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 fire,

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 have

a wedding now.”


“I understand,” answered Peter. “Well, let me look at something first.”

He pulled out a big, golden book and began leafing through some of the pages.

Then he closed it, put it down, and said, “I’m sorry, but not right now.

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 pearly gates

and said, “Peter, it’s us again. This time could we please get married?

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 now!”

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 only now?”

“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 to Peter:

“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.”

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 arguments,

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 bishop

and was martyred in Rome, then all those following him became, in their turn,

head of the church. The bishop of Rome eventually became the first

among all bishops everywhere, finally receiving the title of pope. Naturally,

Protestant theologians don’t see things quite this way.

Now, 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 Ninety-five Theses,

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 Catholic

and so learning more about these verses—from both sides—might help give us

a broader understanding of them.


To start with, there’s the question about Jesus giving Simon a new name.

In Greek, it’s “Petros,” which we know as Peter. The word simply means “rock.”

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 language

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, doesn’t it?

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 behalf

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 kingdom.

That was something all of them, collectively, were responsible for.[ii]


Along with that, Luther then argued that the rock Jesus was referring to was

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 [church]…”[iii]


 Another interpretation is that the rock Jesus spoke of is not necessarily himself

 or Peter, but rather the faith of Peter and thus the faith of all Christians.

Pope Francis himself got into hot water by using such words when preaching once

on today’s gospel. It was three years ago. Here is some of what he said:

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….

Let us pause for a moment on this point, on the fact that Jesus bestows on Simon this new name, “Peter,”…a word meaning “rock…” Jesus [gives] this name to Simon not [because of] his own personal qualities or his human merits, but on account of his genuine and firm faith, which comes from on high….

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 of us….

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 fightin’ words.

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] ‘unity’

that he labors to find along with the heretics has nothing to do with submission

to the authority of the pope.”[iv]


Finally, other Protestant scholars—and some Catholic ones, too—dismiss

the whole issue itself. They point out that the verses about Peter being the rock

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 verses—

—At a later time. If so, they say, then Peter is only special in that he was

the one disciple who spoke up, declaring that Jesus is the Messiah. Nothing more,

nothing less.[v]


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 divides us

and more on what brings us together. It makes sense, then, to stop trying

to figure out just who Peter is above and beyond his identity as a disciple.

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 said.

In Matthew, we see some similarities between Jesus and Moses in particular.

E.g., as infants the life of each of them was in danger from a ruthless king.

And in his preaching, Jesus declared, “Do not think that I have come to abolish

the law of [Moses] or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”[vi]


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 once

to say it. Maybe they were afraid to put themselves “out there.”

But, for all the weaknesses that Peter had, making bold statements wasn’t one

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 living God.”

And Jesus blessed him, for he knew he hadn’t said it of his own accord,

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 kind?


Next week’s gospel will remind us that, at first, Peter got that part all wrong—

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 really saying

—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 follow

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 take

greater ownership, greater responsibility for our faith—for our lives in Christ.

As Pope Francis noted, perhaps in Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the living God,”

we discover our own true identity. The Holy Father said: “For his part,

Peter is [indeed] the rock…of the Church: but every baptized person is called

to offer to Jesus his or her own faith, poor but sincere, so that He can continue

to build His Church, today, in every part of the world.”

[i] On the views of the Eastern Orthodox Church, see “Primacy of Peter,” 5-6.


[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] (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] (Eric Barreto of Princeton Theological Seminary)