On the Confession of Peter
You know, or perhaps you don’t, that today’s Gospel literally defines the pope. It is his raison d’etre, his reason for being. So foundational does the pope find Matthew 16, that he inscribed it in seven foot high letters around the dome of his home church, St. Peter’s in Rome. Craning your neck, turning in a circle you read: “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. Tibi dabo claves regni caelorum.” “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” To the pope, those words mean one thing: “God built the church on me!”
You may say only a megalomaniac would think such a thing. You might counter that such words could only be spoken by the most fringe exponent of papal power. You might say such things, but they would not be true.
The pope in Rome sees himself as the foundation of the church. Only with his blessing can a council of the church meet. Only with his blessing can a council of the church speak. Only with his blessing can a teaching of the church be binding on the faithful. Only in fellowship with him can one consider himself fully within in the Christian Church. Pope Boniface VIII spoke the mind of the papacy when he decreed, “It is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Enshrined in the Canon Law of the Roman Church is an ancient principle: “There is no appeal beyond the pope.” You cannot appeal to any other ruler, power, or authority. To even consider it is sinful. A previous occupant of the chair of St. Peter, Gregory VII, decreed: “The Pope can be judged by no one; the Roman church has never erred and never will err till the end of time.” Such words culminated in a 19th century council of the Roman Church under the guiding hand of Pope Pius IX decreeing that the pope speaks infallibly about faith and morals. The pope has only twice used this awesome power, both times bolstering the idolatrous treatment of Mary, calling her without original sin and saying that she bodily ascended into heaven.
Again, you might say I cherry-picked three of the most “power” hungry popes. You would be right, except for the fact that the Roman church accepted their judgments. Those teachings remain Roman teachings. The pope continues to consider himself the rock upon which the church is built. If you’re looking for the Christian Church, you must find him. For all the appeals to Christ that the pope does make (and praise God for them), in the end, it’s about him.
The actual Peter of the Bible, not the imaginary rock invented by the pope, teaches us that it’s always about someone else. Or, actually, and better, the Holy Spirit uses Peter to teach us.
In our Gospel, after Peter makes his faithful confession, “You are the Christ,” Jesus said, “Blessed are you…for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” In other words, Peter, like Paul, didn’t invent this or come up with this. He didn’t lay the foundation. God did. God laid down the rock, the petra, not Petrus, which is the nickname Jesus gave to Peter. And that petra, that rock, is no man, but the Word of God the Father gave Peter. It didn’t require a Reformation to know this. Many early church fathers knew it. A man named Hilary wrote, “The building of the Church is upon this rock of confession.” Our Lutheran fathers saw the same truth and built upon the understanding many had in the first centuries. In one of our Lutheran confessions describing the power of the pope, we say, “Certainly the Church has not been built upon the authority of a man. Rather it has been built upon the ministry of the confession Peter made.”
A confession that came from outside of him. As Peter well knew. Writing later, and more wisely then we observe him acting in the gospels, Peter confessed once more. He called himself a slave of Jesus, someone with no rights, privileges or powers, except those given by the master. These he describes: “To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours….His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him….He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”
It is, to use a glorious gospel phrase from the Latin: “extra nos.” Outside of us. We received precious faith through God’s righteousness. Think of Paul in Romans 3, “But now a righteousness from God has been revealed.” It is the righteousness of Jesus, the righteousness Jesus promised to fulfill when he convinced John to baptize him. God’s divine power gives us all this, for everything, from him, according to the promises he gives to us, promises like those spoken to infant Elliott last week: “You are baptized, and thus you belong to me!” Promises like those Jesus’ lips offer, when he lets us participate in his divine nature, eating and drinking that divine body and blood given for me, until we all drink it anew in the incorruptible kingdom of heaven with Jesus. Because of Jesus. Outside of us.
And we encounter that same wise and humble Peter in Acts. We meet him under arrest in Acts 4:8. Recall how he got there. While walking through the temple a man asked him for money. Peter had none, but said, “In the name of Jesus, walk!” And the man did. A crowd gathered and Peter preached and said, “It ain’t me, babe,” to paraphrase, and probably misuse Bob Dylan. To also borrow from Martin Luther’s equally famous words, “I did nothing, God did everything.” “Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we made this man walk?” He goes on. The one who did this, Jesus, you killed him. “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One….You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead….It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him.” Then the big one: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Peter wanted to talk about the healing as little as he did himself. He wanted to talk about Jesus, about crucifixion and resurrection, about sins being wiped out by God, the God of Abraham fulfilling his promise to bless all nations through a seed of Abraham! Jesus!
Not surprisingly, the usual suspects aren’t thrilled by Peter’s preaching, Peter’s confessing. They arrest Peter in the midst of another church explosion, from 3,000 to 5,000 followers!
The next day these priests, rulers, and elders ask, “By what power or what name did you do this?” And again, Peter goes all Bob Dylan, “It ain’t me, babe.” Pay close attention to our words from Acts. “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them.” Not Peter, but the Spirit, just as Jesus promised in Matthew 10: “It will not be you speaking but the Spirit of my Father speaking through you.” Or, Matthew 16 again: “This was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father.”
Then Peter speaks. “Know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.” In case they didn’t pick up what Peter laid down, he spoke one of those words only the most mentally flexible can get around: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” It ain’t me, babe. Jesus, Jesus, only Jesus.
Then notice what they thought about Peter: “They…realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men.” Literally, Luke tells us that the rulers considered Peter an idiot. That’s the word translated, “ordinary.” It doesn’t automatically have the same harsh connotation it does today where idiot equals moron. These rulers however realized that Peter fished; he didn’t have his doctorate in theology. Yet he confessed. Perfectly. You killed Jesus. God raised him to life. Salvation, forgiveness, hope and life can only be found in Jesus. Peter, once again, nailed it. The rulers had an inkling of why: “They took note that these men had been with Jesus.”
These men had been with Jesus. That empowered Peter to confess. He didn’t let a lack of book learning hold him back from confessing. Nor did he assert papal power and privilege to prove why he could speak. The divine power of God gave him all he needed. The Word of God did it. Faith comes, as Paul says, from hearing the message. A message that comes from outside of me, from God, that God operated outside of me to give me this salvation: a dead Jesus, a resurrected Jesus, in that Jesus, sins wiped out. The content of our confession made clear.
To confess based on our own power or authority, or, as is more likely, to refuse to confess because you don’t know it that well, you’re not a pastor, you can’t cite chapter and verse, you don’t feel comfortable, you’d prefer being vague, “Well, some people think,” any and all such reasons and excuses take it from outside of me and make it all about me. But it must be extra nos, outside of me, or else I’m making myself the rock, the Savior. Once I have this power, then I can and will confess. No, God gives that power to confess when he puts his name upon you, when he tells you about Jesus, the one righteous for you, when he feeds you upon the crucified and resurrected Lord, the great for you, outside of you, wiping your sins away.
Everything relies on this confession, the same one Peter made. Remember, he said God’s divine power gives us everything for life and godliness, gives us a faith we receive, a salvation we find in Christ, whose divine power says, “Know this, it is me, for you, dead, now alive again. As you are in my name.” Amen.