ust this past Friday, I had a meeting down in Milford with a new rector in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. I’m always intrigued by church buildings, so while he finished up a phone call, I wandered about, taking in the space. I explored the church kitchen, because I think a church kitchen speaks something about the congregation. And then I set about examining the various items that hung on the wall in the parish hall. There were of course the photographs of the church building, a few of church members and children. And then there was a large wooden carving of two keys, crossed over each other. I knew that this was something important to the congregation, because it received a prominent spot on the wall. Beneath it was a cryptic little plaque explaining that these were the original keys, carefully restored.
I stood there for a moment, wondering at these carved keys. While they are certainly well-established religious symbols, they aren’t all that common in protestant churches, appearing more often in the Roman Catholic tradition. Why would this Episcopal church in Milford have such a large set of crossed keys, and why was it so important to this congregation?
Almost in the same instant the question flitted across my mind, I remembered that this what St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, and these, of course were the keys of St. Peter. Before me were the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, the key to bind and the key to loose. Because, of course, the keys carved of wood that hang in the parish hall in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Milford, CT, are a direct reference to the scripture reading we hear this morning.
The keys to the Kingdom of Heaven are what capture our imagination in this reading, but the truly important part is what takes place right before Jesus promises them to Peter.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks of his disciples. It is an awkward question, after all the disciples knew very well what the religious leaders and the authorities thought of Jesus. They knew that some thought of him as a heretic and a demagogue, they knew that his actions and his movement raised suspicion with those in power. They were suspicious of the crowds that gathered around him. They were suspicious of the way that he captured people’s hearts and minds, the way people were stirred up in his wake. And the authorities and leaders knew how to deal with rebels and rabble-rousers; John the Baptist had caused similar problems and now he was dead…
I can imagine the hesitancy in the disciple’s answer to Jesus’ question. “Well,” one of them began cautiously, “some say that you are John the Baptist, back from the dead.” Somebody else piped up, “others think that you are Elijah.” From the back, a voice spoke out, “some think you are Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
None of these were bad answers. After all, Jesus offered a wisdom of the same kind that the prophets of old had offered. He spoke with the authority of one who had stood before God, face to face, as Moses had done in the wilderness. He performed miracles and signs that rivalled the great wonders worked by Elijah and Elisha. And Jesus called the people back to a closer relationship with God, back into the covenant that God forged with God’s people, just as the prophets had done since time immemorial. Yes, given all that Jesus had said and all that he had done, it is understandable, even expected, that the people would associate him with the prophets of Israel.
“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus pressed. This time nobody spoke. The silence was almost too much to bear. Then Peter broke the stillness, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
In this simple declaration, Peter strikes the truth that the great crowds do not yet understand, the truth that the religious leaders and authorities do not yet understand, the truth that the other disciples and Peter himself do not yet fully comprehend.
A lot of weight is given to Peter’s statement, for the truth he utters is not one he could have come to by himself. Only in relationship to God can this truth be revealed, relationship which in Peter’s case was born literally in the countless miles he walked at Jesus’ side. Only by gift of the spirit can our minds and hearts be opened to grasp the reality of Christ. It is for this reason that some Christian traditions place such importance behind each believer’s personal declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. While anyone can say those very words, only someone who has such a relationship with God, someone in whom the Holy Spirit moves, can speak the truth behind those words.
By the grace of God, Peter knew the truth and now the other disciples knew it too. It is an important milestone in the gospel narrative. Now the disciples knew who this was who had called them away from their nets, away from their families, away from their homes. Now the disciples knew who this was who led them into increasingly miraculous encounters with God’s people and increasingly dangerous encounters with the leaders and authorities.
Now they knew who Jesus was. But they did not yet understand what it meant. Peter did not yet understand what it meant. He could not yet understand.
The thing about prophets is that if you did not like the message that they delivered, you simply banned them from your presence, or you had them killed. The trouble was that God’s true prophets rarely delivered a message that kings and religious leaders wanted to hear, and the history of God’s people, from the depths of past to this day, is littered with the bones of God’s true prophets. Because everybody loves a prophet until they start meddling in your own affairs, and the reality is that we can ignore prophets. Even acknowledging that they speak God’s word, we can still choose to ignore them. We can justify to ourselves that their words are meant for someone else, for a time other than now, for a situation that is not this one.
The difference between the prophets and Christ is that he cannot be cast away from our presence and he cannot be disposed of. For when it is the messiah who stands before you, then you stand alone before the Son of the living God, and the only time is now, the only situation is this one. The difference between the prophets and Christ, the reality that Peter and the disciples did not yet comprehend, is that we cannot ignore the call of Christ, we can only follow and obey.
Peter would soon begin to understand this reality, but not today. Not yet. For today is the start of Peter’s new journey, a journey that he would travel the rest of his life, as he came to understand the truth that he uttered this morning.
It is a truth and a journey that we too must travel. For if it has been revealed to us in our own faith that Christ is the messiah, the Son of the living God, then we cannot ignore the words he speaks to us or the message he proclaims for this world. We cannot pretend that they are meant for other people, for a different time, or for circumstances that are not our own. And, like the prophets, the words that Christ speaks to us are rarely the ones we want to hear. His message demands something of all of us; we cannot hear it and be unchanged by it.
My friends, Jesus’ question hangs before us this day. Though it is not the message that it wants to hear, the world around us hungers and thirsts for the Gospel message, it needs the Gospel message. And if we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, if we believe that Jesus is God incarnate, then we must proclaim that gospel message. We must proclaim the Gospel of Christ to the racism and bigotry of this world. We must proclaim the Gospel of Christ to the Nazism and xenophobia of this world. And we must proclaim the Gospel of Christ wherever God’s children are abused and neglected by the powers and the principalities of this world.
And it will be difficult, for God’s message always challenges and offends, ourselves and others. It will cost us, for the path of Christ is not politically expedient or socially beneficial. And it will be dangerous, for God’s people have always sought to cast out and kill those who speak God’s word to them. But Christ calls to us nonetheless, and we cannot ignore it. Christ beckons to us with a single question, “Who do you say that I am?”
Preached by Adam Yates