Updated: Sep 30
The Rev’d Charles Everson
Aug. 27, 2023 • Year A, Proper 16 • Matthew 16:13–20
Good morning. It’s so good to finally be with you, though I have to admit, it seems like the past two months have been quite a whirlwind. From the time Jay and I stepped foot in Chicago to interview with the Search Committee to our first night as residents of the rectory, a mere seven weeks elapsed. During those seven weeks, we said goodbye to our family and beloved parishioners, and packed up the house we’ve lived in for 14 years, so if I seem exhausted, that’s why. Exhaustion aside, we are so excited to be here with you, and to meet each of you in the coming weeks.
It is standard practice for rector finalists to meet with the Bishop but given the size and complexity of the Diocese of Chicago, I was sure that my meeting with Bishop Clark would be via Zoom after I got home. Fortunately, she had an opening in her schedule which permitted me to pop down to the Diocesan Center on the L and meet her and the diocesan staff.
Two days before that, my previous Bishop called me while I was walking from the hotel up by Loyola University to the church. Now keep in mind as I’m telling this story, that Bishop Diane is 4’11” and from Northern New Jersey. I can’t begin to mimic her accent, but she said, “Now Father, Bishop Paula and I had a great conversation. After I told her how mad I was at her for potentially stealing you away, I warned her, “Now Paula, you have to watch out for this one. He's so Anglo-Catholic that he will try to grab your hand and kiss your ring!” Like Bishop Diane, Bishop Paula is apparently not a fan of such things, so when I met her, I shook her hand and we greeted one another, and I told her that while she could keep her hand clear from my mouth, she couldn’t stop me from doing this, and I proceed to genuflect which got a good laugh out of her and her staff.
We joke about such things, and on one level, it seems awfully silly to be kissing someone’s ring or genuflecting to them as if they are a medieval Lord of the manor, but we Episcopalians give deference to our bishops on purpose for a very good reason. Our bishops are successors to the apostles, the very first band of disciples who comprised the leadership of the early church, the leader of which was St Peter.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” He responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus’ response to Peter has become one of the most controversial statements Jesus ever made. He said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
The Roman Catholic interpretation is that Jesus literally means that the church is built on the foundation of…Peter. According to tradition, Peter was the first bishop of the city of Rome, and when a bishop is no longer bishop, another one is elected or appointed to take his or her place and is ordained by bishops by the laying on of hands. Roman Catholics believe this passage means that Jesus built his Church upon St. Peter…and his successors, the popes…and that he gave them the keys to the kingdom of heaven, which they understand to mean universal spiritual jurisdiction over every Christian on the planet.
To this, our Protestant brothers and sisters say, “Baloney. Christ built his Church upon the foundation of Peter’s confession of faith found just a few verses earlier.
Perhaps Jesus presents to us, in this passage, a package deal. Peter’s confession of faith cannot be divorced from his proclamation, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church”. The word “rock” in Greek is similar to the word Peter – “petros” for Peter and “petra” for Rock – the same word, the only difference being the grammatical gender of the word. It’s as if Jesus gives Peter a nickname – something like “Rocky.” The Rock upon which Jesus built his Church is Peter AND his confession of Faith. We Episcopalians don’t buy the argument that Peter alone is the rock upon which the Church is built. Jesus says to Peter, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” But just two chapters later, Jesus says the very same thing to *the apostles as a group*.
This authority to bind and loose is not given solely to Peter and all of the popes that come thereafter, but instead to the apostles as a group, and their successors, the bishops. For Anglicans, we find the fullness of the Church in the fellowship of all those who through faith in Christ enter and remain faithful to the fellowship of the Apostles, of whom Peter was the leader and all the others held equal share. The Church finds its fullness in full communion with the successors to the apostles, the bishops.
Early on, one bishop was the leader of the church in any given city that had Christians living there. But as time went on, the Church grew to the extent that bishops could no longer shepherd such a large flock, and so they ordained priests as an extension of their ministries.
Peter certainly wasn’t the lead apostle because he was the holiest of the twelve, or because he had the best judgement. After all, among other things, we know from the text that he denied his Lord three times. I’m sure that all of us have encountered priests who at least in our minds should never have been ordained in the first place. And yet, in some sense, a priest is a priest is a priest. After I resigned from my previous parish, it became clear almost immediately that many of the parishioners were experiencing anxiety about who the next rector would be (something to which you all might be able to relate). During a conversation about one of the more anxious parishioners, a no-nonsense sort of older woman said to me, “No offense Father, but as long as the next rector can give me valid communion, I really don’t care who it is.” Touché, Jan. Touché.
And yet, bishops and priests are not automatons. Like every human being, we have our own personalities and carry with us our unique life experiences, including our own emotional and spiritual baggage. It is quite common for a new rector to arrive and not meet the expectations of the parishioners, particularly in light of previously beloved rectors. I am not Fr. Dan Puchalla, nor am I Mtr. Erika Takacs, nor am I Fr. John David van Dooren. If you expect me to be any of those people, or even to be “like” them, I promise, you will be sorely disappointed. What you can and should expect of me is to be a faithful priest and pastor under the guidance and direction of Bishop Paula. You should expect me to listen, to pray for you both as a whole and by name; to love and serve you, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor; and to faithfully preach God’s Word and rightly and duly administer his Holy Sacraments. I guarantee you that, like St. Peter, I will sometimes make poor decisions and probably even choose to deny the Lord a time or two. But Peter’s story didn’t end at his denial of Jesus. After the third time, it is recorded that “he wept bitterly.” Peter repented of his sin and returned to the Lord, apparently with great emotion.
I will warn you that I am a crier, especially during the liturgy. If you see me wipe away a tear or two at the altar, it’s probably not because I stubbed my toe on the altar steps or got my feelings hurt, but because I’m overcome by feelings of unworthiness to be doing this holy work, or because God’s love feels so real to me in that moment that I literally can’t help it. And yes, when I sin, you can and should expect me to repent and turn to the Lord, just as Peter did.
Dear friends, over 2,000 years later, Jesus looks upon us with the same eyes that looked upon St. Peter. May we join with him in repenting of our sins together, over and over again, and by the same love be forgiven. And may we share God’s extravagant and unconditional love that we have received with those around us, inviting the young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor, into this community of faith in Jesus’ name. Amen.