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…
Some people think that this verse means that Peter is the founder and foundation of the church, that it is Peter and his papal successors who have the keys to Heaven. But that’s not what it means at all, and I think that even the pope would agree with me! When Jesus says, “…this rock...” he is not talking about Peter. He is talking about the knowledge Peter has gained, knowledge of who Jesus really is. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Peter did not get this knowledge the way most knowledge is gotten. There was not a class, no book, his parents didn’t teach him. He got this knowledge by listening to the voice of God and being open to a different way of knowing God. Peter’s God is not just Torah, though that would have been enough. It is not just the prophets, though that would have been enough too. In today’s reading, we can see that Peter’s knowledge of God became colored by the life of a real person who had come to be with him: Jesus. You and I understand that to be the ancient basis of Christianity. To Paul, it was brand new.
The basis of our faith, the foundation of the church, is the ability to listen intently to see if God might be saying something to us too. And, yet, there is so much talking.
This week people have been talking about prayer. They have been talking a lot. More specifically, they’ve been talking about how we can best honor our collective commitment to pray for our leaders and also care for those who are genuinely unable to bear the name of our new president. Or, how will we pray for this particular enemy? Donald Trump has shown that he embodies the spirit of an anti-Christ by his words and actions. He is the empire we are called to resist, and the enemy we are required to pray for.
In the conversations on how best to do that, people have noted that prayer is not a benign little activity that we do on Sunday morning. It is real, powerful, and it does effect change. So, we should all pray for the president. Prayer changes things. Nobody disagrees with that.
Another point that has been made is that when we are angry, or fearful, or facing enemies real or imagined prayer for the situation can go a long way towards changing us. Most of us who have been at it awhile can tell you that it’s true. Prayer does change us. Nobody disagrees with that either.
The one thing I haven’t heard anybody say is that sometimes it is the prayer itself that changes!
The Bible is filled with instruction and examples of prayer. It’s clear that we are required to pray for our enemies. One of the most well-known passages is Luke 6:27, 28…
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
There’s also Matthew 5: 43, 44…
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
But, exactly how we pray isn’t always clear. There is this prayer in Psalm 109…
“Let his [the writer’s enemy’s] children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children wander about and beg; and let them seek sustenance far from their ruined homes”
And this one from Psalm 69…
Charge them [the writer’s enemies] with crime upon crime; do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life and not be listed with the righteous.
You wouldn’t be alone if you’d prayed similarly for your own enemies. While there are a few genuine saints in the Bible, most of those people were just like you and me, and they prayed in the pretty much the same way we do. Sometimes they prayed for God to smite their enemies. It would appear that God is OK with that.
Whether you use your enemy’s name or not, whether you are praying for blessings or curses, is not so important as the fact that you are praying. Your prayers might change things. Praying might change you. Or, your prayers might change. There are all kinds of prayers. We don’t have to decide how to pray and then stick to that decision forever. Praying is a fluid activity, it rises and falls like the tides, it is at once sweet and salty like the sea, always flowing towards love for those who are willing to let it.
It is an act of arrogance to think that we are the doers and deciders of what our prayers should be. If you can quietly offer your prayers to God you will see that you are not the one praying anyway. You are just the willing container of a praying spirit who knows how to pray, to groan, to sigh, who screams, and weeps, and loves, and eventually laughs as we never could. We can all learn this way of praying; though, like Peter, there are no books or teachers. There is only doing. Experience.
In the past, as I have offered my own forced, stilted, half-hearted prayers for my enemies I have not named them. I have prayed for “that man…,” “that horrible priest you gave me, Oh God…” and any number of other enemies, real and imagined. Over time, though, their names have slipped out. Not at first, and not out of some dogged obedience to spiritual self-flagellation, but when it was time. Sometimes a prayer of blessing will slip in there. But, God has not forced me to bless those who have hurt me. The spirit of God is a gentle and patient thing.
In the interest of candor, and since I am sharing today, I will say that I am not praying for the president-elect by name. Not today, anyway. I have my own reasons. But, I might use his name someday. I have been down this path of enemy-praying before. There is no rush. No rush to pray properly, or even nicely. But, rush, always, to pray … Our only real safety.
This morning Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” I sometimes wonder what would happen if that table were turned and we asked Jesus, “Who do you think I am?” He might not use the word messiah, but I think he might say something like this, “You are the hope of the world, because you are a child of God… Your life is your constant prayer. Let it be.”
May your praying flow easily.