Question: How did St. Peter, the disciple of Jesus, get stationed at the Pearly Gates? Think about it. We *all* assume that when we get to heaven, St. Peter will greet us at the entrance of heaven to usher us inside. It is commonly assumed even if we don’t take it seriously. There is, in the Gospel according to Matthew, a passage in which Jesus says to Peter,
18 "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."
So, based on this commission from Jesus himself, Peter stands, in our imagination, at the gates of heaven announcing the decision about who will enter and who will not.
I. As everyone knows there is safety in numbers – even at church.
A. I remember when I was a small boy walking into church with my family: Daddy and Mother, one brother and two sisters. At that first church – not this one -- where I was baptized, walking into that familiar church with my family was never hard. I guess that I just grew up knowing those people and confident somehow that they knew me. My family made it easy to begin in church.
B. I make it a practice to go to church wherever Celia and I vacation. I encourage her not to come along; I really do. You’re probably thinking that I’m afraid that she’ll discover that she could find a better preacher if she looked around a bit. But no, that is not it. I want to see what it’s like for all the first-timers to walk into a strange church for the first time. We all know that God loves us, but I’m not so sure about those ushers standing on each side of the open door. They step forward to offer a bulletin; most of them even smile in a friendly sort of way. But, I always wonder: do they really mean it?
My major terror on visiting a church for the first time is that I will sit in some well-established saint’s favorite pew. And even if they are gracious and don’t say anything, every regular in the church will be staring because they know that I’ve taken a pew that has been reserved for that pillar of the church since the first Bush was President.
Those of us who are regulars should be on the lookout for the first-timers among us. They have taken a great risk. When you see someone you’re not familiar with, I hope you’ll speak that person. If that someone is in your pew, tell them how happy you are to be sharing it with them. You might even invite them back to share it next Sunday all over again.
C. When you are small, Sunday school works the same way. It’s important to come to Sunday School on Promotion Sunday. You go to your old class. There you discover that your old teachers are somehow misty-eyed; they seem to hug a lot. They are in a bit of a hurry. Then, the time comes that you walk down the hall to your new classroom. On Promotion Sunday, you’re not by yourself; you walk with the other kids to find this new classroom. Even though you’re only walking down the hall, they are just as lost as you are, but you’re together. There is safety in numbers.
D. Then, Confirmation Class begins. New room, maybe even a new part of the church building, definitely new teachers. Again, you’re with the other kids and it all gets familiar soon enough. Everything is good until the end of the school year. Sometime in the early spring, the teacher warns you that one of the preachers is coming to your house to talk with you and your parents. And you realize that you are going to be alone with questions to answer. The image of the interrogation room in *Law and Order SVU* crowds your mind. You hatch at plan: on the day for the preacher to visit, you’ll just be late getting home from school. But, your parents, in a fit of responsibility, offer to pick you up. No need to walk or ride the bus. You’re going to have to face the music; you are going to be on your own.
You’re about to be called to the front of the church. There will be questions to answer; the preacher really wants to hear your voice when the answer is given. I remember at the time of my confirmation, I was stopped in my tracks. I think it was first time in my young life that I had made a promise like this to anyone outside my family. Up until this point, I had, like all small kids, done what my parents said we were going to do.
+Showing up at the summer picnic happened because they said we would.
+Being Christians and being at church on Sunday happened because they were already doing that.
+Starting school when I turned five was just what my parents decided so that was what I did, of course.
But, none of these commitments were made because I made them; my parents made them for the family, and I went along – as all little kids do.
But, at the end of Confirmation, this was the first time that I really *got it*. Answering these vows out loud meant that I was going to keep them, and these vows said something about the kind of person I was going to be. I had to think about it: This was real. Was I ready to say all this?
I realized because of this step the power of standing up in public to make a commitment. It is one thing to show up because your parents have decided that you are going to show up; it is quite a different thing to stand up and say, “This is what I stand for.”
B. Actually, we make commitments all the time; some commitments mark us; other commitments are just the price of doing business.
+I got a new cell phone this week; it came with a two-year commitment.
+I joined a health club a year or so back; it came with a three-year commitment.
Commitments like these are just the price of getting in. We watch the calendar for the day we finish the contract so we can do something different. But commitments like these don’t have the power to present us to the world.
Other commitments mark us; they tell the world who we are:
+I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…
+Each person enlisting in one of the armed force takes the oath that begins:
"I solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”
These commitments are bigger and more open-ended; the level of personal commitment is much higher.
C. Now, Jesus asks the disciples: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" They began to tell him what *people* were saying. They were just reporting what they have heard; they were making no commitment themselves. This sounds like the infamous “they” who say all kinds of things about us.
15 Then, He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Suddenly, the conversation takes on a far more ominous tone. What are you ready to say? Are you ready to stand up in public and make a claim? It is one thing to say something about Jesus that you might have heard; it is a very different thing to say something public yourself.
