Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Alan Watt
A couple engaged to be married met a tragic death—an accident, a house
something like that. When they came to the pearly gates of heaven,
they met Peter and said to him, “We’re ready to enter into heaven,
but first we have a request.”
“Yes, what is it?” he asked.
“On earth we were going to get married. But, due to circumstances
beyond our control, it didn’t happen. So we want to see whether we can
a wedding now.”
“I understand,” answered Peter. “Well, let me look at something
He pulled out a big, golden book and began leafing through some of the
Then he closed it, put it down, and said, “I’m sorry, but not right
Come back in a couple of hundred years.”
Looking sad, the man and woman nodded their heads and went on their way.
Two hundred years passed and they returned.
“Peter, remember us? Can we get married now?”
“Well, let me check something first.”
Again, he produced the golden book and began thumbing through some
of its pages. Soon closing it, he shook his head, saying,
“I’m sorry, but not right now. Come back again in another couple
of hundred years.”
Visibly distressed, they hung their heads and slowly walked away.
After another 200 years had passed, they returned once more to the
and said, “Peter, it’s us again. This time could we please get
Of course, we know you have to look at that book again.”
“Just a moment,” he replied, as he turned once more to it.
Suddenly, his eyes lit up. “Yes, yes, you can have your wedding
Their faces beaming, they thanked him from the bottom of their hearts.
Then they wondered about it, asking, “Why is it we can get married
“Well,” he said, “it’s because only now have we finally gotten a
minister up here.”
All such jokes about Peter and the pearly gates have their basis
in today’s gospel. That imagery comes from verse 19, when Jesus said
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you
on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will
Along with the verse before it—“And I tell you, you are Peter, and
on this rock
I will build my church…”—it has been the subject of many
especially between Catholics and Protestants.[i]
That’s because today’s gospel serves
as a proof text for Catholics. It indicates that Jesus made Peter
head of the Church. And since tradition has it that Peter was the first
and was martyred in Rome, then all those following him became, in their
head of the church. The bishop of Rome eventually became the first
among all bishops everywhere, finally receiving the title of pope.
Protestant theologians don’t see things quite this way.
I want us to look at these verses today, not because I can come up
with some definitive answer, but because this year is, after all,
the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the
which took the reform movement in the Church to a brand new level.
Another reason is a number of us have family members who are Roman
and so learning more about these verses—from both sides—might help
a broader understanding of them.
To start with, there’s the question about Jesus giving Simon a new
In Greek, it’s “Petros,” which we know as Peter. The word simply
Then Jesus said: “…and on this rock I will build my church.”
Now the second time he says “rock,” it’s actually in the common
of the Jews of that day. That’s where we get the name of “Cephas.”
Or is the other way around? I’m not sure. It’s very confusing.
That’s a minor point. The main thing is most of us would assume
Jesus was referring directly to Peter—that Peter himself would be
the rock on which the church would be built. Sounds simple enough,
Not according to a number of Protestants, beginning with Luther himself.
He argued that, first of all, when Peter declared Jesus was the Christ,
the Son of the Living God, he wasn’t speaking only for himself but on
of all the disciples. And so Jesus wasn’t actually rewarding Peter
by making him alone head of the church and giving him the keys to the
That was something all of them, collectively, were responsible for.[ii]
Along with that, Luther then argued that the rock Jesus was referring to
not Peter at all but rather himself. Luther paraphrased him like this:
“On this rock, that is, on me, Christ, I will build all of my
Pope Francis himself got into hot water by using such words when
on today’s gospel. It was three years ago. Here is some of what he
Simon, in the name of the
Twelve, professes his faith in Jesus
as “the Christ, the Son of the living God”; and Jesus calls Simon
“blessed” for his faith,
recognizing in it a special gift of the Father….
He recognizes that God the
Father has given Simon a “dependable” faith,
upon which He, Jesus, can build His Church, that is, His community, that is, all
Brothers and sisters, what
happened in a unique way in Saint Peter, also takes place in every
Christian who develops a sincere faith
in Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God.
