As promised, here is the third and final part of the sermon that I preached this past Sunday at St. Joseph's.
Jesus’ PromiseLet us now look at Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and on the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Here Jesus reaffirms the new name that he had already given to Simon when they first met. As most of you know, whenever someone in the Bible was given a new name, it meant that a change had occurred, or was about to occur, in the person’s life. And the new name, unlike most of our names today, actually meant something; it signified something about the person’s new character. So Jesus gave Simon the son of Jonah the new name of Kephas in Aramaic or Petros in Greek, both of which mean “Rock.” Jesus looked into the eyes of this very flawed and unstable man and saw a Rock of stability: a fearless preacher, a great leader, a shepherd for the Body of Christ. And God does this for all of us: when he looks at us sinful, flawed people, he sees instead what we can be—the people of God that he wants to make us into. And if we will allow him, God chips off the edges (so to speak) and molds us into his image as a potter does to clay. I thank God for this, because if he can change a sinner like Peter into a rock of stability, then he can do this for you, and he can do it for me.
With apologies to my Roman Catholic friends, I must note in passing that the “rock” on which Jesus built his Church is not Peter himself, but Peter’s confession of faith. The Greek word for Peter’s name, Petros, is masculine, while the word for “rock” is petra, which is feminine; Jesus is using a play on words here. So, as St. Chrysostom and the overwhelming majority of the early Fathers teach, it is the faith, that is, the belief, of Peter and all the apostles that is the foundation of the Church. Without their belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, there would be no Church. In another sense, however, the apostles cannot be separated from their faith. Their faith in Christ went down to the depths of their being. And so, as St. Paul affirms, the apostles and prophets themselves became the foundation of the Church—but all of them, not just Peter (Eph. 2:20). And as both St. Peter and St. Paul affirm in their writings, Jesus himself is the chief cornerstone of the Church (Eph. 2:20, 1 Pet. 2:5-7).
Another part of Jesus’ promise is that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail” against the Church. The word hades is often mistranslated as “hell.” Hell (Greek gehenna) is the final resting place (or better, resting state) of those who do not believe in Jesus; it will not even exist until after the Second Coming. The Greek word “Hades” is a translation of the Hebrew Sheol, and both terms indicate the general abode of the dead. But since the Resurrection of Christ, Hades is only for those who die in unbelief. Those who fall asleep in the Lord receive a foretaste of being in His presence, rather than being consigned to the dark and joyless Hades.
Often when I hear people teaching on this passage, they understand Jesus to be saying that the phrase “the gates of Hades” is symbolic of Satan and all the demonic forces. And these teachers believe that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” means that despite all his attacks on the Church, Satan will not be able to destroy it. While this is certainly true, this is not what Jesus is teaching here. Think about what gates are used for. Are they used for attacks? I’ve never heard of an attacking army carrying a set of gates as offensive weapons! No, gates are used for defense. Jesus is saying that Hades and death will not be able to prevail--to stand--against OUR attacks. The Church is not called to be on the defense, but the offensive. We are to storm the gates of Hades by taking the message of forgiveness of sin, victory over death, and eternal life to the world. By so doing, we will continually damage Hades by depriving it of potential residents.
And that is exactly what Peter and the other apostles did. Let us spend a few minutes looking at the rest of Peter’s life. After Christ’s ascension, Peter took on the leadership of the apostolic band, and he preached boldly for many years in Jerusalem, as well as healing many people. Eventually he branched out to Samaria, where he led many to Christ. The last time we see him in the New Testament is at the Jerusalem Council in the fifteenth chapter of Acts. He later moved to Antioch, becoming the first bishop of the church in that city. Then he moved on to Rome, where he helped consolidate and organize the Christian believers there into a strong and influential church. In Rome, he was given the top leadership position, becoming the first Pope, or Bishop of Rome. During this time, he wrote two powerful epistles, which eventually became part of the New Testament.
During the reign of the emperor Nero, what Jesus had prophesied in John 21 came true: Peter was sentenced to be crucified. After the verdict was passed, Peter asked that he be crucified head down, since (in his words) he was not worthy of dying in the same way that the Lord died. The Romans may have taken his life, but they could not take away the influence that he had on the Church, and that he still has today through his life and ministry. It is nearly impossible to imagine what the Church would be like without St. Peter. Truly, for the Church, he was “the indispensable man.”
(Note: For more thoughts on Ss. Peter and Paul, read the outstanding post by Fr. Gregory Jensen from his blog Koinonia)