Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer, I have been preaching on the lessons and the legends of Jesus’ 12 apostles, and those who were sent by the early church to proclaim the good news. Regrettably, as important as the apostles were, there are few churchgoers today that can even name a handful them. In the last three weeks, we have heard the story of Andrew, Jesus’ first disciple, as well as John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus who prepared the way. Last week, we meditated on James the Less and Philip, two apostles who are often overlooked, all because of their names are so common. Today, we turn to the most well-known of the apostles, Simon- Peter.
You do not have to search long to observe the apostle’s significance for Christian believers. After all, St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world is named him. With its’ Renaissance style façade and imposing dome designed by Michelangelo, the church dominates the skyline of Rome. To enter the basilica, you pass through two historic courtyards which make up St. Peter’s Square. An ancient Egyptian obelisk has stood in the first courtyard for 2000 years. It was first erected by Emperor Caligula in the Circus of Nero, which now lies beneath St 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 Christian believers, which included the apostle Simon-Peter.
Passing through the second courtyard, you climb the steps to the entrance of the church, where you are greeted by 18 foot statues of Peter and Paul. No sooner do you walk through the main doors, then you glimpse the gold lettering encircling the interior of the dome. The letters are over six feet tall and read, 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 the apostles, and the office of the pope to serve as the unifying force and presence in the church. It represents the unbroken chain of authority through 260 popes all the way back to St. Peter possessing the power of keys to open and close the doors to the kingdom of heaven. For Roman Catholics, Peter is the rock, literally, the very person where this all begins. That is not, however, how all Christians interpret that verse, nor the life and faith of the apostle.
Scripture itself offers a complicated and conflicted portrait of Simon-Peter. His family originally came from Bethsaida in Galilee, but during the period of Jesus’ ministry, he lived in Capernaum, at the northwest end of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus himself made his home. Simon-Peter and his brother Andrew were co-workers in a fishing venture along with two other brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee. We know that Simon-Peter was either married, or widowed, since we are told that Jesus healed his mother-in-law. He portrayed as gentle but firm, and is capable of great loyalty and love. Occasionally he appears rash and hasty and apt to rush to conclusions. Even after Jesus’ resurrection, Simon-Peter can appear wavering and unsure.
True, Jesus called Simon, Peter, Cephas, the rock, but moments later he also referred to Simon as Satan and a stumbling block to his ministry. Yes, Peter did walk on water, but as soon as he took his eyes off of Jesus, he began to flounder. Together with James and John, he was present in the Garden of Gethsemane and at Jesus’ transfiguration with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop, but Peter later became so confused at Jesus’ role that he thought he should build altars of remembrance to all three. And at the last supper where Jesus was betrayed, Peter boldly claimed, “I will go to prison with you and die with you,” only to deny knowing Jesus three times before the new day had dawned. It is not exactly the most positive portrait of an apostle, but after Jesus’ resurrection on Easter, he was the one the angel commanded the women to tell pf the good news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. It was Peter who ran to the tomb to see if the women’s words were true, and it was to the apostle Peter, that the Lord appeared to first.
So, as complicated has his life had been, Peter continued to play the role of the preeminent apostle after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. There was no one, and so for nearly 15 years, he dominated the leadership of the church in Jerusalem. He presided over the appointment of Matthias as an apostle to take the place of Judas Iscariot. He “raised his voice” and preached at Pentecost. He served as the advocate for the Apostles before the Jewish religious court in Jerusalem and he exercised the role of disciplining those who erred in the faith. Simon-Peter actually extended the mission of the church, first to Samaria, and then along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in Joppa, and the farther north to Caesarea, where, through the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius, Peter introduced the first Gentiles into the church. According to Jewish requirements, a Gentile convert had to become Jewish first, but Peter welcomed Cornelius and his family and ordered “them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” without any the other rites. It was a dangerous precedent that challenged the dominant practice among the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. His action may have been a factor in King Herod’s beheading of the first apostle to die a martyr James the Greater, the brother of John, as well as the arrest and imprisonment of Simon-Peter himself. With that, the unchallenged leadership of Peter came to an end. It was soon taken over by James, the brother of Jesus. As for his ongoing work, Peter is not mentioned again in the Book of Acts. But we do find references to him in St. Paul’s writing.
