Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In May, as a part of my continuing education, my wife Janna and I visited the city of Rome. My summer sermon series in the Footsteps of Saints Peter and Paul is based on that visit. Last Sunday, I began with the theme All Roads Lead to Rome. Today we continue with St. Peter’s Basilica.
A wealthy man died and went to heaven. He was met at the Pearly Gates by Saint Peter, who welcomed him warmly and told him he would be taken to his forever heavenly dwelling. He then led him down the streets of gold. They passed castle after fantastic castle, then huge mansion after mansion, then beautiful cottages, until they came to the very end of the street where Saint Peter stopped the rich man in front of a little wooden shack that looked like it was about to fall down. “Welcome Home.” said Saint Peter. The wealthy man was startled and protested. “Why do I get this ugly thing when there are so many mansions I could live in?” Saint Peter replied, “We did the best we could with the money you sent us!”
Regretfully, many Christians today regard Saint Peter as nothing more than the benevolent bouncer at the Gates of Heaven who welcomes in believers and sends away sinners and skeptics. In almost disbelief, they discover that the largest Church in Christendom is named after him and they wonder why. There is no doubt, that the Roman Catholics in Rome hold the Apostle Peter in high esteem.
St. Peter’s Basilica, with its’ Renaissance style façade and interior and an imposing dome dominates the skyline of Rome, is one of the inspiring buildings in the Eternal City. To enter the basilica, you must past through Saint. Peter’s Square, a forecourt in two sections. The first space is an enlarged oval and the second trapezoidal. At the center of the first courtyard is an ancient Egyptian obelisk which has stood in Rome for 2000 years. It was first erected by Emperor Caligula in the Circus of Nero, which now lies beneath Saint Peter’s Square. Incidentally, the word circus has nothing to do with clowns, and tightrope walkers. Circus was the Latin word for a chariot race track, such as the circus maximus. The Circus of Nero was the site of the first major executions of Christians, which included St. Peter who was crucified upside in that square.
Passing through the second courtyard, you are greeted by the two 18 foot statues of Sts. Peter with his keys and Paul with his double edged sword which dominate the entrance steps to the basilica. No sooner do you walk through the main doors of the basilica, then you first glimpse the gold lettering encircling the interior of the dome. The letters are over six feet tall and read, “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam mean et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum” You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And there reads one of the most important and debated verses in all of scripture. For Roman Catholics, it represents the tradition of the church, the primacy of Peter over all apostles, and the office of the pope to serve as the unifying force and presence in the church. It is the unbroken chain of authority through 260 popes all the way back to St. Peter. For Roman Catholics, Peter is the rock, literally, the very person where this all begins. And he has the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Needless to say, that is not how Protestants interpret that verse from St. Matthews’s gospel. The Orthodox Church acknowledges the primacy of the St. Peter, but as the Bishop of Rome, he is one among equals. In the Orthodox Church, he is also regarded as the Bishop of Antioch. Lutherans, on the other hand, are much more inclined to view this as metaphorical language. But it is hard to argue this very persuasively pr historically. Clearly, there is a difference and distinction between Peter and the other disciples.
Peter was first and foremost a fisherman from the Galilee who was more comfortable with a coarse net in his calloused fingers than with office of the keys. He was more familiar with the wind and sea, and the smell of fish, than with life in the Empire’s capital city. But Peter was a diligent disciple and a dedicated follower, and when Jesus questioned his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” Peter answered wisely and correctly. It was the depth of his answer that surprised even Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But the poor disciple had neglected one important teaching. Perhaps you’ve forgotten it as well. Faith in God is not simply a good confession. Faith in God is not simply knowing the right words when questioned. Faith demands something more. In common language. Faith is walking the walk, and not just talking the talk. The faith that Peter would discover, my friends, was walking openly, proudly, and compassionately in God’s footsteps. Unfortunately, it was still easy far too easy back in Galilee for Simon Peter to fall back into his familiar, blustery patterns. It may be true of all of us.
But before Peter that could happened that day, Jesus said something to him that all the other disciples heard and perhaps envied. That day, Jesus gave the disciple a new name, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Unfortunately, controversy has followed those words ever since. In Aramaic, Jesus called him with meaning “rock.” The Greeks translated it to Petros, the masculine form, of the standard feminine word petra also meaning “rock. This was translated into Latin as Petrus. So instead of saying the name Peter, we could more accurately read this text, “You are the rock and on this rock, I will build my church.” Suddenly, there was something unique about Simon’s relationship to Jesus and the others.
No theologian or historian seemed to question Simon Peter’s preeminence among the other apostles in 1500 years. They needed only to turn to scripture and read for themselves. Peter alone was the one disciple to whom a new name had been given. Peter was always close at hand when Jesus was alone with his closest disciples. He was there at the transfiguration, and in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus appeared to Peter first after his resurrection and went out of his way to let him know that he was forgiven for his denial. It was Peter who spoke on Pentecost morning on behalf of the disciples. The only detail in Scripture that differs from that scene in St. Matthew’s gospel relates to the exclusivity of the keys. In St. John’s gospel, we read that at Easter, not just Peter, but all the disciples were given the keys to bind and loosen the chains of forgiveness.
Then came the Renaissance. It was not always the greatest period in the spiritual history for the Roman Catholic Church. By the end of the 15th century, the original basilica in Rome built by Emperor Constantine had fallen into disrepair. Pope Nicholas V ordered that the stones of the 1500-year old coliseum be repurposed for a new foundation for the basilica. That was all that was accomplished before his death. His successor, Pope Julius II who had commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, gathered the aging artist together with others to create a completely new basilica. In 1505 Julius demolished the ancient basilica and commissioned a monumental structure to house his own enormous tomb. But how to pay for it? The German Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg had a wonderful idea. Indulgences. The church could sell forgiveness at a price. Or at least to minimize a loved one’s time in purgatory. Albrecht appointed a Dominican preacher Johann Tetzel, to spearhead the capital campaign. He even branded a catchy phrase. “When a coin in the coffer springs, another soul from purgatory springs.” In 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian professor at the newly established university Wittenberg wrote to Archbishop Albrecht arguing against that this “selling of indulgences” was against the principles of God’s free grace. Luther included in his personal letter a copy of little writing known as the 95 Theses. Within a generation, the apostle Peter’s reputation was tarnished by the excess and a cost of the basilica that bore his name. And the more Protestants wanted to distance themselves from Rome and the Roman Catholic Church, and argued by Scripture alone, the more they distanced themselves from the historic Saint Peter who lived, was imprisoned and died in Rome. In Protestant circles, Saint Peter just became one of the guys.
My friends, there are two reasons why Saint Peter should be important to the Christian church -even for Lutherans. No, I do not believe he should be honored as the founder of the church in Rome. The church was born at Pentecost, and it was already there when he arrived. Nor do I believe that there is an exclusivity of access to God limited to one apostle who alone has the keys to the kingdom. No, for better or worse, I believe that Saint Peter is a model for the Christian faith, of a confident, broken, forgiven and restored human being that God can use for the building the church. Even in Rome Peter had his good and bad days. That you will hear of later. But more importantly, it is upon the rock of Peter’s confession and our own living confession in words and deeds that allows the church to remain strong in our present age. It is that rock hard faith in Jesus Christ that allows the church to offer a hopeful witness that death and Hades will not prevail against it. In the city of Rome, Peter was challenged openly to confess and live out his faith and it was for the that reason the early Christians gathered after his in the cemetery outside the walls of Rome named on Vatican Hill to remember him, and it why they built a church over his burial site to honor him. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.