are no pop-up saints in this world, we all have a slow build, slowly being formed into who we are called to be. We are all work in progress, our life as part of a church was started with a work in progress too. Thanks be for Peter and all the Saints. So in memory of Peter and all the other saints who have gone before, let us be gentle and encouraging to each other as we follow their call and be formed into what God wants us to be. Let’s commit to the journey of becoming, to growing into all we can be, knowing it will take time, dedication, sacrifice, prayer and effort to get us there.