The Keeper of the Keys
One of the momentous birthdays of any young person is number 16.
Not just because it’s “Sweet Sixteen” and so the occasion for a big party.
But also, because the young person is now old enough to drive.
When I was 16, the process went like this.
I applied to the PaDMV and got my learners permit.
That allowed me to get behind the wheel as long as I was with a licensed driver.
Usually that was my Dad, sometimes my Mom, but never my brother.
After a couple of weeks of practice, I went to “Little Washington” where there was a State Police driver’s course where the dreaded driving test took place.
I took be a couple tries, I admit.
And once I passed the driving test, I was allowed take the care out on my own!
But I had only a junior license.
That meant I had to be off the road by midnight.
Finally, at 18, I had no restrictions, except for Jim and Marilyn Tindall.
They had the ultimate veto on my driving activities.
They had the keys to the car.
If I wanted to drive, I had to get the keys from them.
Then one day, my Dad came home from work and gave me my own set of keys to the car.
I had keys to the car!
I could take the car out on my own without asking for the keys.
My parents trusted me with the car.
My parents trusted me with the car even though they knew that I was far from perfect.
And I proved that.
I got traffic tickets.
One time I drove home from school with the emergency brake on.
Another time I ran out of gas.
And then there was the time I sideswiped the wall of the driveway and seriously scraped the side of the car.
Yet, despite all these demonstrated imperfections in my driving, Marilyn and Jim never took the keys back.
They continued to trust me and my driving.
One time I even drove most of the way to Florida on a trip with my Mom to deliver by Grandparent’s Cadillac to their winter residence!
And then, when my parents’ health began to fail, I became the keeper of their keys.
I was in charge of caring for them and their heritage.
In some ways, this is how Jesus dealt with Peter.
We see it in our scripture reading this morning.
Matthew 16: 13-23
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
We begin our series on biographies of the apostles with Peter, which is appropriate.
Peter is one of the most well-known of the Twelve.
And today, we see why.
Jesus has been teaching and healing all over Galilee and has amassed quite a following.
When he has a moment with the Twelve, he asks them who the other folks think he is.
A few answers come forth.
John the Baptist, Elijah, Jerimiah, one of the prophets.
These folks were all dead, of course, so one wonders why folks thought Jesus was any of them.
Jesus then askes the Twelve their view.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter, like an impetuous school boy, immediately proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, the son of God.
Jesus seems more than pleased.
He rewards Peter’s incite and perception by giving Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
That is why we think we meet Peter and the “Pearly Gates” of heaven after we die to see if he will let us in.
Those Pearly Gates are a topic for another time.
Anyway, no one gets into the kingdom without Peter’s approval.
And anyone with Peter’s approval gets in.
That’s a lot of power.
So, Peter must have really understood Jesus, right.
He must have been a loyal, obedient disciple, right?
In the next paragraph of Matthew, Jesus tells the Twelve that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
This is Jesus’ mission.
How does Peter react to this?
Peter forbids it!
Peter tells Jesus to abandon his mission so he can stay in the world with Peter.
Now Jesus is less that pleased.
Jesus scolds Peter for being like Satan who tempted Jesus, trying to get Jesus to give up God’s plan in return for worldly power.
“Get behind me, Satan!”
This was not the last time Peter would “fail his driver’s test”.
Remember when Peter witnessed the transfiguration?
He wanted to keep Jesus, Elijah and Moses on the mountain.
Remember when Peter jumped out of the boat to walk on the water to Jesus?
He nearly drowns.
Remember when Peter prayed with Jesus in Gethsemane.
He fell asleep.
Remember when Peter said he would not abandon Jesus?
He denied him three times.
Remember when Peter went to the tomb?
He did not understand that Jesus was alive again.
And yet, despite all this, Jesus did not take the keys to the kingdom of heaven back.
Instead, Jesus reaffirms that Peter is the foundation of Jesus’ church and tells Peter to spread the Gospel.
We see a bit of what happens next in Acts.
Peter is now in charge.
He organizes the election of Matthias as Judas’ replacement.
Peter is inspired by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and preaches a sermon that results in 3,000 conversions.
He appears in the Temple daily telling people about Jesus and ignores the threats of the Temple authorities.
He and John go on a missionary journey to Samaria and Lydda.
While Peter is living in Joppa, he is summoned to meet Cornelius the Roman centurion in Caesarea.
Peter baptizes this Roman gentile and is summoned to Jerusalem to explain himself.
Peter declares that people need not adhere to Jewish purity restrictions to be followers of Jesus.
A few years later James the brother of John is killed by Herod.
Peter is arrested by Herod when the Jewish population seem to approve of James’ death.
But Peter escapes.
He goes to the home of John Mark and then mysteriously “left for another place”.
Where, we do not know.
