Today’s gospel reading is not a long one, but there is so much in it. So in a reflection like this, we have to make a choice as to what to focus on. And to me the most striking thing here, is most certainly Peter’s confession. Jesus had asked his disciples to identify Him, to summarize what He was like. There was a disappointing start, with most of the disciples only repeating some rumours about Christ.
But then Peter responds with a more personal and bold statement of devotion. It is not a long list of beliefs, not even a creed like the Nicene or the Apostolic creed which we often recite in church, but a very succinct, a very powerful short summary of what Jesus meant to Peter after all they been through with Jesus already, in this first phase of his ministry. And the very first title Peter comes up with, is Christ, which means the anointed one, Messiah in Hebrew. It was a title not only for kings and high priests, but especially for the expected saviour of Israel. That Jesus is the ultimate Messiah, our ultimate rescue, our ultimate medicine, is the core of our Christian faith, so it is very important to know and to able to explain what this word Messiah means.
Criteria for a Messiah
The Messiah was expected to be a human leader, a descendant of King David. He was to unify the tribes of Israel, gather them in the land of Israel, rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and usher in a Messianic age of peace. Jesus did all those things and more. He was a human leader and in this text, like in many others, He starts by calling himself the son of man. The gospels testify that He was a descendant of King David. He also unified the tribes of Israel, but He did so in a spiritual way. It is no accident that He chose 12 followers, so as to mirror the 12 tribes of Israel and make a new start, a new kingdom, which would include non-Jews as well.
These new “tribes”, so to speak, would be gathered in the land of Israel, but again, not in a literal land, but in a spiritual realm. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem” (John 4:21, New Living Translation). This had been God’s intention all along, even in the old testament. Through the prophet Malachi God said, “From the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations” (Mal. 1:11).
Abraham’s true destination
The book of Hebrews explains (11:9-10) that Abraham, even when he had reached the promised land, lived there as an alien, because his real destination was the city whose architect and builder is God”. No human city can take the place of the Kingdom of God, whether it is Rome or Mekka or Jerusalem. That’s why the new testament considers Abrahams journey most of all as a spiritual journey, a kind of pilgrimage of discovery. The lessons learnt during such a journey, are always more important than the geography itself. And Jesus made it clear that the spiritual Israel is not just a temporary arrangement until some other prophecies concerning the literal Israel have been fulfilled. No, He says, you are my church, I am building it on a rock, and Hades, that is death, will not prevail against it. It will be something that lasts. It will be what I always intended.
Building a spiritual temple
As to rebuilding the temple, Jesus fulfilled that as well. And again, he was not so much concerned about the literal temple, but about the temple which was his body. He would sacrifice his life for us. Then his resurrection marked the beginning of a newly built spiritual temple. From that time onward, Christians would be considered both as the body of Christ and as His new temple. It’s a good thing the church does not depend on bricks and mortar, otherwise we would have an even bigger problem during the corona-crisis. No, the church is where Christ’s followers are. And everyone is welcome to join and contribute to this building, as long as we build on the firm foundation, which is Christ.
It reminds me of the hymn, Rock of Ages. The rock from which Moses had to draw water for the Israelites in the desert, pointed to Christ as well. He is a stronger foundation for our faith than any building or philosophy could ever be. Now it may have been a coincidence that Peter’s name also meant rock, or pebble. In Aramaic, by the way, there was little difference. In Greek there is a difference. But what matters is that Peter recognised Christ for who He is. What matters is also that we recognise Christ for who He is. Then we can be part of this spiritual building.
The bringer of peace
The last requirement for the Messiah was that he would bring peace. Jesus is called the prince of peace. The title comes from a prophecy in Isaiah 9. But again, the peace that Jesus brought, was not quite what people expected. Maybe we sometimes have the wrong idea as well. It does not mean that nothing I am, or do, or own, will ever be challenged. It does not mean that I have enough power and money to always be secure. But it means that I am accepted by God, treasured by God and inspired by God. When most people can only feel peace when they are in control, Christ tells us to take heart because He has overcome the world. A whole new kind of peace has been given to us, which no longer depends on competition, superiority or even success. The meaning of love was made clear to us, love which takes away fear.
More than a son of man
And finally, Peter saw that the Messiah was no less than the Son of God, the Word by whom all things were created, so that our Creator is also our Saviour. We were created with a purpose and the Messiah made sure this purpose will be fulfilled in us. Christ would also be called the new Adam, a new start for humanity. And this is where creation and salvation join hands.
When we begin to understand these things, not only with our minds, but in our hearts, we have the keys to the kingdom of heaven, just like Peter. Because they were not given exclusively to Peter, as we know from the plural which is used in Matthew 18:18. And in yet another chapter Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and rabbis of his day for locking people out of the kingdom of heaven. He said they didn’t go in themselves and kept others from going in. So what are keys for? They are to open doors. To enter and to give other people access as well.
Ready to receive the key?
In Britain there is a custom that when your child becomes 21 years of age, they symbolically receive the key of the house. Similarly, when we are born again, when we start our journey with Him, Jesus gives us the keys to the dwellings he has reserved for us in heaven. But with the same keys we can also open our hearts for other people. That is how we can acknowledge and show gratitude for the abundance that was given to us in Christ, our Messiah. Amen.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, please help us not to hide the keys you have entrusted to us, or bury our treasure, which all of us have. May we not keep them for special occasions only, or for special ceremonies, but use them liberally whenever there is fear, whenever there is injustice, whenever people wonder about the meaning of their life. May we use them for comfort, to be with you, and for entering new stages of spiritual discernment. We pray also for those who live in fear, the lonely and the destitute. May Christ for them, too, become the prince of peace. Amen.