The Apostle Paul first met with Simon-Peter in Jerusalem three years after his conversion on the road to Damascus, which was about two years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. They met again 14 years later in Antioch, in what is today Eastern Turkey. Paul had achieved some success in the difficult matter of welding the Jewish and Gentile Christians into one congregation. The Jewish Christians saw the sharing of food with Gentiles as quite alien to their tradition. In the absence of Paul, Simon-Peter, perhaps in his capacity as a representative of James and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, visited Antioch and ate with the united group. Later, certain persons came from Jerusalem, opposing the united congregation’s custom of eating together. In spite of his own breaking tradition by baptizing Cornelius and his family in Caesarea, Simon-Peter suddenly argued that all new followers of the Way, regardless of their background, were obligated to follow the Mosaic law, stating, they were not “real Christians unless…” Paul felt Simon-Peter was vacillating, and in his letter to the Galatians Paul passionately wrote how he “opposed Peter, to his face because he clearly was wrong.” In the end, a church council was called in Jerusalem by James to discuss the issue, which issued a decree supporting Paul and the Gentile Christians. From that time onward, Gentiles were no longer bound by the Levitical ceremonial regulations of the Mosaic law. Some feelings and memories, however, were hurt and not quickly forgotten.
And now we turn to the apostle and his time in Rome. Although some theologians maintain that Simon-Peter lived there for 25 years serving as a pastor and bishop, there are no conclusive writings. It is not found in the Book of Acts or in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. But according to tradition, 15 years after their contentious meeting in Antioch, and well into their 60’s Simon-Peter and Paul, found themselves working together the sake of the gospel. They recognized that they had complementary gifts for ministry to the capital city. Rome was important to the apostles and their understanding of God’s mission in the world. There were over 50,000 Jews living in Rome at that time and there five different synagogues. It was a larger community than was living in Jerusalem. And with all roads leading to Rome, the apostles knew that a gospel proclamation firmly established there could go forth to the ends of the earth. It was for that reason that Simon-Peter and Paul were there in the city of the year 64 AD, at the time of the great fire.
Emperor Nero used the great fire to clamp down on the growing influence of Christians in Rome. They were his scapegoats. He arrested, tortured and executed hundreds of Christians on the pretext that they had something to do with the fire. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, Nero had the Christians covered in wild beast skins and torn to death by dogs at the Circus of Nero. Legends states that the two apostles were imprisoned together briefly in the Mamertine Prison. Peter was executed around 67 AD in the Circus of Nero, where, unwilling to be crucified like Jesus, he asked to be crucified with his head down. He was later buried outside the wall of the city on the Vatican Hill where St. Peter’s Basilica stands today. Paul, as a Roman citizen, could not be crucified, and was beheaded on the same day two years later.
My friends, there are two reasons why I believe Simon-Peter should be important to the Christian church -even for Lutherans. First of all, I do not believe that Peter should be honored as the founder of the church in Rome. 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. The authority to forgive was given to all Jeus’ disciples. No, I believe that Peter should be remembered a model of the Christian life. He is a confident, doubting, broken, forgiven and restored human being that God can use for the building the church. Simon-Peter was not a perfect candidate for doing the work of God’s kingdom, but God could use him just the same. So when you are wondering why in the world is God calling you of all people to do his work, remember Simon- Peter and all his faults.
Second, it is not the man Peter we honor and remember. No, Jesus himself underscores what is praiseworthy. It is Peter’s confession of who Jesus is, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Why is that so important, you may ask? It is really quite simple. How you and I choose to live our lives is based on what we believe is true. Our actions and words flow naturally from our convictions. The question Peter answered is the question, is the question every believer must answer. Who is Jesus to you? If Jesus is your Lord and Master, your life will reflect that confession, but if Jesus is merely a prophet or teacher, that will be evident as well. Jesus has called you because of your confession that he is Lord.
My friends, it was Peter’s rock- hard faith in Jesus Christ that allowed the church to become a hopeful place where neither death nor Hades could prevail. In Rome, Peter was challenged openly and regularly to confess that faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, and it was for the that reason the early Christians gathered after his death to remember him as the preeminent apostle. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.