I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Human One is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Child of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but our Creator in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the realm of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Will you pray with me? Loving God, be known to each of us as you are—teach us to speak your truth for ourselves and to others about you. Give us grace to show your presence in us to the world around us, that your realm may come on earth. In your many names we pray, amen.
I am beginning an ambitious project—reading all of John Meier’s “Jesus: A Marginal Jew,” which is four volumes (and counting!)—a study of the historical Jesus. It is one way, as Meier says, of answering the question that Jesus is asking Peter: “Who do they say I am? Who do YOU say I am?”
Jesus isn’t just asking Peter—in asking Peter, Jesus asks all of us. “Who do you say that I am?”
Many people have ideas about who Jesus was and is; there are shelves and shelves of books, hours’ worth of internet pages, many many seminary courses and Bible studies and discussion groups trying to come to grips with this question: Who is Jesus?
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re right, Peter! Everyone else—James, Judas, Mark, Levi, John—make a note of that. Peter is right.” Rather, Jesus says that Peter has spoken from his own heart—not what has miraculously revealed to him nor what other people have told him to say, but what he himself believes.
This can be so hard—to come to this conclusion, first of all—to know who Jesus is for us. It will probably change over time—I know that who my Jesus is has changed for me. Not in the basics—the only Child of God, my Saviour—but in the ways that I think about him. When I was young, he was a trusted teacher, too; and then he became an encourager, a support and lifeline when life became challenging; and at times he’s been like an older brother, or a guide, or a companion. He’s all those and more now.
I had to decide it on my own, though. Parroting what others say may be convenient and easy, and may even seem like the right thing to do, if those other people are trustworthy people—admired teachers or pastors, spiritual writers, even the Bible. But ultimately, when Jesus asks us that question, he is asking us as individuals. He’s not asking who Oswald Chambers thinks he is, or Joel Osteen or John Crossan or Gene Robinson, or your parents. He is asking you—Steven, Martha, Joyce, who do you say I am? John, Cathy, Dale, who am I? It is your answer Jesus wants, not what the scribes or St. Luke or anyone else say. He is asking you—he wants your response.
Our response matters—what we say, what we believe, is what matters to Jesus. In the end, what we do, how we act, depends not on what we can repeat of what others believe but what we ourselves believe, because that is what shapes how we act. A person can repeat what, say, Thomas Merton says about the need for solitude and prayer and meditation—they can say that Merton is right, absolutely it is important and everyone should take time for solitary prayer every day. But if they don’t do that, if they even actively choose not to, by taking time that could go to prayer and consciously saying, “no, I am going to do something else,” then clearly they don’t really believe that. If they did, they would act on it.
So what we believe—truly, in our hearts—about Jesus shapes how we behave, what we do about Jesus in our lives. It is, literally, the key to heaven—to an ever-closer relationship with God. This is, I think, what Jesus means when he tells Peter that he holds the keys to heaven. It’s not meant as a general statement—that Peter decides who comes into heaven, into that claser relationship. It has a more specific meaning—for Peter alone. That verse about the church—the word actually means community or congregation—there was no church at the time Jesus spoke. Jesus is saying that Peter’s clarity of understanding would be the foundation of the community; his insight into who Jesus is will be the basis of belief for the community.
We all have keyrings—some of them very full, like mine. I have two keys for my apartment and one for the mail box, several church keys, a set of keys to my mother’s apartment, a key to my other mailbox… Some of us keep those keys on separate rings so we don’t have to carry all of them all the time—a set for work, a set for home, a set for church, maybe.
There’s a set of keys we should all have—those keys to God’s realm—our own understanding, our own faith claim, about who Jesus is to us and what he means to us. It’s not easy to come to that statement—it takes thought and internal wrestling, and discussion with others on that journey. Notice Peter couldn’t make that statement right after he met Jesus. The truth is that being a Christian is not about easy answers being handed out on a plate. Anyone who says that it’s plain and simple and easy is not being honest. It’s not easy, it’s not as simple as people want to make it.
The basics are simple yes—Jesus is the child of God, human and divine, who taught us that love of each other—our neighbours—and love of God are the most important things in the world. But putting those into action, actually using those as guidelines to live our lives by—that’s the tough part. Sometimes that love of neighbour doesn’t look very sweet and cuddly—you’ve heard of tough love? Often, even when it’s the gentle sweet kind, it isn’t returned or reciprocated—ever shovelled a walkway for a neighbour in the winter and not gotten even a “thank you?” But the thing is, the importance of loving neighbours, of caring for each other, is not that the other person will be generous and loving back. We care for our neighbours because it is the right thing to do, it is what Jesus has commanded us to do. We do it because we know it is right, not because we will be compensated. It would be nice if our caring were recognised and reciprocated, but it’s not why we do these things.
So—where are your keys? What is it you believe, rock bottom, about Jesus and who he was and is? Not what others have told you, not what sounds logical to you, but what do you—in your own heart—believe? Those are your keys to God’s realm.
But simply having them isn’t all there is. What do keys do? Sometimes they keep things or people in, like prisons. Sometimes they keep people or things out, like safes. What do our keys do?
Do they keep people out, maybe people we are uncomfortable with, so we don’t have to deal with them.? Or do they open doors so other people hear or see or understand about what we believe?
In all God’s names, amen.