I would guess that many of us, at sometime in our life, have been church shoppers. We went looking for the perfect church, with worship we like and people we like.
A few years ago there was a well-known Anglican woman who became a Roman Catholic. When she was asked why she became a Catholic, she said, ‘Where is Peter?’ What she meant was, ‘Why shouldn’t I be in the church where Peter is?’
Catholics believe that the pope is the direct successor of the apostle Peter. Jesus made Peter the head of his church. The Anglican woman wanted to be in the church led by the successor of Peter. To be a Roman Catholic is to have a link through all the popes back to Peter. It is a link with the commission Jesus gave to Peter.
Anglicans also believe that our bishops and the faith of our church go all the way back to Peter and the apostles. We believe that everything that happened in between is also important. The Spirit of God has always been breathing life into God’s church.
It was very important in the early days of the church to know who was faithful to the teachings of the apostles, because there were many different understandings about who Jesus was. The early church decided that everyone who was in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome, where Peter had been, would belong to the true church.
What is the role of the successor of Peter in the worldwide church today? It raises the whole question of authority in the church.
We like having someone in charge, who tells us what to do. It gives us security; but it also releases us from having to think and be responsible. If we have an infallible authority, one that cannot be wrong, we can rely on it without careful thought. It frees us from having to understand and love and do loving things for the messiness of the world in which we live. We look for certainty in an age when other certainties are falling apart. Faith is a challenge, ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ (Hebrews 11.1)
Christians have looked for infallibility in different things: the pope, the bible, well-known Christian media personalities, and even their local pastor. Some Christians look for infallibility in the way things have always been done. All of these things can be useful and can help people find God. But they are not God.
In this age in which we live, many people believe that they are infallible. If it feels right to me, then it is right. Even we can fall into that trap. I know that I easily do. It is an easy label to wear, while ignoring the plank in my own eye.
Our gospel today speaks to this question of authority. Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Peter recognised Jesus as the chosen Messiah. God had come among them as a human being. Can you imagine what it must have been like, to be around someone who seemed so very much like God? Would we have recognised him?
Jesus said that Peter’s recognition came from his openness to God – Jesus said to Peter, ‘Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’
On this openness to God which he found in Peter, Jesus would build his church. God would build on what God had planted.
It was never going to be a question of how much faith Peter had, or how much understanding he had. Even if Peter had heard it from the most gifted earthly teacher, or if he had discovered it from his own brilliant study of the scriptures, however it came to him, his knowledge about Jesus would have been a revelation of God the Father to him. It was not Peter’s doing, on the day when he realised the truth about Jesus.
This was not a put down of Peter. It must have shaken him a bit though. Imagine being told that God is at work in you, and you did not know it. I tried that once on a family member. I told him how much God loved him. He found it a shocking revelation and unwanted. For him it felt like radiation poisoning. But it was good news for Peter. It meant Jesus accepted him with all his faults.
This is the miracle of faith. Because it comes from God, there are no worries about us having too little faith or the correct knowledge. God fills our emptiness.
And so the church was to be built on the rock which is Peter. Jesus was making a play on words:
In Greek: Peter is ‘petros' and rock is ‘petra.’
Was Jesus meaning he would build his church on the faith of Peter or on Peter himself? Was Peter being made first over all the other apostles? These questions have divided the church for centuries.
This humble fisherman saw that Jesus is the Son of the living God. This is Christianity. This is what the church is built on. God’s revelation about Jesus is everything. At Jesus’ baptism God said, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him.’ (Mark 9.7)
But Jesus was also affirming Peter in a special way.
In Israel there is a church called the church of the primacy of Peter. It is built on the shore of Lake Galilee, and contains a stone where it is said that Jesus served breakfast to his disciples after the resurrection, and where Jesus said to Peter, ‘Feed my sheep.’ Jesus was reaffirming his commission to Peter.
So down through the centuries the church has rightly concluded that a unique ministry was given to Peter and to his successors. He is the foundation stone of the community.
Protestants say the church is built on faith like Peter’s. Anyone, we say, can hold such faith. But it is much more than that. Jesus came to raise up a living, faithful community. In Galatians Paul describes Peter, James, and John as ‘pillars’ of this community (Galatians 2.9). In Ephesians (2.20) Paul says that the household of God is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. There is something substantial to the honour that Jesus bestowed on Peter.
Anglicans agree with Catholics that the pope, as Bishop of Rome, could help unify the worldwide church. God knows we are in need of unity. Our Anglican bishops share in the same grace of the Holy Spirit given to the church to bring unity.
Jesus’ question to Peter has eternal relevance, when there are so many reasons not to believe today. When Jesus and his disciples were near the town of Melton, he asked them, “What do people say about the Son of Man in this town?” ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Is this 1st century Palestinian Jew God’s Son? It is an extraordinary thing to say. If you believe it, why do you believe it? If he is the Son of God, can we afford not to listen to him, to follow him, and to worship him?