By Mark Henrickson
Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.
The Gospel of Matthew today is the well know story of the founding of the church, and the bestowing of authority on Peter, the Apostle. It is to this passage, of course, that the catholic traditions—Roman, Anglican, and some others—trace the authority of the church and its episcopate (or bishops) and priests. Likewise, these verses have been the historic source of division between the Roman, Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. The story seems quite clear in establishing Peter as the source of authority, yet I wonder if that is the whole story? Perhaps if we examine this story in its larger context, we can get a clearer sense of what Matthew intends.
The first reading of course comes from so-called “Deutero-Isaiah” written while Israel was still in exile. Under Cyrus of Babylon, the Jews who had been in Exile in were beginning to return to Palestine. Remember they had developed a Torah-based structure of worship while they were in Babylon, cut off from the Temple in Jerusalem, and the ability to make their regular sacrificial offerings in the Temple. When they returned to Palestine, they found a remnant of people who were continuing in the old ways of sacrifice worship. Each group—returnees and remnant— considered its own experience and history the only valid source of tradition, and each looked to its own history as the source of its authority—kind of like most of us in our own day. We heard Deutero-Isaiah speak clearly to this problem today. Listen again to parts of the first reading with this in mind:
Hearken to me, you who pursue deliverance, you who seek the Lord, look to the rock from which you were hewn, and the quarry from which you were digged… For the Lord will comfort Zion. He will comfort all her waste places, and make her wilderness like Eden (this to a people in exile in Babylon)… Listen to me… a law will go forth from me, and my justice for a light to the people. My deliverance draws near speedily…the coastlands(Palestine) wait for me… Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.
God will restore God’s people to their land, but all lands are ephemeral: they will pass away. The only thing that remains will be the salvation of God. These are both comforting and powerful words to a people in Exile. Neither returning exile nor remnant had authority based on their own experiences or suffering, but only God, says Isaiah.
Now in the reading from Paul to the Christians in Rome, we know that Paul was confronted with conflict and misinterpretation at every turn. The Jews said one thing, and the Jewish Christians another. Each twisted and proof-texted scripture and the words of Paul himself to suit themselves—again, kind of like many people in our own day. Like the two sects of post-exilic Israel, each of these sects set themselves up to be the only true source of authority. But Paul wrote to them:
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? For from him and through him and to him are all things…
In other words, says Paul, for all your huffing and puffing, nobody can know the mind of God, so get over yourselves, all of you! There is only one source of authority, and that is God alone.
Now at last let us turn to Matthew. Matthew records Jesus’ conversation with Simon, now called Peter, after the Greek, Petros the Rock. Jesus invites Peter to recognize the source of his, Peter’s, understanding. Blessed are you, Simon bar Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father who is in heaven. What a remarkable passage. Remember that in other gospels, those few who recognize and proclaim Jesus for who he is are cautioned to silence. But Matthew does something quite different. What then is Matthew doing with this public outing of Jesus?
Firstly, Matthew ensures that Jesus names Peter’s authority as divine, not human (flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father who is in heaven). Second, Matthew makes Peter’s authority not personal, but collective. Matthew was writing this account at least 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection,so it is likely that Matthew was looking to create the basis for the source of authority of a community of people, the έκκλεσία, the church. It is far less likely that Matthew was looking to glorify one individual, Peter. In Matthew, then, Peter’s authority is the collective authority that we will later call the church.And it is the church that is represented in the person of Peter, and which must recognize Jesus for who he is. In other words, from Matthew’s perspective, it is the church that gives Peter his authority, not Peter who gives the church its authority.(How’s that for Protestant exegesis!)And Matthew identifies the foundation of the church as divine. Just as Jesus stands in the tradition of the prophets of Israel, and yet is greater than they, so Matthew constructs the church as the New Israel, the new dwelling place of God. The church, the community of Christian faithful, becomes the place where earth and heaven intersect each other, and where God is most clearly revealed to God’s people.
And finally, since we know this story was written after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, this encounter stands as a sign for us that we must be prepared to sacrifice all—even our very lives—for that revelation of God in Christ. Next week we will hear the next story in this series, how Peter misunderstands and abuses the authority Jesus has given him; Jesus will tell Peter that Jesus must not abuse his authority, and must in fact even die for those in his care.
So what does all this mean for us in beginning of the third millennium after all these events were recorded? Obviously, the church is a very different creature facing a very different world now than 2000 years ago. How can we possibly make sense of this reading in our world? Does it mean that popes and archbishops and even revivalist-style preachers and self-appointed bishops truly embody the divine revelation of God, and are heirs to the keys of the kingdom? The ancient church emerged in an environment of tremendous persecution.To be identified as Christian was at the very least a major social risk in the first century. And of course, after a few decades, to be identified publicly as a member of this new religious sect called “Christian” was to risk arrest, imprisonment, and for some, execution.The ancient church was not a socially or politically empowered church. What has happened to the church since that time was the sin that was the downfall of all Greek heroic figures: the sin of hubris, the sin of believing that the church was always right in all things. When the church began confusing human ambition with divine revelation, the church began to lose its origins as a community born of oppression and hope. What Isaiah reminded the Exiles, Paul the Jews, and Jesus reminded Peter in Matthew today, is that all revelation and all authority comes from God alone.
I stand outside my own church in many ways and have often been deeply disappointed by what I see the church do in its collective life. It is one reason why I have chosen to make my living outside the church, although I respect those who have made the decision to work within it. The church needs both kinds of Christians, I believe. I have made it a point in my life as a social worker and cleric to work with the powerless and the outcast, the sick, the vulnerabilised, the marginalized and the unpopular. I am astounded when I encounter churched people and I am asked “How can you work with those kinds of people?”—or even, “How can you be one of those kinds of people?” At the same time, I encounter some extraordinary work being done in the church today, some just around the corner. What is the difference?I propose that it is the same difference by which ancient Israel discerned a true prophet from a false prophet. A true prophet spoke in the name of God; a false prophet spoke in their own name. A true prophet pointed beyond themself to the divine God of Israel. A false prophet drew attention to themself. It is no coincidence, I think, that Matthew puts Jesus in the line of the great true prophets of Israel. Even at the climactic moment of his revelation to the world, Jesus still points beyond himself to “his Father”. When the church forgets its need to preserve its own existence and to defend its own human and institutional agendas; when the church points beyond itself to the magesterium, the awesome power and majesty of God; then it indeed is living up to its charge to be the place where the human intersects and intervenes with the divine, to be the revelation of God in the world. When we point beyond ourselves and not to ourselves, then we have the right to name sin, to condemn and bind it, and to require repentance. And I believe that test of the true prophet, the true church, will hold whether the church is Orthodox, Roman, Anglican, Protestant, or any other faith or religion throughout our world.
Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it…