Gospel for the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter the Apostle
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And 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. And 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. I 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.” Matthew 16:13-19
At first glance, Peter is a terrible choice to be the person on which Jesus would build his church. He is an uneducated, a simple fisherman. Shortly after the gospel reading above, Jesus accuses him of being controlled by Satan. He denied Jesus three times. When his life was threatened, he left Jerusalem, abdicating responsibility for the church there to James, the brother of Jesus.He fell into controversy with Paul in Antioch (see Letter to the Galatians), basically accused of being a hypocrite. The Acts of the Apostles pretty much loses interest in him after Paul is called to be an apostle.
Doesn’t sound too solid, does it? Is this really a rock?
And yet, according to the gospels, Simon son of Jonah was chosen by Jesus to be a leader. Jesus gave him the Aramaic nickname Cephas (pronounced “Kay-fas”, not “See-fas”), meaning “rock”, and this is the name Paul knew him by. In the gospels and Acts this is translated to the Greek Πέτρος (Petros) and it comes down to us in English, via Latin, as “Peter”. And he does exhibit some rock-like characteristics.
- He was the first male witness to the resurrection; in the gospels the resurrection announcement is “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”.
- He organised the disciples in Jerusalem after the resurrection, and was the leader of the church from the time of the resurrection to about 42-44 – a period of some fifteen to seventeen years.
- After his departure from Jerusalem he continued to witness in Antioch and elsewhere. He probably made it to Rome -according to tradition, he was martyred there. Later tradition (2nd century) claims he was a founder and bishop of the church in Rome, although the evidence in the New Testament suggests that the church was already in existence with multiple house-church congregations before he got there.
- The Gospel according to John knows that he died as a result of his witness (John 21.18-19)
So, while Peter is not a perfect rock, he is solid enough.
And now, what about us?
You may have heard of the news about the Primates of the Anglican Communion meeting in Canterbury last week. The Anglican Communion is a federation of 38 autonomous churches, known as Provinces. Some of them you may know:
The Church of England,
the Church in Wales,
the Church of Ireland,
the Episcopal Church of Scotland,
the Episcopal Church of the USA,
the Anglican Church of Canada,
and the Church of the Province of Myanmar.
It also includes
the Church of Nigeria,
the Church of the Province of Uganda,
and the Church of Southern Africa.
Member provinces include post-colonial post-denominational unions such as
the Church of North India,
the Church of South India,
the Church of Pakistan,
and the Church of Bangladesh.
Now, each church is self-ruling, and all have the four marks of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral: the scriptures; baptism and eucharist; the ordained ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons; and the creeds. ,they otherwise control their their internal organisation and patterns of worship. The leaders of each of the provinces is called a Primate – and in some cases they are hierarchical leaders, and in other cases, as in Canada and the USA, they have very limited power and authority, and are more like figureheads. Our primate is the Right Reverend Fred Hiltz. Since 1979 the Primates have come together for meetings, supposedly more for prayer and consultation than to actually decide or do anything.
Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of All England, met with each and every primate and invited them to Canterbury for this meeting. They discussed a number of issues (including setting a common date for Easter), but the issue that dominated the gathering was the marriage of same-sex couples. The Episcopal Church in the United States approved this in their General Convention in 2015. We in the Anglican Church of Canada will consider this in our General Synod this summer in Richmond Hill, Ontario. If our General Synod approves it, it will still require a second reading at the next General Synod in 2019 for it to become effective.The results are not very encouraging. On the one hand, the Primates have agreed to walk together despite tensions, primarily over the question about whether gays and lesbians can marry in the church.
Many of the primates and provinces are upset with The Episcopal Church because of the action they have taken. The Primate of Uganda walked out because he was unable to get the primates to consider a motion to condemn the Episcopal Church and to call them to repentance. The Primates did pass a motion requesting that for three years the Episcopal Church cease from representing the Anglican Communion standing committees or inter-provincial task forces, and that they not vote on matters of doctrine or polity. Arguably they have no authority to do this, but the various bodies in the Anglican Communion may well act on these requests.
So what does this mean? At the moment, not much. As my friend and colleague Winnie Verghese pointed out, only in the Anglican Church can not being allowed on a committee for three years be considered a punishment. Furthermore, both the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church remain full members of the Anglican Communion. We do not have a governing body, and we do not have centralized power in the hands of a pope or a curia. We remain in relationship because the various parties want to be. We are less like a corporation or a hierarchical organization than a family where we argue a lot and sometimes we find we cannot sit down to dinner together.
It may come to mean more. Professor Ron Caldwell describes it as a “Faustian Bargain”. That said, Dean of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale Andrew McGowan points out that “we should assume that this outcome reflects serious efforts by numerous Primates to fend off worse outcomes”.
Well, it doesn’t sound very stable, does it? Is this the rock on which Jesus will build the church in the 21st century? But consider Peter – a pretty shaky foundation for the church, too. He was able to confess that Jesus was the Messiah, and we can as well. He was able to witness to the resurrection, and we can, too. He was able to repent from his denials and engage with the other pillars of the church to reconcile the radical Paul and the conservative James the Just. He was able to offer himself, his soul and body, to promote the good news of Jesus Christ, and so can we. The provinces of the Anglican Communion are a part of the visible church of Christ, and God has a mission in which we can participate. God is not done with us. The confession of Peter is not about getting the words right, it is about committing one’s whole life in service to Jesus, and we can and are doing this.
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry wrote:
“This is not the outcome we expected,
and while we are disappointed,
it’s important to remember that the Anglican Communion
is really not a matter of structure and organization.
The Anglican Communion is a network of relationship
that have been built on mission partnerships;
relationships that are grounded in a common faith;
relationships in companion diocese relationships;
relationships with parish to parish across the world;
relationships that are profoundly committed
to serving and following the way of Jesus of Nazareth
by helping the poorest of the poor,
and helping this world to be a place
where no child goes to bed hungry ever.
That’s what the Anglican Communion is,
and that Communion continues and moves forward.”
May God continue to bless this fractious body of the Anglican Communion, and may it continue to be a rock upon which the church is built.