Sunday, August 27, 2023

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Brent Gundlah

If you ever happen to find yourself in Rome with a few hours to kill, head over to St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican; if you can’t get there in person, that’s fine because you can actually take a virtual tour of it online — one of the blessings of living in the modern age, I suppose.

Once you’re inside, walk your way forward towards the magnificent altar that Bernini built, past that marble statue by Michelangelo on the right-hand side (which ain’t half-bad either). When you arrive underneath the dome (it’s pretty tough to miss), just look up.

In the dizzying heights, amidst all the beautiful paintings and the gleaming gold and the bright light streaming in through the windows, they’re right there — plain as day in six foot-tall letters: Jesus’s words from today’s Gospel reading: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church… To you I will give the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” Well, they’re some of Jesus’s words from today’s reading — whoever painted them left a few out because, even though the dome is really big, it’s not quite big enough to fit them all.

They’re also in Latin, which makes them sound important — I could write out my Grandma’s shortbread recipe in Latin and it would sound important. The point is that our predecessors in the church clearly went through some trouble in order to acknowledge Peter the way they did.

I mean, if all you knew about Peter was this inscription on the giant dome of a giant church that also happens to be named after him, you might conclude that this guy was kind of a big deal. Truth is, though, these particular words of Jesus would be important no matter what language they were written in or how large the letters happened to be, because Peter really was a big deal.

He started out life as a simple fisherman and semi-observant Jew named Simon; he lived with his wife, his mother-in-law and his brother Andrew in a house near a little village on the Sea of Galilee known as Capernaum. Simon and Andrew shared a boat and a fishing business with a couple of partners, who also happened to be brothers, named James and John.

According to John’s Gospel, Simon’s brother Andrew had been hanging around with John the Baptist, who had taken Andrew to hear Jesus speak. Andrew probably skipped out on work to meet Jesus that day, leaving Peter to tend the nets all by himself. That was okay, though, because Simon was nothing if not dependable. 

Andrew figured out pretty quickly that Jesus was someone special. He was so convinced of this, in fact, that he tracked down his brother Simon and tried to get him to go meet Jesus too. Andrew made the whole thing sound so promising. “We have found the Messiah,” he said to Simon; and if those words wouldn’t make you drop your fishing gear and go have a look, then I don’t know what would. 

When Simon showed up, it was like Jesus already knew he was coming (go figure). As he approached, Jesus just looked him right in the eye and said, “So you’re Simon, the son of John; I’m going to call you Cephas.” For the record, Cephas is the Aramaic word for the English word “Rock.” In the Greek language of the New Testament, this word would be Petrós, which is how we get to Peter.

Now it might seem kind of strange to rename someone you’ve just met, but Jesus seems to have sensed something unique about Simon (he was pretty good at that kind of thing); and he must have concluded that Simon was someone pretty special too.

It had to be kind of nice for Simon to get a nickname. I know that I would have been flattered if someone, at some point in my life, had given me a cool nickname simply because they thought it suited me. But I’m not so sure how thrilled I would have been if anyone, even Jesus, had tagged me with the nickname Simon got. I say this because being compared to a rock is kind of a mixed blessing.

On the plus side, rocks have a reputation for being sturdy, durable and tough; once they end up someplace, they tend to stay there. For these reasons, rocks make good foundations. And so when someone’s character is described as being “solid as a rock,” we rightly understand this to be a compliment.

On the minus side, however, rocks are not often thought of as being terribly bright or in possession of great insight. I mean if someone says you’re “solid as a rock,” this is a nice thing, but if someone says that you’re “smart as a rock,” well, that’s a different story altogether.

And Peter proves to be a bit of a mixed blessing too. Once he’s signed-on to follow Jesus, which happens pretty quickly after first meeting him, he becomes one of his most trusted disciples. Yet, we soon learn that there is some competition among these disciples to determine who the greatest one is, which, of course, misses the entire point of discipleship.

Peter is the first to declare out-loud that Jesus is the Messiah, though he never seems altogether sure what that means. When Jesus foretells the inevitability of his own death, Peter is the first to object — and is sternly rebuked by Jesus for his lack of understanding.

Overcoming his fear, if only for a little while, Peter soon follows Jesus up the mountain of the Transfiguration with James and John, but once he sees how glorious it is up there — with Moses and Elijah, and a brightly glowing Jesus, and the booming voice of God — he suggests that they should just stay up there, which isn’t exactly feasible.

Then, in one of the great acts of faith, Peter decides to follow Jesus back down the mountain again; it’s as though he’s beginning to come to terms with the pain and the sorrow that awaits Jesus and his disciples back in Jerusalem, as much as he doesn’t really want to.

And then, just when things seem to be going okay with respect to Peter’s evolution as a disciple, it happens. Right after the very first Lord’s Supper (and yet another dispute as to who the greatest disciple is), it all falls apart. Knowing that Peter will soon deny him and walk away, Jesus prays that Peter’s that faith will not fail in the long run, and that, once he returns, he will strengthen the faith of others. But Peter, who’s always quick to speak before he’s really thought things through, boldly tells Jesus, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”

No, you’re not Peter, says Jesus. No you’re not.

Near the end of Luke’s Gospel, Peter denies Jesus three times — just like Jesus saidf that he would. Jesus overhears Peter’s final denial and, right in the middle of it, looks at Peter — looks right through him (because Jesus was pretty good at that too). And then Peter walks away; or, as Luke tells it, “Peter went out and wept bitterly.”

All of the capacity for understanding that we expect from a rock without a rock’s strength when it’s needed. Some rock this Peter proved to be.

I don’t know — maybe I’m being too tough on Peter. Some might argue that, by this point, he couldn’t really have done anything to help Jesus anyway, and I suppose there is some merit in that position. But, at some level, Peter’s betrayal and his remorse do make him seem an awful lot like Judas. 

And yet we don’t build to cathedrals to Judas; there is no Saint Judas; there is no inscription in giant letters saying, “You are Judas and on this rock I will build my church” on any dome anywhere, as far as I know. Those are honors that reserved for Peter. But maybe this makes sense.

Right after Peter tells Jesus that he’s ready to go to jail with him and to die with him, and shortly before Peter’s three denials, Jesus says to him: “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” And therein lies the difference.

Amidst all of his own sorrow and guilt, Peter actually came back. He returned to the disciples, he worked really hard to be Christ’s hands and heart in the world, knowing full well that he could never set things right, knowing that he didn’t deserve the second chance that he’d been given. But he tried. And he tried because he truly loved Jesus, and because he knew that Jesus loved him (though we shouldn’t ever forget that Jesus loved Judas too).

I don’t know what Jesus saw in Simon, what it was that made him proclaim “You are Peter” and all that other stuff on that fateful day way back when. I’m not sure that Peter ever really knew either.

And I can’t imagine that Peter ever shook the burden of guilt that he carried around from having denied and deserted Jesus. So I wonder whether he would have been uncomfortable seeing the name that Jesus gave him up there in huge letters, inside of that basilica bearing his name.

Then again, maybe Peter would have seen it for what it was — a testament to the strange and mysterious ability of God to work miracles in and through the seemingly least of these, a celebration of the willingness of God to partner with people like us in order to create heaven right here on earth.

Because a world in which someone like Simon is the rock upon which a church can be built,

because a world in which God needs you and me as disciples,

is actually possible in a world in which someone like Jesus is the Messiah.

And for that, thanks be to God.