Have you ever been put on the spot by an apparently simple question that has come out of the blue? It happened to me a week last Sunday when I was talking to my step-grand-daughter, who had been staying for the weekend. She is all of six years old and suddenly asked me, “What do you do?” She meant, where did I work and what did I do all day? I was momentarily flummoxed, because didn’t know where to begin. She knows that I come out to church when she comes to stay, because she has been in here herself, but I suspect she thinks it is just some kind of weekend hobby and isn’t a proper job! She did once announce, “Kathy has religion because she is a vegetarian”, which I thought quite observant, even though it’s more like the other way round!
Peter had no such problem with the leading question Jesus asked him in today’s gospel reading. After some general discussion among the disciples regarding the word on the street about him, Jesus asks directly, “But who do you say that I am?” Immediately Peter claims, “You are the Messiah, Son of the living God,” receiving a blessing from Jesus for his acknowledgement. The words that follow not only affirm Peter’s answer, but contain word play: you are Peter, Jesus says – in Greek petros, meaning rock, tho’ of course Jesus spoke Aramaic and would have said κηφα or cephas. And on this rock I will build my church. Whether Jesus meant to build his church on Peter himself, or his statement of faith, remains a matter for debate. Either way, Peter did go on to exercise a significant leadership role in the early church, as the book of Acts clearly shows. In the gospel, Jesus then goes on to give Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, which is why keys have been symbolically associated with St Peter ever since. Jesus is speaking figuratively here, of course. A master gives his servant the keys to his house as a trust. Jesus is entrusting Peter with the task of continuing his work. Jesus says nothing of successors to Peter, and he gives the same trust not only to the group of disciples, but, elsewhere in the gospels, to any two who pray in faith and loyalty. But he clearly expects Peter to exercise prominent leadership.
Good old Peter – he gets it right for once. Later in the gospel story he will be faced with another challenging question, which he cannot answer so readily. Standing by the fire on the night Jesus is arrested, fear gets the better of him, and, when asked “Aren’t you also one of his followers?” he denies it vehemently as the cock crows. Then later, after the resurrection, by the seashore, Jesus himself asks another question – “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” It takes three attempts before Peter can answer with the conviction and faith Jesus is looking for. So Peter is not unlike us really, is he – a human being, at times filled with certainty and the courage of his convictions, at other times weak, fearful and non-comprehending. Yet on this rock Jesus promised to build his church.
Today is an Ember day, one of the several days in the church calendar when we think about vocation, in particular the vocation to priesthood of those to be ordained this Petertide. And of course we offer our prayers and very best wishes to Liz and all those being ordained this coming weekend – it is a very special time for them. But let us not make the mistake of thinking that vocation is only for special people doing special jobs in the church. One of the encouraging things about Peter is that he was a very ordinary, real human being, a fisherman and family man, who responded to Jesus’ invitation. All of us, by virtue of our baptism are also called, invited by Jesus to make our response to him. In other words, we all have a vocation. First and foremost it is to be the mature, aware, loving people God intended us to be. Beyond that, our vocation could be anything. One of my favourite writers, Barbara Brown Taylor, writes about her own search for her vocation.
I did not have single clue what I would do when I graduated. I did not even belong to a church. So I began asking God to tell me what I was supposed to do. What was my designated purpose on the earth? How could I discover the vocation that had my name on it? Since this was an important prayer, I searched for the right place to pray it [she chose the fire escape of her residence]...Then one night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God what I was supposed to do with my life, God said, “Anything that pleases you.”
“What?” I said, resorting to words again. “What kind of an answer is that?”
“Do anything that pleases you,” the voice in my head said again, “and belong to me.”
At one level that answer was no help at all. The ball was back in my court again, where God had left me all kinds of room to lob it wherever I wanted. I could be a priest or a circus worker. God really did not care. At another level, I was so relieved that I sledded down the stairs that night. Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered. God had suggested and overall purpose, but was not going to supply the particulars for me. If I wanted a life of meaning, then I was going to have to apply the purpose for myself.
(An Altar in the World (2009)Canterbury Press, pp 109-10.)
All of which brings us neatly back to where we started. Peter found his purpose slowly, in his encounter with Jesus, and it led him to Pentecost, and to all that came after. That’s what Peter did. How will you answer when someone asks you: “You are a Christian. What do you do?”