Christ Lutheran Community Church
August 23, 2020 Worship Sermon - "Peter at the Pearly Gates"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
There was a funny cartoon in the New Yorker magazine a while weeks ago. It shows a man standing in front of the pearly gates. There to greet him is, of course, Saint Peter, who has the Book of Life opened in front of him. Peter asks the man, "What was the name of your first pet?"
For those of your who aren't regular internet users, that question is one of the many security questions we are routinely asked when we are trying to set up an online account at a bank or insurance company. When I was in banking, we asked everyone just one question, "What is your mother's maiden name?" But now that so many things are handled online and so many hackers have found ways to gain access to personal information, these questions have become more and more numerous and more and more difficult to answer. For good reason: we don't want the wrong people to gain access to our accounts and our personal information.
Providing that kind of security is the role that Saint Peter plays in our popular imagination. There is a whole genre of jokes where Peter stands outside the pearly gates of heaven. Peter is given the role of gate-keeper - of determining who can enter heaven and who can't - because we wouldn't want the wrong people to get in, would we? Anyway, the reason Peter is always assigned this role is because of the passage we just heard in Matthew, where Jesus says to Peter, "I give you the keys to the kingdom."
I think what's actually going on in this gospel reading, though, is much more wonderful. Peter's confession about Jesus, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God," is a turning point in the whole Gospel. From this point on, Jesus will begin the long journey to Jerusalem, where he knows that he will be crucified. As Jesus and his disciples journey to Jerusalem, he spends less time healing the sick and casting out demons and more time telling the disciples how they are to live after he is no longer physically present among them. The passages that we will be reading for the next several weeks are a kind of discipleship manual... a guide for living as a follower of Christ.
One of the first things we learn about discipleship from Jesus is that it involves living in community. When Jesus says, "Upon this rock I will build my church," he's not talking about a building, like our church building. The Greek word "ecclesia" means "gathering" or "congregation." Christianity is not a religion that one practices on one's own. You might feel closest to God when you're walking through the woods or enjoying a magnificent sunset, but ultimately Christ calls us into community - a community with all the warts and flaws and foibles that are a part of the human condition. Christ founds this community on a frail and unreliable leader like Peter - someone who, as we'll see later in the gospel, is anything but rock-like in his faithfulness. The miraculous thing about the church that Christ is founding on Peter is that in spite of its flaws and brokenness - from Peter all the way down to you and me - in spite of our brokenness, God is able to use this community to give life.
Jesus says of this church that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Perhaps you’ve been to the Rodin Museum in Center City and seen the massive sculpture just outside the entrance. It's called "The Gates of Hell" and it features two huge, bronze doors that are covered with writhing creatures, demons and human beings in agony.
Hades, though, was not understood to be a place of torment, but a place of death. Hades was where the spirits of the dead went. So when Jesus says, "The gates of Hades will not prevail against the church," he was saying that not even death would be able to hold the people of God in bondage. This community would be filled with the life of God and free to live that life as God called them.
I have definitely experienced life in our community. Certainly, it’s been harder to experience during the pandemic. But I have experienced life in the relationships and conversations I've had with you. I have experienced life in being with many of you during significant events; in praying together; in working with you to feed the hungry; all of these have been life-giving for me, and I hope for you, too.
Jesus goes on to say, "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Binding and loosing are technical terms for interpreting the law. We could say that the Supreme Court is responsible for binding and loosing the constitution of the United States. Jesus is giving Peter and, I would say by extension the church, the full authority to interpret and implement the law of God.
This has tremendous consequences for how we apply the laws of the Bible to daily life. It’s not enough to say, “Well it’s right there in the Bible so we have to do it,” because we as the church have the responsibility to determine which of the laws in the Bible apply to our contemporary circumstances and which of them don’t.
Binding and loosing can also apply to the power that the church has to bind anything that runs counter to God's purposes. Racism as been on all of our minds. The Bible may not have a lot to say about racism, but the church has the authority and the obligation to bind racism, because racism is a distortion of the life God intends for humanity.
This story in Matthew gives us such a powerful image of what it means to be the church. Sometimes, that lofty calling that God has given us seems so far beyond our capabilities. Speaking for myself: I’m at least as flawed and unreliable as Peter. And yet God looks at us and sees the Rock of Gibraltar. Not because of who we are but because of what the Holy Spirit is doing in us.
This is not an excuse for arrogance. Next week, you’ll hear Jesus refer to Peter as Satan just five minutes after calling him the rock. We the church have gotten it wrong again and again, causing tremendous suffering in the process. Instead of being life-givers, we've so often been gate-keepers. And yet, the Holy Spirit continues to work through us to build a kingdom that will overcome the very gates of hell.
Look around our country and see all the monuments to human power and achievement. Go to Washington DC and see all the granite and marble. But none of these are where eternal power lies. The Kingdom of Heaven is built upon a gathering of vulnerable, even broken human beings, people like you and me.