Promises of the Rock

By Paul Koch

The reading before us today from Matthew 16 is an incredibly important text. It was at the heart of much of the struggles during the great Reformation of the church. The question of the power and the authority of the Pope were centered on this text very text. And the power and authority of the Pope had everything to do with the confession of faith that Luther and the other Reformers were defending. Did they have the right to speak against the established church of the day? Where they operating outside the will and command of our Lord by disobeying the Pope and his minions? And then when you actually look at the words of the text, you find that there is a much deeper question that is at the heart of it all. And that question is asked by our Lord; “Who do you say that I am?”

Actually, he begins by asking his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They respond with a variety of answers. Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. That is, the people all say that Jesus is some fulfillment of the Old Testament prophetic office. And while that may be a grand title to give him, it isn’t anywhere near the truth of his identity. Think about it today. People in our age are happy to ascribe to our Lord some lofty title. A wise man, a great teacher, a defender of the poor and the forgotten in society, a champion of social change or even an instigator when the status quo is anything but love. And while we may agree with some or even all of these titles at one time or another, none of them are a faithful confession of who he really is. In fact, they’re not even close.

Jesus then turns to his disciples, to these chosen few, these 12 who follow him and learn from him. He asks them, “What about you, who do you say that I am?” Without skipping a beat, Peter steps up and gives the answer, the perfect answer. He says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The Christ, the Anointed One, the long-awaited Messiah. And he is the very Son of the living God. This means that whatever questions they have, whatever concerns they  have about life and the afterlife, the answer to those questions are found in this one person: this Jesus whom they follow. This is the right answer, the unbelievably correct answer, that no one has yet uttered before our Lord. In fact, hear what our Lord says in response to highlight the uniqueness of this confession. He says, “Blessed are you Simon-Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not reavealed this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven.” What he confesses is not something man can come to on his own. This confession is a result of divine revelation, it is a gift from God.

What flows from this is a set of promises made by our Lord to the one who has given this great confession. Now the name Peter in the Greek is the same word for rock. And so, Jesus says, “you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.” The first question for us is, who is Peter? Or what is the Rock? Is he just this historical person, to whom was given this great revelation? Or does he represent the church, the faithful disciples? Does he operate as a spokesman for the people of God? Is it the confession of faith that is the Rock? Now of course Jesus is clearly talking to Peter, but is it Peter by himself or Peter as he represents something greater?

Well, I think we can find some answers in the text. As you work through the Gospel narrative you find that when Peter acts alone, when he is singled out over the other disciples, it is never very positive. Think of him walking on water only to end up sinking and being put back in the boat, or him saying that he will never deny our Lord only to be devastated when the cock crows. Peter is a flawed man, bold and brash to be sure, but sinful and failing just like the rest of the disciples. Yet, he is the spokesman for the disciples and a leader in the church from the great sermon of Pentecost onward. But then again Jesus doesn’t say, you are Peter and upon you I will build my church. No, he says, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build. Perhaps in speaking to Peter, the rock he refers to is the faithful confession, not produced by his singular quality but by the gift of God. This would mean that the words spoken to Peter are the words spoke to the whole church. They are spoken to those who confess as Peter confessed, that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God. Which means that the promises made to Peter are promises made to you: promises based on the unshakable rock of faith in Christ alone.

The first promise that he makes to you is that he will build his church. He will build his church through his faithful confessors. This means that the work we do here, the giving of our offerings, the volunteering, the participation in Bible study and prayer is part of the work of Christ as he builds his church. Not our church, not Luther’s church, but the Lord’s church. In fact, as we gather around his Word we are welcomed to his table, to participate in his body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins. Through the hands and the efforts of his people, Christ continues to build his church. From the first sending out of the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations his work has never ceased, and you now are part of this great work. You are part of the promise. You are part of the promise received and the promise handed on.

The second promise he makes is that this church he builds will endure. It will endure throughout this age. In fact, even the gates of hell will not win the victory over his church. Here our Lord acknowledges what we all know full well. This faith we confess, this solid rock of our confidence and hope will be under attack. But the church will not die out. The church will not end, not as long as the Lord is the one building his church. It may not always look like what we might want it to look like. It may go through reformations and schism and persecution, but it will endure. The faith in Christ will triumph; your faith will endure.

And if that wasn’t enough, he then gives another promise. Our Lord gives to his confessing church, to his people of faith, the actual keys to the kingdom of heaven. He says, “I 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.” The locking and unlocking of the kingdom of heaven rests with his people, his church. Now, think about this for a moment. This is huge. Our Lord promises a connection between heaven and earth located in his confessing disciples. What happens in the church that he has built here on earth has ramifications in heaven itself. Make no mistake, what we do here is crucial. As we gather around the gifts of Christ confessing that this is the Son of the living God we find that we enter into the kingdom of heaven itself.

This text is important. Not because it sends us on a search to find and elect the proper Pope or head of the church. Not because it renders us in awe of Peter and his fearless leadership. No, this text speaks of the activities of the church built upon the rock. A church filled with the promises of Christ. Promises that are here this day for you right now. For you have been given the faith that St. Peter confesses. You have been able to rejoice that our Lord is the Christ the Son of the living God. And upon the rock of your faith he who forgives you all your sins, who loves and gives himself for you, says, “I promise you that I will not stop building this church. I promise you that in me you will endure, though the very gates of hell rise up against you. I promise you that here you have been given the very keys to the kingdom of heaven.”

The only question that remains for you is: what are you going to do now?