The next and only other time we hear from Peter in Acts, he is supporting Paul’s argument that gentiles are welcome to be followers of Jesus with few restrictions.
And that is the last we hear of Peter in Acts.
We have some gaps to fill, right?
Like, where was Peter after he left John Mark’s house and before the Jerusalem Council?
And where did Peter go after that?
We do have some clues in other books of the New Testament.
Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, describes running into Peter in Antioch and scolding him and accusing Peter of hypocrisy for refusing to eat with Gentiles when James and the leaders from Jerusalem were around.
So, Peter must have been in Antioch for a time, and secondary sources suggest Peter was a considered the leader of the church there for a while.
Paul also suggests in his first letter to the Corinthians that there were some folks in Corinth who claimed to “belong to Cephas”, another name for Peter.
So maybe Peter preached in Corinth, too.
We, of course, have two letters from Peter.
First Peter is accepted by most to be really Peter.
The second letter not so much, but that issue is for another day and 2 Peter offers no biographical information of Peter anyway.
First Peter. On the other hand, is addressed to churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia.
We can conclude from this list that Peter had planted these churches or at least visited them.
Then we have the Gospel of Mark.
The Gospel of Mark is believed by many to be Peter’s memoirs recorded by John Mark while he and Peter were in Rome.
There is a good deal of evidence for this belief.
If true, Peter made it to Rome, at least once, probably near the end in his life.
That is basically it for the New Testament.
Once we have used up our New Testament sources, we need to wade into what are called apocryphal sources and patristic sources.
Apocryphal sources have doubtful authenticity though were widely circulated and claimed to be true.
There are talking dogs and baptized lions and flying magicians.
There is a story of Peter’s beautiful daughter, Petronilla, who is paralyzed as a young woman so she could not be seduced by an older man.
Peter heals her to prove God’s power, but then paralyzes her again for her protection.
Peter’s wife, Perpetua, is martyred.
When taken off to be killed, Peter rejoices that she was being called home to the Lord and counsels her to “Remember the Lord!”
There are many of these apocryphal documents that are claimed to be authored by or are about Peter.
The Gospel of Peter.
The Acts of Peter.
The Apocalypse of Peter.
The Preaching of Peter.
The Letter of Peter to Phillip.
There are others.
All were rejected by the church fathers in the early church.
Regardless, they offer no insight into Peter’s life.
Where we do get some useful information is in what is called Psuedo-Clementine Histories and Recognitions which purport to be a diary-like account of someone named Clement (but not Pope Clement, which is why it’s “Pseudo Clement”) who traveled with Peter and observed his spiritual battles with Simon Magus the heretical magician we read about in Acts.
These “Star Wars” like battles are clearly dubious, but they do offer some descriptions of where Peter might have been as he and Simon Magus fought their battles.
It is claimed that Peter went to Rome early on to confront Simon Magus and then had to go back to later confront Simon Magus again.
That confrontation resulted in Simon Magus’ death, but while in Rome that second time, Peter was detained by Nero and ultimately killed.
While these stories from Pseudo Clement are fantastical, the fact they identify specific places on Peter’s purported journey might have some nuggets of truth.
If so, Peter was in Tyre, Sidon, Berytos, Byblos, Tripolis, and Laodicea during his travels.
So, what about Peter’s death on a cross upside down?
This is an apocryphal story from the Acts of Peter and Paul.
In this story, Peter is pleading to be killed in a way different from Jesus because he is not worth to be crucified like Jesus.
Was Peter buried in Rome?
The apocryphal sources claim that Peter’s body was taken by a Roman Senator and Christian named Marcellus.
Peter was buried on Vatican Hill and memorials sprung up commemorating the spot.
That where St. Peter’s Basilica is today.
In the 1940s there was a excavation of the site to see if Peter was really there.
What they found was a burial site of many, but one in particular, near the claimed burial site of Peter was thought to be … well … Peter.
In 1968, a study of the bones of a stocky, muscular man of 5’ 4” which was tall for Peter’s time.
Those bones are now relics scattered about the Vatican.
So, what do we make of this?
While many of the non-canonical stories of Peter are dubious, they do demonstrate that Peter, despite his impulsiveness and frequent misunderstandings, mistakes and failures, was, in fact, the foundation of the early church.
These stories are illustrations of how important Peter was to the early believers.
Jesus was right to leave the keys in Peter’s hands.
Does this have any application to us?
While Peter was far from perfect, Jesus gave him the keys to the kingdom.
And while Peter made many mistakes, Jesus let Peter keep them.
We are not given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, but we are given a call to continue the spread of the Gospel and to live the Jesus way.
Like Peter, we are not always right.
We make mistakes.
But we keep on trying.
Jesus does not revoke our discipleship.
We are still trusted with the mission.
To some degree we are now members of the keepers of the keys.
Responsible for the care of our Christian heritage.
And like Peter, we do the best we can.