August 27, 2017
Emmaus Community, Olympia, WA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Isaiah 22:19-23 Psalm 138:1-3;6-8
Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
+In the name of God, our Father and Mother, Jesus our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
At least a few of you may have come to church expecting an excoriation of the Roman Catholic Church about the mischief of Petrine Primacy. I’m not going to go there. Instead, I will look at today’s readings on a much deeper level. I see today’s Gospel as about faith, the rewards of being faithful, and by implication, the universality of Jesus’ call to all Christians. I see Peter as representing all of us, and Jesus’ response to Peter as addressing the entire church, not just clergy.
When someone asks, “What faith are you,” most of you would respond, “I’m Catholic.” That is how I’m tempted to respond as well, but that’s not how I do respond. One of the most misused words in the English language is “faith.” It’s commonly used to classify religious people as in, “What is your faith tradition”, meaning, “Do you identify as Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim,” or any of the other intellectual constructs to which people resort in describing a relationship with God. My response to the question, “what faith are you,” is always, “I’m faithful to Jesus.”
For me, the word, “faith”, does not carry the meaning as it is used among most people. What it means for me is to believe in God, our creator, Jesus our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, our sanctifier. But in doing so, I’m not just intellectually assenting to the existence of God. Rather, in stating in God, I’m describing my relationship to God described in all three persons of the Trinity.
Creeds are often used as “statements of faith” or “statements of belief.” Indeed, we begin the creeds with either, “I believe” or “We believe.” To believe in someone means we have faith in that person. A person of faith is a person who is faithful. What does that mean? It means loyalty. It means allegiance. What is loyalty? What is allegiance? The dictionary definition of loyalty is, “faithfulness to a cause, person, or institution.” The definition of “allegiance” is similar; it’s “unwavering devotion to some person, group, or cause.”
But to get there, we have to first recognize that which to whom, or what, we are loyal or profess allegiance. Devotion to an unknown is impossible. Identification of the object of our loyalty, however, goes beyond a mere naming or description, because our loyalty and allegiance grows from something special about that object. Loyalty, to exist, has to be caused by the existence of that to which we are loyal, and for loyalty and allegiance to continue, it needs an incentive. In today’s Gospel, Jesus rewarded Peter’s recognition of Jesus of who Jesus is by blessing Peter.
Today’s readings pose the question about to whom we as Christians owe our most important loyalty in the context of our mission as disciples, and what the reward is for that decision. The short answer to the first question is simply, “to Jesus”, and to the second, is that Jesus will bless us. In this dialogue between Peter and Jesus, Peter is not just Peter. Peter represents all of us as an archetype, that is, a recurrent symbol, in our relationship with Jesus. We human persons seem to like to organize ourselves hierarchically and denominate some of us as somehow better than others, but the disciples later recognized in all three synoptic Gospels, that Jesus tells the truth without showing any partiality.
Peter can represent all of us because we are all equal in the eyes of Jesus. St. Paul echoes this teaching in Galatians in which he tells us that in Jesus, there is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek. Peter later recognized in the Book of Acts, which details the start-up of the Christian church, where Peter’s words were, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” That’s a really far cry from any Christians claiming for themselves a monopoly on power through the ministry of Peter.
The response of Jesus to Peter represents how Jesus will receive all of us if we recognize Him as our Savior. Jesus will bless us. Notice that I said, “Jesus” and did not say “clergy” will bless us. Too often, we equate loyalty in a religious context as owed to one or more members of the clergy, or to a religious institution.
Old Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican churches hold that the remarks of Jesus on the keys to the kingdom were addressed to all of the disciples, not just to Peter, and that the episcopal governance of the church lays in the hands of all bishops, not just the pope. We Catholics who are not Roman point out because the word for rock in the Greek language, “Petra”, is similar to the proper name “Petro”, an ambiguity exists as to whether Jesus was referring to “Petro” or “petra”. That ambiguity asks the question, was “Peter” himself the rock on which the church is built, or is rock more encompassing?
Peter’s exclamation to Jesus recognizing Him as “Christ, Son of the Living God” was a manifestation of loyalty which Jesus rewarded by bestowing the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. If Peter represents all those who recognize Jesus in the way Peter did, that includes us as well. We, all of us, are the rock on which the Church is built, not one individual. And applying that to the church, all of us can be disciples of Jesus with keys to the Kingdom. The world is too large, too complex for any one person to have the responsibility of building up the Kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus chose more than one person to carry on what He started. That’s why discipleship is lived in community with others, not an individual thing. Jesus recognized that in His response to Peter by using the word ekklesia, a Greek word commonly translated as “church”.
A church community has an ontological existence, meaning an existence in and of itself. But communities of persons just do not pop up into existence. Building a community requires disciples. Discipleship is a team effort.
The qualities of a good disciple as described by Jesus in Matthew are not exclusive to the clergy, and are based not on just what we say, but what we do. Jesus tells us explicitly that what we allow on earth will be allowed in heaven and what we forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven. In proclaiming that, Jesus is placing his trust in us, bestowing on all of us the responsibility to build up the Kingdom of God, not just in what we say, but what we do.
In the community of Israel that forms the backdrop for the events described in today’s first reading, the religious community and the civil government were one in the same entity. Jesus, however, recognizes the narrative of the coming change in the relationship between the assembly of God’s people and the world at large, where eventually, the secular world and that of the church became separate entities. When the Temple and the Roman Empire are not one in the same, discipleship to build up the Kingdom of God becomes a necessity.
The interaction in today’s Gospel between Peter and Jesus sets the tone for the first requisite of discipleship, that is, our recognizing Jesus as Savior. What does not follow from that recognition is to consider Peter as someone who acquired the power to rule over everyone in a sort of succession to Jesus by divine right. Rather, the most useful understanding of Peter is that as an example to follow, not only what clergy must be to their flock, but what all of us must be to the world. We, all of the baptized, are meant to open the doors to the keys to the kingdom of God.
The way we open those doors for others is by being exemplary disciples, learning and understanding what Jesus taught, by living in a right relationship with God and others, and by putting the teachings of Jesus into action, such as by forgiving those who wrong you, and caring for the least among us. Loving God with all our hearts, minds and souls, and loving our neighbors as ourselves attracts people to us. That is what it takes for Jesus to bless us. That is how we carry out the Great Commission, to be disciples making disciples and incorporating as many people as possible into the Body of Christ, the church, through baptism.
We make other Christians by behaving like Christians. In his response to Peter in today’s Gospel, Jesus was not calling for the establishment of a particular ecclesiastical structure with rules to be obeyed on pain of judgment after death. In fact, that is not the message of the life of Jesus as a whole. That message has nothing to do with canon law or hierarchies. The message of Jesus is very simple: Jesus called us to love, in the same way that Peter expressed love for Jesus, not by blind obedience, but by having faith in Jesus, by recognizing and trusting Jesus as Savior in all that we do, and in doing that, Jesus will bless us. AMEN.