The city of Rome is famous for many things, and chief among them is that the city is the final resting place of two of the Apostles, SS Peter and Paul. Both were martyred there during the persecution of the emperor Nero, in the aftermath of the Great Fire. They bore witness to their faith even to the point of death because it was that important to them. And while everyone knows St Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, built over the site of his tomb, many people do not even know that St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles is buried there too, just outside the City Walls, on the great road south to Capua, the Via Appia. While Paul is remembered for his letters and St Luke’s account of his missionary journeys in the Acts of the Apostles, his resting place attracts far fewer visitors and pilgrims.
Now I don’t know about you, but I for one, when faced with the saints, am confronted with my own sense of inadequacy and sinfulness. I just don’t think that I can live up to the example. I can’t quite come up to the mark. This need not, however, be such a bad thing insofar as it points out our need to rely entirely upon God, and to trust in His mercy and grace. To trust in God to work in and through me. To trust in something which I do not deserve, but which nonetheless is poured out on me, so that in all things God may be glorified.
There is something wonderfully transparent about St Peter: a man of imposing strength and stature, handy for the physically demanding life of a Galilean fisherman, a man of little learning (unlike St Paul) but much love and faith — a man who speaks before he thinks, but whose instincts are often right, a man who loves and trusts Jesus. Likewise St Paul goes from persecuting the Church to being the most zealous proclaimer of the Good News of Jesus Christ, through the power of God.
In this morning’s Gospel Jesus asks His disciples ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ They report what people are saying ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Jesus then asks them the question ‘But who do you say that I am?’ The question He asks His disciples He asks each and every one of us ‘Who do we say that Jesus is?’ ‘A prophet?’ ‘A well-meaning holy man?’ ‘A misguided revolutionary?’
Peter’s answer is telling: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ Jesus is the Christ, the anointed Saviour, the one who saves and rules Israel, and the Son of God. Peter is the first to confess the divinity of Christ, the first to recognise his Lord and Saviour. We need to do the same: to have the same faith and trust and love, to recognise Christ and confess Him as Our Lord and God.
Jesus’ response is simple ‘you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 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’ In his confession of the Divinity of Christ, in his reliance upon and trust in God, Peter is empowered to bear witness to the Messiah and to carry on God’s work of reconciliation. He will fail: in the verses which follow this passage he argues that Jesus should not suffer and die, and is rebuked. After Our Lord’s arrest Peter, the rock, will deny Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. After the Resurrection Peter will need to be reminded to ‘feed Christ’s sheep’. There is also the story that during the first persecution in Rome under Nero, Peter flees, he tries to save his own skin. And he sees Christ carrying His Cross towards Rome. So Peter turns back and in the end he bears witness to Christ, he feeds the flock, he values Christ above all things, and bears witness to Him even at the cost of his own life.
St Peter is not exactly the person one might choose to be in charge — that’s the point, he’s not a success, he doesn’t possess the skillset for management: he’s not a worldly leader, he probably wouldn’t get through the modern Church’s selection process (and that’s sadly telling). He’s basically a cowardly failure, someone who speaks before he thinks. But he’s someone who knows God, who loves Him, trusts Him, and confesses Him, who proclaims Him in word and deed. He’s someone that God can use and be at work in, to be a herald of the Kingdom.
Above all else, and despite his failings, Peter bears witness to Christ, and we the Church are called to do exactly the same, some two thousand years later: we are to be witnesses to Christ: who He is and what He does, so that we can proclaim the Gospel, the Good News of God’s saving love. That is why we are here today, this morning, to be nourished by Word and Sacrament – to be fed by Christ, with Christ, with His Body and Blood, to witness the re-presentation of the offering of the Son to the Father, the sacrifice of Calvary, which restores our relationship with God and each other, which takes away our sins, which pays the price which we cannot, which gives us the hope of eternal life in Christ, so that we like St Peter can be healed, restored, and forgiven and strengthened in soul and body for our work of witness, so that God may be at work in us, in the proclamation of His Kingdom.
So let us be like St Peter, and when we are asked ‘Who do you say that the Son of Man is?’ Let us confess that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, the God who saves us and loves us, so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.