At Jesus’ question I can imagine the disciples looking down, suddenly very interested in the grass growing between the rocks along the road. “I’ll have to get back to you on that, Jesus.” Maybe the disciples, while looking down, sneak sideways glances the way school children do, just to make sure the others are trying to avoid answering just as hard as they are. As the seconds add up to a minute and the silence begins to get heavy, they realize that one of them is going to have to say something. They wait to see which one will break the increasingly awkward silence.
You see, to speak our *convictions* about Jesus Christ goes far beyond a simple description or beyond an overheard report. It says something loud and clear about whom we are.
+If I claim that Jesus is Lord, then I must follow as his disciple;
+If my Jesus went the way of the cross, then I must take up the cross, too;
+If I am confident that Jesus is the healer of souls, then I must search out only Jesus for that healing;
+If Jesus teaches us the way to live as Children of the God of Heaven, then we commit ourselves to live just that way.
Jesus isn’t just asking for an answer; he’s asking for a commitment and a promise. So, Simon clears his throat. The other disciples look up at him in relief; he will go first. He doesn’t waste the moment:
16 **Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God**."
In Mark and Luke, this moment was one which gave further evidence that the disciples did not get what Jesus was doing and where he was going. They were constantly misunderstanding or trying to use Jesus to put themselves ahead in their narrow world.
But in Matthew, Simon stands up before all the rest and declares that *he gets what Jesus is* and *what Jesus does* and makes a life-risking commitment to Jesus of his own. When Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” he stated: “This I believe.” He said, “Yes, Jesus, you have a claim on my life.” He promised that he would never turn back. All this was there in the out-loud answer Simon gave to Jesus’ question. Matthew told what Simon had done that day because it marked a turning point in Simon’s life and the gospel.
What Simon did that day stands as a model for each one of us who also comes to faith in Jesus Christ. The claim he made was no different from what others around us have made:
“Jesus is Lord.”
“I have decided to follow Jesus.”
“I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord…
This was no small step for Simon Peter; it is a life-changing step for each of us.
[II.] We talked about this scripture at Bible Study the other night. At this point in our discussion, I was ready to get all misty-eyed at what Simon had done, but I quickly realized that no one else seemed particularly moved by it. So, I asked the group, “What is missing here? This ought to be one of the great examples of coming to faith by one of the giants in the Christian faith. Why isn’t it more important?
One person pointed out that Peter said this, and that was fine. But just a few verses later, Jesus had to call him down. As Jesus said, “You are a stumbling block to me.” What a devastating criticism – especially since Peter had just made the *Great Confession*. The problem as the Bible Study saw it was that Peter was a giant in the faith when he kept his eyes on Jesus, but he could be a total mess-up, too.
+Peter denied Jesus on the night he was arrested.
+After Pentecost, Peter argued with Paul about including non-Jewish people in the gospel.
How can we count Peter as a giant in the faith when just as often he acts like a pigmy?
They were correct, of course. But, then it occurred to me that the problem is NOT that Peter failed; the problem is that Peter is too much like us.
+We have a record of confessing Jesus and a record just as long of denying Jesus when the way gets hard.
+Like Peter, we get some parts of the gospel but don’t understand -- or worse -- don’t like other parts. We assume we have a right to fix Jesus.
+Like Peter, we want to do Jesus’ work in the world in our way, not his.
How can Peter be a hero and a model for faith if he is no better than we are?
But, think again. If Peter is like us, his is the story of a real person who came to faith in Jesus Christ. He came slowly, awkwardly; Peter made mistakes. Still, he did come at Christ’s invitation. And he did spend his life in the service of Christ.
It means that as Peter finally came to a life-changing faith and willing service in the name of Christ, we can, too.
As Jesus said to Simon:
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,
but my Father in heaven.
That Simon got it was not the result of his own accomplishment; it was God’s grace which enabled him to see what he could not see before. It was the result of God’s grace giving him courage to claim what he could not claim before. It was the result of God’s grace.
What are we expecting at the moment we decide for faith in Christ?
+Fireworks to light up the sky?
+A brass band to play?
+The Church Choir follow you around, ready to break into the “Hallelujah Chorus”?
+That Simon will never stumble over himself again?
That’s not a life of faith, that’s finding a place on a museum shelf.
The Christian life begins as God’s grace is given to us. It continues as we respond to that grace with curiosity and commitment. It grows as we are tested by circumstances and challenges. It grows every time we get back on our feet after a fall. Simon Peter answered Jesus that day when Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” And that same, searching question is pressed upon each one of us daily. “Who do you say he is?” What claim do you make? What stand do you take? Are you and I growing in this faith or stagnant in unexamined convictions? Are you and I allowing Christ to complete his work in you and in me? Are we trying to be make-believe heroes or living, breathing, real-life followers of Jesus?