Summary: There are many ways to answer Christ's question, "Who do you say that I am?" But only one answer opens the doors to the kingdom of heaven. It is the task of all Christ-followers to proclaim the good news of Christ, the Son of the living God, in the world
I can still remember the first time I ever drove. I was anxious to get started, so within a week of my 15th birthday, my Mom took me to the Driver's License office, and I got my learner's permit. That afternoon, she took me out for the first time. I only drove on our street that day, we worked on stopping. She would point at a mailbox and tell me to stop there, and I would. We did that for about thirty minutes, and that was it for my first drive. Over the next year, my Mom, my Dad, and driving instructors worked with me to help me learn how to drive. I think I had pretty good training, but that didn't change the fact that when I got my driver's license soon after my 16th birthday, my parents were nervous! They let me drive to school and to church and other activities, but for the first several weeks (maybe even months), you could see the insecurity in their eyes every time they handed over the keys. It is a natural parental reaction I think; to fret and worry about the safety of their child as they take off in a high-powered machine by themselves. Parents can't help but wonder if their child has the maturity to handle such responsibility.
We might ask the same question about Jesus giving Peter the keys of the kingdom as he did in the Scripture reading this morning. I mean, this is Peter, after all. Don't get me wrong, but could we claim that Peter has the maturity even of a 16 year old? He is constantly missing the point, and he regularly talks before he thinks. Just a few verses after this encounter, Jesus calls Peter "Satan" for setting his mind on human instead of divine things! And then later, Peter denies Jesus three times! How could Jesus possibly give the keys of the kingdom of heaven and build the church upon someone so unstable? Clearly, there is something more to this whole exchange. But to understand it fully, we need to go back to the beginning.
Do you remember how this whole conversation started? Jesus asked the disciples a question. "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" Immediately the disciples started chiming in with answers. And it seems that their responses depended on what particular faction they were a part of -- whether they are partial to John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other prophet. If Jesus were to ask us that same question today, we might reply with names like Luther, or Barth, or John Wesley, or Billy Graham. I say this to make the point that people, even the disciples, project onto Jesus their particular cultural, or theological, or denominational ideals.
So recognizing this tendency, Jesus now asks a more pointed question, "What about you? Who do you say that I am?" The disciples are silent this time, except for Peter, who, as he often does, quickly speaks up in reply, "You are the Christ, the Messiah, Son of the living God.” If Jesus is surprised by Peter's response, he doesn't show it. And he responds now directly to Peter, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
By the sound of it, Peter got a serious promotion, he really can handle those keys! If there was any doubt about his supremacy among the other disciples, surely this cleared it up! Clearly, Peter has an important job now! That's why we have all those jokes about someone dying and meeting St. Peter at the Pearly Gates of heaven, it comes from this passage! You've heard a joke or two like this, right? "A fellow finds himself in front of the Pearly Gates. St. Peter explains that it's not so easy to get in heaven. There are some criteria before entry is allowed. So Peter begins asking questions: was the man religious in life? Did he attend church? The man replies that he did not. St. Peter told him that's bad and continues with the questioning. Was he generous? Did he give money to the poor? Charities? The man explained that he did not. St. Peter told him that that too was bad, but still searching for some redeeming quality, Peter asks more questions. Did he do any good deeds? Help his neighbor? Anything? This time, the man just shook his head. St. Peter was becoming concerned. Exasperated, Peter says, 'Look, everybody does something nice sometime. Work with me, I'm trying to help. Now think!'