For a number of Catholics, interpreting the verses in that way rather
than seeing Peter
and all popes after him having full authority over the Church, is
In one Catholic newsletter, the editor writes: “Don’t let [his]
rhetoric fool you.
Pope Francis has made it rather clear that his vision of [church]
that he labors to find along with the heretics has nothing to do with
to the authority of the pope.”[iv]
Finally, other Protestant scholars—and some Catholic ones,
the whole issue itself. They point out that the verses about Peter being
of the Church and being given the heavenly keys of isn’t mentioned at
all in Mark
or Luke, but only in Mt. They believe that someone else added those
—At a later time. If so, they say, then Peter is only special in that
the one disciple who spoke up, declaring that Jesus is the Messiah.
You see now what I mean? It’s a never-ending argument, often between
Protestants and Catholics, and sometimes even within their own groups.
As with many things in life, we do better when we focus less on what
and more on what brings us together. It makes sense, then, to stop
to figure out just who Peter is above and beyond his identity as a
What makes a lot more sense is
understanding better who Jesus is.
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he asked, assuming
the disciples had taken an informal poll. And, in fact, they had.
Or at least people in the surrounding villages had taken the initiative
to tell them their thoughts. Mainly one of the great prophets, they
In Matthew, we see some similarities between Jesus and Moses in
E.g., as infants the life of each of them was in danger from a ruthless
And in his preaching, Jesus declared, “Do not think that I have come
the law of [Moses] or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to
And yet his closest followers knew he was more than a revered rabbi
or miracle worker or even a prophet. Yet they didn’t all come out at
to say it. Maybe they were afraid to put themselves “out there.”
But, for all the weaknesses that Peter had, making bold statements
of them. And so, when Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?,”
without hesitation Peter declared: “You are the Christ, the Son of the
And Jesus blessed him, for he knew he hadn’t said it of his own
but that the Father had revealed it to him.
Still, Peter didn’t know for sure just how Jesus’ identity would
play itself out.
“Christ” is the same as the “Messiah”—one who is chosen, is
anointed by God.
But for just what purpose?
To become a holy priest?
Or a king? And if a king, then what
Next week’s gospel will remind us that, at first, Peter got that part
that he expected Jesus to reign on high as an earthly monarch.
He didn’t yet know, he didn’t yet understand that Jesus would become
first of all a sacrificial king.
When Jesus asks the disciples who they believe that he is, what he is
—as one commentator puts it—is this: “Why are you following me?
Why have you left everything you know?”
We might ask ourselves, “Why are [we] here? Why have [we] chosen to
this [man—he who grew up as a peasant a long time ago in a faraway place]?
this [man—he who grew up as a peasant a long time ago in a faraway place]?
Why are [we] on this path?”[vii]
Hopefully, it’s not only because
most of us grew up
in the faith. Hopefully, it’s also because at some point we decided to
greater ownership, greater responsibility for our faith—for our lives
As Pope Francis noted, perhaps in Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the
we discover our own true identity. The Holy Father said: “For his
Peter is [indeed] the rock…of the Church: but every baptized person is
to offer to Jesus his or her own faith, poor but sincere, so that He can
to build His Church, today, in every part of the world.”
[ii]Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 39, Church and Ministry I, gen. ed. Helmut T. Lehmann, ed. Eric W. Gritsch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970): 86ff. This same argument appears in a number of other works of Luther.
[iii]Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 41, Church and Ministry III, gen. ed. Helmut T. Lehmann, ed. Eric W. Gritsch (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1966). As before, this argument appears elsewhere in Luther’s works.
[iv]https://akacatholic.com/catholic-answers-corrects-pope-francis/ (26 August 2014).
[v]Michael H. Crosby, “Rethinking a Key Biblical Texas and Catholic Church Governance,” in Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 38: 37-43.
[vi] Matthew 5:17.
[vii]https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2161. (Eric Barreto of Princeton Theological Seminary)