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The 12th Sunday after Pentecost; Matthew 16:21-28

I was visiting with our friends at St. Columba’s last Sunday, just going for worship, I thought, but a mall medical emergency had me jumping in to work as the Server and communion assistant. Not preaching though, sadly, because I have a really good theological joke (it’s also been going around as a meme) about that awkward question Jesus asks in last week’s Gospel, “Who do YOU say that I am?”. But then Fr. Matt asked if I wanted to preach today, and I thought I can make that work even better today.

Driving to an ecumenical event a Baptist pastor, a Roman Catholic priest, and an Anglican priest get into an accident and are killed. They arrive at the Pearly Gates, but it’s St. Peter’s day off and Jesus is handling the entrance exam. The Baptist goes first. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Short pause, “The Bible says…”, Jesus hits a button and a trap door opens up, and down he goes, you know where. The Roman Catholic priest goes next, same question; “The Pope says…” Jesus hits the button and down he goes.

The Anglican priest is last, still same question. Answer, “You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed.”

And Jesus says, “Huh? What?”

Who knows what Jesus did after that, but if St. Peter had been on the gate I think he might have said to the Anglican, “Come right in friend, you’re my kind of guy.”

I like Peter! He is my kind of guy! Of all the people we read about in the Gospels, other than Jesus, he is the most “developed”. Just about everyone else we read about in the Gospels, except maybe Thomas, are background characters, necessary to moving the story along, but not really fleshed out. Peter is all there, both good, and bad, shining glory, and warts.

Peter is the guy that sees Jesus walking on water, decides he could do that, and darn near drowns. When things turn nasty in Jerusalem, he is full of bravado; no matter what happens, no matter how bad, he will be right there with Jesus, and then of course lies three times that he has no idea who Jesus is, and certainly he is not one of his followers. And, if traditions is to be believed, much, much later, when things turn nasty in Rome, Peter once again hustles out of town, until an encounter with Jesus reminds him of his duty to the Church, of which he was supposed to be the foundational rock.

Which brings us to today’s Gospel, and it’s connection to last week’s. If you weren’t here last week, a constant possibility through out the summer, let me summarize. And if you were here, it doesn’t hurt to listen again.

Last week’s important question from Jesus, as in the joke, was, “Who do YOU say that I am?” To which Peter, after some mumbling from the other disciples, replies, with certainty, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And Jesus promptly announced that it was on this Rock of faith (Petrus = Peter = Rock!) that he will found his Church, and, moreover give the keys of heaven and hell to Peter, which is how he gets to work the Pearly Gates.

And then, today’s Gospel. It’s not much later, and, at least in Peter’s opinion, Jesus has been talking up what is frankly a downer. He, Jesus, the Messiah, must go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering, be killed, and on the 3rd day be raised. Possibly Peter didn’t hear that last part, because he certainly wasn’t having any of the suffering and being killed. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” A bit rich, that “God forbid”; after all, Peter has just confessed Jesus as the Son of the living God, so, loosely translated, we have a confused Peter telling God to forbid, what he, God, just announced needed to happen. One of the many reasons I like Peter; he gets mixed up, just as I do occasionally, about just who God is, versus my notion of who (and how) God ought to be!

And Jesus gives him hell, more or less; tells him to get out of the way; I Jesus know God’s way, while you Peter think only of human stuff!

I said I like Peter; mostly because he is a lot like me. Sometimes perceptive, sometimes not so swift; sometimes boastfully confident in the faith, sometimes weak in the face of its demands. Courageous when there is little need of courage, weak when there is. Yet in the end, despite all of Peter’s failings, despite his getting it wrong after getting it right, there is that scene by the lake after the Resurrection when Jesus basically forgives him all his faults, and continues his “appointment” as shepherd and Rock of the church. And when tradition suggests he wavered in that, Jesus persisted and straightened him out.

And that gives me great hope, me who as a friend once described it, is a reluctant follower of God. It also gives me great hope for you, my friends, who, I more than suspect, are a bit like me, and Peter. Somewhere along the way, perhaps deliberately, perhaps because that is what we did in our families, or we did it to please some other person; no matter, we decided (sort of), or agreed (sort of), to follow Jesus – but probably didn’t use those words. I certainly didn’t, even if that is what I meant (sort of). And, however that has worked out for you, if it is anything like it was for me, most of the time I think that was one of my better, maybe even greatest decision, but a few times, not so much. And whenever I came back realizing I had failed, I thought of Peter. I will not pretend that I heard the voice of Jesus say “Welcome back, you are forgiven.” What I do imagine Jesus saying to me is something like, “Look Gerry, if I can put up with Peter, and build my Church on him, I can certainly put up with you!” I said I like Peter, he did so much worse than me, and in the end did OK; he is my out!

Back to my original joke. Yes, I would really prefer a Messiah the Son of God who is, “… the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed …” Based on today’s Gospel, Peter did too. And yes, that definition of Jesus makes sense to theologians, but I am not going to bore you with what it actually means, because it really doesn’t mean anything for you (or for me, except as an academic). But, that definition of the 2nd Person of an undivided Trinitarian God (just thought I’d throw in a bit more theological jargon)papers over all the nasty stuff; a God who cares enough for God’s creation to enter into it as a human person, and redeem it by dying about as nasty a death as we nasty humans can think up. That theologically elegant definition of Jesus, Son of God, is just one more way to make the sacrifice of Jesus, Son of God, sanitary and acceptable for us.

Time to cut to the chase.

For reasons beyond our conjecture, despite the best efforts of theologians, and serious earnest people who think they know the mind of God, we seem to be stuck with a God who insists on suffering and dying the very worst death that humanity can inflict, because that way the world, the entire creation, will be redeemed. Why, only God knows, because God, being God, could have done this salvation/redemption thing by other means, and let’s face it, by means more acceptable to us humans. But, God chose not to work within our human sensibilities. Tough on us, but let’s face it, God get’s to do what God wants.

God also chose people like Peter; fallible, sometimes pretentiously brave, and extremely cowardly later; perceptive, and totally wrong not much later; a rock that was often jelly. Peter, who really didn’t think that suffering and dying was any way for a Son of God to behave! And yet God in Jesus chose Peter as the rock on which to build his Church.

You know of course where I am going with this. If God can build a church on Peter, God can build a church on you and me; on people with exactly the same failings as Peter, and all the others in times past on whom God has continued to build God’s church, despite their failures, their denials, their backsliding. And here we are, 2000 years after Peter, and the church continues to be build, with us, imperfect, flawed, weak, sometimes even wrong, stones and bricks. Yes, you and I, unsuitable for the task as we are, despite anything that we can do to get in the way of the task, we are the building blocks with which Christ’s Church of the future is being constructed.

Copyright ©2023 by Gerry Mueller