On this Rock: the faith of St. Peter

At that time, when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:13-19

When Peter calls Jesus the “Son of God,” he is means that Jesus is a man who great and mighty. Perhaps Jesus is some kind of warrior-king like King David, or perhaps a prophet like Elijah. Jesus can work miracles. He is the “Son of God,” for that reason.

Jesus says, “Blessed are you … for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you …” “Flesh and blood” in this context means the kind of things that are mighty and awe-inspiring in our material world. It means “the visible world.” “Flesh and blood,” means an authoritative person, a leader, a warrior-king, a great teacher. Peter says, “Son of God,” but Jesus replies that the true meaning of this confession is not found only in the notion that Jesus is a strong and charismatic man. Jesus is not just that.

Jesus refers to Peter as “Bar Jona” which means “Son of Jonah” in Aramaic. He is saying, “You call me ‘Son of God.’ I am calling you, ‘Son of Jonah.’ Jonah is the father you left in the boat in Galilee when you followed me. You became something more than Bar Jona. I am something more than the Son of God in the sense that you mean. When you see me, you are seeing an image of my Father who is in heaven. I have also come from my father to you, as you left your father to follow me.”

Jesus tells Peter that he will build his church, “on this rock.” What rock? “Peter” is the nick-name that Jesus gave Simon. And Peter means rock. So perhaps Jesus is saying, “on this “Peter” I will build my church.” How can Jesus build a church with Peter as the foundation? Jesus is the cornerstone which the builders rejected! Jesus is the foundation.

Rock, in the context of building, means bedrock; the rock you get to when you dig all the way down through the dirt and can’t go any farther. Jesus says elsewhere, “therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24) The confession of Peter is the beginning of the faith. That confession, such as it was, was a bedrock foundation. But a foundation must be built upon. This confession, at this time, is not the whole house. In the next verse, Peter will rebuke Jesus for saying that he must die on the cross! How perfect is this faith? Clearly not perfect yet.

Even though Peter calls Jesus the “Son of God,” in today’s reading, later on Peter denies Christ. This is because, despite Peter’s eagerness, he did not yet understand that Jesus is not simply a mighty man. Peter does not know yet that the full greatness and wisdom and power of Jesus is revealed as Jesus takes up the cross of weakness, and in so doing reveals his Father in Heaven. Peter sees the glory which is fame, reputation, the respect that a person commands, the authority of a person. That is what glory means to Peter. But Jesus tells him that this glory is instead humility, self-sacrifice, love and meekness. It is the willingness to be weak, to trust God, to love others to the end and without exception. The glory of God is a man who is fully alive to God, and dying on the cross.

To admire Jesus in the same way Peter did is only the first step. It is the foundation. We must try to understand Peter, and not be harsh. He did, after all, become Saint Peter, the chief of the Apostle. But when Peter denied Christ, he proved to himself and to us who read the Gospel that admiration is not the fulness of the faith. Peter did not trust that God could save the world through weakness. And so, even though it looks as if Peter has great faith, in fact his faith is only a small faith which will quickly fail. Peter will become an apostate, one who no longer believes, when he denies Christ.

When we disobey God, we too are apostates at that moment. We do not trust God to give us what we need. We feel that we must disobey. We must grab for relief, not believing that God can give it to us. We deny Christ in our disobedience. We run away from the crucified Lord at that moment of disobedience.

Peter wept bitterly after his denial of Christ. So, in one sense, he returned to his faith. He regretted his apostasy. After Jesus rose from the dead, he met Peter at the Sea of Galilee and asked him three times, “do you love me?” Each time, Peter said, “yes.” Jesus exhorts Peter to, “feed my sheep.” The third time Jesus asks Peter, “do you love me,” Peter is grieved and says, “you know everything, you know that I love you.” In response, Jesus tells Peter that he will die as a martyr, “to show by what death Peter was to glorify God.” At first, Peter thought that the glory of Jesus was human glory. But now Peter learns that he will glorify God by his own death.

St. Peter did end up feeding the sheep. St. Peter fed the sheep by showing them how to truly confess Christ. He showed them what real belief and faith are. Belief is martyrdom. It is obedience unto death. Belief is trusting God to give us everything we need, even when, and especially when, obedience and holiness and sacrifice are dreadfully difficult. Faith is not being of the opinion that your church is the right one, with the best liturgical expression. Faith is not being impressed by and convinced by the majesty, seriousness and grandeur of the hymns and the doctrines.

True doctrines, true majesty is humility. It is a confession which says, “all I need is to follow you, Jesus, as you trusted in your Father. I do not need to seek a quick fix in sins, but what I need is, rather, to be made holy as you are holy, to participate in your self-sacrificial love.”

Later in his life, St. Peter writes, “God is begetting you.” In other words, “God is becoming your Father.” At vespers of this feast (the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul), we read his first epistle. By this time, Peter is the great apostle, not the wavering fisherman. He writes,

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has begotten us into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.”

1 Peter 1:3–11

St. Peter is now beyond being “Bar Jona” the fisherman. He is beyond calling Jesus, “Son of God,” in a limited sense. Now St. Peter knows that the real sonship of Jesus Christ, his real glory, is the same sonship and the same glory to which we are called, namely to suffer together with our Messiah.

Peter writes, in the other epistles that we read at vespers, “obey the civil authorities so as not to bring shame onto the Church.” He writes, “be holy as God is holy.” Obedience, love, humility, willingness to suffer for the love of others in order to bring the hope of Jesus to the world: all this is true faith. This is the fullness of the faith.

In Rome, Christians have venerated the chains of St. Peter since his death. These are the chains that Peter was bound in, when he was going to his own martyrdom. We reverence these chains because they are the full expression of the faith Peter eventually received. At that point it was no longer the foundation of the faith, but the fullness.

In Rome, only a short time after St. Peter’s death, there was a deacon named Lawrence. Lawrence was given the task of keeping the gold belonging to the church. When there was a time of great persecution, the authorities summoned St. Lawrence and demanded that he turn over the treasure. St. Lawrence agreed to come back the following day to hand over the treasure. That night, St. Lawrence distributed the money amongst the believers. In the morning, he brought the poor, the lame, the sick and the beggars to the authorities. He brought the whole large crowd and said, “behold the treasure of the church!”

Peter’s eagerness from today’s gospel reading, matured into confidence. Obedience to Christ gives us great confidence and daring. This is what St. Lawrence in Rome had learned. When we take on the obedience, the holiness, and the trust in our Father that Jesus revealed to us, then we become so confident that we can teach others how precious they are by showing them true dignity, which is holiness. We show them how precious they are by showing them what they can become by believing in Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of “feeding the sheep” which Jesus called St. Peter to do. This is “nurturing the lambs” of Christ. We feed them by showing them an image of Christ’s humility and holiness. We pass down the true faith to them by following Jesus to his death, in the confident hope of the resurrection!