Finding the Foundation

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church



Matthew 16:13-20

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And 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. 18And 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. 19I 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.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.


On their way to a church to get married, a couple is involved in a fatal car accident. The couple is sitting outside heaven’s gate waiting in line for St. Peter to get to them so they can enter. While waiting, they wonder if they could possibly get married in Heaven, since they are young, in love, and were on their way to get married anyway. St. Peter finally gets to them and they ask him if they can get married in heaven. St. Peter says, “Sure you can.  This has never happened before, but let me go and make the arrangements,” and he leaves the couple standing at the pearly gates to go and arrange for a wedding.

The couple sits and waits, they wait for a couple of months and begin to wonder if they really should get married in Heaven, what with the eternal aspect of it all. “What if it doesn’t work out?” they wonder, “Are we stuck together forever?” St. Peter returns after yet another month, looking somewhat bedraggled, with another man standing by his side. “Yes,” he informs the couple, “you can get married now.” “Great,” says the couple, “but what if things don’t work out? Could we also get a divorce in Heaven?”

St. Peter, red-faced, slams his clipboard onto the ground. “What’s wrong?” exclaims the frightened couple. “Geez!” St. Peter exclaims, “It took me three months to find a pastor up here! Do you have any idea how long it’s going to take for me to find a lawyer?”

I hope there are a few of us pastors in heaven when God’s kingdom is fully realized.  And I hope there are a few lawyers as well.  But today I don’t want to look so much at who will be a part of God’s kingdom and who won’t, but I want to look at what Jesus meant when he told Peter that he would build his church upon the rock.  And what does it mean that Peter holds the keys to heaven?  But before we try to answer these questions, let’s take some time to understand the scripture a little better.

So Jesus and disciples are traveling to Caesarea Philippi and he decides that it is time to see how much the disciples are learning from him.  So he asks them in verse 13, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  Here we have Jesus referring to himself as the Son of Man, which is confusing to people today because we are not sure why he refers to himself in this way rather than just saying I or me.

Some people claim that this is a title referring to the Messiah, which draws its meaning from the book of Daniel when it refers to one like the son of man returning on the clouds.  But I don’t believe that this is the way Jesus intended to use the phrase, “Son of Man”.  To do so would be silly, because Peter will reply later by saying that Jesus is the Messiah.  So it doesn’t really make sense for Jesus to ask, “Who do they say that the Messiah is?” and then have Peter reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

No, I believe that when Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, he is referring to his own humanity.  He is saying that he is flesh and blood, just as the disciples were.  He was born of a woman and they were going to have to figure out the whole divine part on their own. 

So Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And the disciples reply, “Some say you are John the Baptist, other Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  We sometimes forget that Jesus was indeed a prophet.  Yes, he was much more than a prophet, but still a prophet, nonetheless.  Jesus, like the prophets before him, stood inside the boundaries of Judaism critiquing the very religion he was a part of.  Jesus was a spokesperson between God and Israel.  And Jesus, like the prophet Ezekiel, is referred to as a “Son of Man”.

So yes, Jesus is a prophet, but he is more than a prophet.  We know that today in hindsight, and Jesus wanted to know if his disciples had figured that out yet.  So after the disciples’ affirmation of Jesus’ role as prophet, he asks again, “But who do you say that I am?” 

To this, Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter’s confession said that not only was Jesus a prophet, but he believes that Jesus is the one that they have been waiting on.  He is the one that will restore the kingdom of Israel and lead the Jews out of Roman captivity.  Peter believes that Jesus is the one that the prophets of old had told them about.  Peter believes that Jesus is the one anointed by God, the Messiah, the Christ.

To this Jesus replies, “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 guess that Jesus liked Peter’s answer.  He must have said something right.  But this brings me to my first question, what was Jesus building his church upon?  Upon Peter or upon Peter’s confession?

Some churches believe that Jesus is naming Peter as the first Pope of the church and that this apostolic succession still remains today with the Pope in Rome.  Jesus goes on to say to Peter that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven.  Binding and loosing is just the New Testament way of saying forbidding and allowing.  So this is why many Christians interpret this scripture as saying that Peter would be the foundation of the church and therefore able to make the decisions for the church on what is allow and what is not allowed.  And that is why we see the Roman Pope given so much authority; the papal infallibility ex cathedra.

