Zechariah 4:1-6a, 10b-14 and Matthew 16:13-19
In the name of the Living God, creator Father, risen Son and ever-present Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our gospel reading today, we are at a bit of a turning point. Jesus has taken his disciples to Caeserea, Philippi for a bit of rest and respite from their itinerant life style. They had just had an encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees who were determined to test Jesus, and in six days time Jesus would be transfigured on a high mountain, and glow dazzling white. Caeserea Philippi is a beautiful area in the foothills of Mount Hermon. It gave Jesus some quality time with his disciples and to work on their understanding of who he was and what he was here to do.
Like many good teachers, he is using questions to help the disciples to work things out for themselves. We are much more use to someone if we help them to really understand for themselves something rather than just telling them it. This is the basis of most modern day coaching, where questions are used primarily to help someone to think things through thoroughly. Jesus begins by asking ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’. And what follows is an interesting selection of names – John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah, which the disciples report that other people had said about Jesus.
We come to the knub of this story next, as using another question Jesus asks them ‘But who do you say that I am?’ From the account it feels that Peter has no hesitation in saying that Jesus is the Messiah! This was a very radical thing to voice, and recognition in Peter’s heart that Jesus was God’s son (even though how Jesus was behaving was not the rampaging expectations of the Messiah to overthrow the Romans by force!). I wonder if this was an instinctive answer, one that came out of Peter’s mouth before he thought of the significance of what he was saying or one of those light bulb moments we have all experienced when he suddenly realised something (and it was out of his mouth as quickly as it had entered his head).
Jesus pounces on this, and says God had revealed to him – and we recognise the sensation as we are likely to have had moments like this ourselves – when we have sudden revelations that can only be from God about things or circumstances around us. Jesus rewarded his faithful response with not just saying Peter would be the rock on which the church was built but also that he would have the keys to the kingdom of heaven – hence Peter often being depicted in church art and stained glass with keys .
Does the entry of the kingdom of heaven need a key or keys to open it? What does this mean? I think the keys are simply to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Also we need to live recognising that Jesus died and rose again for us, and that he has left the Holy Spirit with us to guide us. Each of us is different from one another and bring different gifts and talents to the party. God can choose the most unlikely people (like Peter) to take things forward. An uneducated fisherman would not be many people’s first choice of the person to start the church! This means of course that God can use us, no matter how unlikely that may feel to us – through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us too.
So that’s a little about St Peter, let’s look at our other unlikely candidate for growing the church – St Paul. In our art work (and in many depictions of St Paul in churches) – he is often depicted with a sword. The first reason for this – often Saints are shown with how they died (we think Paul was beheaded with a sword) – but I think this is also more about some of the things St Paul wrote. There is a famous passage about the full armour of God in the letter to the Ephesians (in chapter 6). There Paul writes of the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
There is another famous passage about what can separate us from the love of God in Romans which Paul wrote. He is describing how nothing can separate us from the love of God and he is right – nothing can! Paul says – Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
Though Paul was probably a more likely leader than Peter ever was, he had a track record of persecuting Christians before he converted – so again a pretty unlikely choice by God. In his early days, he struggled to throw off his previous reputation and actions, but he persevered. We owe a huge debt to Paul, as his writings and actions shaped how the early church grew (and many scholars think it would probably have fizzled out without him). Like many of us, I am not sure Paul would have been the easiest to be around – and he was very determined to do what God wants of him. We have to admire that and see how we can follow his example.
The truth is that God can work in us – with our co-operation by his Spirit so we can do the very thing God wants of us whatever our circumstances! No matter how unlikely it seems to be to us. That is a big thought to leave us with!
After a silence – I am going to end with a prayer reflecting on keys and swords and opening our hearts to God’s love and purpose for us, inspired by Peter and Paul.
We thank you, Jesus, for you call us friends. You trust us as you trusted Peter, you know us through and through, yet go on loving and accepting us in our human weakness. Give us the keys of the kingdom of heaven that we might have life in all its fullness!
We thank you, Holy Spirit, for you draw us to the living God, Like St Paul, one who recognised in Jesus’ life and death for all, Help us to live so God’s love and purpose can help strengthen the kingdom of God in this place and everywhere we go. Give us the sword of the spirit – that we might have life in all its fullness! Amen.
References: The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible 1989, © 1995, Prayer adapted from material on rootsontheweb.com – used with permission ©