The other way to look at Jesus’ statement is that he will build the church upon Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah.  The confession by Peter that Jesus is the Messiah will be the foundation upon which Jesus will build the church; it will be the foundation of all of those that consider themselves followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

Lets back up for just a minute.  Foundations are important.  My family knows very well how important a solid foundation is.  My younger brother is planning to live in an old farm house just down the road from my parents, but this house is going to require a bit of work before he can move in.  The house is well over 100 years old and the foundation on this house is cracked, broken, and leaking.  So what do you do with an otherwise fine house with a poor foundation?  You build a new foundation.

They have been working at jacking the house up, elevating it a few more feet so that they can place a stronger, more updated foundation underneath this century old home.  And when they are done, the house will be as good as new.  At least the basement will be.

So why would my family go through all of this hassle, all of this mess, and all of the cost to put a new foundation under the house?  Because foundations are that important.  It the foundation isn’t strong, the entire house could crumble to the ground.

One of the most famous stories of a poor foundation is that of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Construction on the Pisa Cathedral bell tower began in 1173 (they didn’t call it the Leaning Tower of Pisa yet).  The tower began to lean soon after construction began because of a poorly laid foundation and a sub-soil that was not made to support such an intense weight.  Today, the tower leans at an angle of 3.97 degrees resulting in the top of the tower being 12 feet, 10 inches from where it would be if the tower were vertical.

Now it is pretty impressive to me that this tower has been leaning for over 800 years and still has not fallen over.  Of course there has been a significant amount of work done to keep it standing.  Even as they finished it, they tried to counter balance the top by adding additional step to one side of the tower (296 vs 294).  But even as impressive as this tower is, it is considered to be one of the greatest architectural mistakes ever made.  A little more emphasis on building a firm foundation would have saved a lot of money in future renovations to keep this building from toppling over.

Now I have a lot of respect for the apostle Peter.  He was a strong Christian man, who like all other men and women, had his shortcomings.  But I don’t think that Jesus was building his church upon Peter as much as he was building the church upon Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Son of the Living God.  And neither did Paul.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 3 about the divisions within the church.  Some people were claiming that they belonged to Paul, others that they belonged to Apollos.  These early Christians were claiming that they were followers of these church leaders.  But Paul comes in and says, “What is Paul or Apollos?  We are just servants, like you.”  Instead, these people are to be followers of Jesus Christ.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ (verse 11).

So Paul is saying that the foundation for these new believers is not Paul or Apollos, nor should it be Peter.  The foundation is to be Jesus Christ, the foundation that has been set before us and upon which Jesus and his followers will build the church.  This, I believe is what Jesus meant when he told Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”  He was going to build his church upon the confession by Peter that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  We are to build upon that rock, so that when the rains come down, the house build on the rock will stand firm.  Because we all know what happens to a house built on the sand.

That last question I have for you today is “What’s the deal with Peter having the keys to heaven?”  Like the joke that I shared with you in the beginning of today’s sermon, we often hear of Peter meeting people at the gates of heaven.  And some people believe that he is the one that looks through some heavenly ledger to see if you are able to come into heaven or not.  This idea of Peter being the one to meet people at the gates of heaven comes from verse 19 from our scripture for today where Jesus says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”  And often when we see pictures of Peter, he is holding or near a set of keys.  Some people believe he has the keys that open the gates of heaven to allow people to enter.

Now we probably all own keys.  Many of you might have keys in your pockets right now.  We keep them on a ring so they are all close together.  But not all keys are for the same thing.

For instance, this key is the key to my house.  I put this key into the deadbolt lock on my door and I am able to go into my house.  This is the common understanding of the key that Jesus gave to Peter, that it will unlock the gates of heaven to let people in.

Now on the same key ring I have a car key.  Car keys do two things.  They let you into a locked car, just like a house key lets you into your home.  But a car key also starts the car.  Without the key, you can’t (easily) get the car to run.  You cannot move it from point A to point B.  And therefore, if you don’t have a key, you can’t drive most cars.

I think that the keys that Jesus is giving to Peter aren’t the ability to let people into heaven, like a house key lets people into their home.  I think the keys that Jesus is giving to Peter are more like a car key.  They are meant to start something.

Now I know that they didn’t have cars back in the first century, but what Peter was to unlock was not the gates of heaven in a judging kind of way.  He was unlocking heaven to get this movement started.  Peter was to unlock the secrets to the kingdom of heaven, the secret that he had just revealed that he knew.  Peter was to unlock the secret that the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for had arrived.  And his kingdom was upon them.  They could live as a part of the kingdom of God now, in that place.  They are to live by a different set of laws, where the greatest law is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all of your mind, and all of your soul.  And the second greatest law is to love your neighbor as yourself.  Peter had a secret that would unlock this kingdom and allow it to spread here on earth as it is in heaven.

See, Peter is never meant to judge people.  That is Jesus’ job (2 Timothy 4:1).  Peter’s job is to reveal this secret that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the one that had been prophesized about, the one that would deliver Israel and eventually deliver all people that came to the understanding that Jesus Christ is Lord and lived first as a loyal subject of the kingdom of God.  That was the key to heaven that Peter was given.  That is how he can continue to build upon the foundation that has already been laid in Jesus Christ.

So foundations are important, especially during rough times, like when the storms of life come.  I want to tell you about the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia.  The church in Ethiopia began in the 1950’s out of Mennonite mission attempts to develop hospitals and schools.  Growth in the church was somewhat slow, yet steady, resulting in about 5,000 members in the Ethiopian Meserete Kristos Church by 1974.  5,000 converts in 20 years isn’t bad at all.  But in 1974 a militant, communist party call the Derg came to power in Ethiopia and outlawed religion.  It is estimated that the Derg imprisoned and executed 10’s of thousands in their first 10 years of power.

So what was this young church to do?  Should they dissemble and stop worshiping as the Derg had commanded?  No chance.  They went underground, worshiping, baptizing, observing communion at night in secluded places, much like the early Anabaptists.  Then in 1994 after the Derg fell from power, the Meserete Kristos Church reemerged from their underground meetings and gathered for their first public worship service in 20 years.  There were 50,000 people present.

During the years of persecution, the Meserete Kristos Church grew from 5,000 to 50,000 people.  Today over 250,000 people attend a Meserete Kristos congregation in Ethiopia each week.  They were able to stand up to the persecution because the church was built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ.  The name Meserete Kristos even means “Christ our foundation” (Wikipedia).

Because this church was firmly founded upon Christ, they were able to withstand the rains and floods of persecution; the house built on the rock stayed firm.  And because the missionaries that started the church in Ethiopia equipped the people with the keys to the kingdom, they were able to become a self-sufficient entity, providing their own pastoral and lay leadership, evangelism, pastoral care, and everything else a church is called to do in a period when no missionaries were allowed in Ethiopia.  The Meserete Kristos Church rests firmly upon Jesus Christ, their foundation, and they share the keys to the kingdom of heaven with their fellow Ethiopians.

So what does this mean for us here halfway around the world?  Well, we do live in a country where we are free to worship whoever or whatever we want.  But I believe it is becoming more and more difficult to be a Christian in our society.  Christianity is offensive to some, silly to some, a stumbling block to others.  And I believe that we will continue to see more and more Christians being persecuted in someway or another in the United States.  Maybe not through torture or imprisonment like was seen in Ethiopia or with the early Anabaptists, but through loss of friendships, maybe loss of business, maybe even just snickers and jeers.  Jesus said the world will hate Christians because they hated him first.

In a time of persecution we need to be firmly seated upon the foundation of Jesus Christ.  Like Peter’s confession of faith, we must always remember that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God.  And upon that rock, Jesus will build his church.  Not simply allow it to survive.  We must be like the wise man that built his house upon the rock.  We must, with Christ, build the church upon the foundation that has been laid in Jesus Christ and we must use the keys to unlock the kingdom here on earth.  Peter is not the sole possessor of the keys, nor is he the foundation upon which the church is to be built.  Jesus Christ, our Lord, our foundation will keep us strong through the coming storms of persecution.  Anything built on another foundation will lean like the tower in Pisa, or fall completely like the house built upon the sand.  Let us make and keep Jesus Christ our foundation.


About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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