by The Rev. Darrell Huddleston
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Ps. 124; Rom. 12:1-8; Mt. 16:13-20
The conversation between Peter and Jesus has been the source of division in the Christian community. It all centers on what Jesus meant by the phrase “you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” Going back to the early days of the church there have been four interpretations of this conversation, represented by four early church fathers, all of whom lived in the first two or three centuries after Christ.
Origen (185-254) Peter is only a ‘type’ of every true Christian.
Tertullian (170-220) Peter is the rock.
Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428), Peter’s ‘confession’ is the rock.
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) Christ is the rock.
Some of the early church fathers and The Church in Rome chose to follow Tertullian’s view that Peter was the Rock, then expanded it to mean he was the first Pope and that all bishops of Rome (Popes) are the inheritors of that position.
The Eastern Orthodox view, shaped by Theodore and Augustine, is that Peter’s confession “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” is the rock and their view shaped the Protestant reformers. It is still the position held by Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches today. It is argued by many that Peter was less like a rock and more like sand, the way he shifted and vacillated. In addition, the verse that follows today’s gospel lesson, when Jesus rebuked Peter for scolding him about his comment that he would be killed in Jerusalem, is cited: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God but of men.”
There has recently emerged among some scholars on both sides of this debate an intriguing compromise.* They suggest, based on biblical scholarship, the following solution:
Jesus did in fact build on Peter as the foundation of the church, but the emphasis should be placed on the word ‘builder’ and not on the man Peter. The word play in the language Jesus spoke, Aramaic, and in the Greek translation, indicates that Peter and Rock are the same. Thus, Peter is the rock, much the same as Abraham who was called the rock upon which the people of Israel were established (Is. 51:1-2). Jesus picked Peter in spite of his impulsiveness and lack of faith, because later, as we learn in Acts, he becomes a great leader. BUT, the ecumenical scholars continue, even though he was the rock….
Peter’s was a one-time only position and not a repeatable one, thus it does not apply to the popes who have lived since Peter.
Whether this compromise will be accepted is yet to be determined. Such changes, if change occurs at all, happen quite slowly in the church. In the meantime, since this will not be resolved anytime soon, we need to focus on what we all do agree on. At least three things can be identified:
First, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants agree that the most important part of this message was Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” It is, in fact, the most important question any of us will ever answer. Do we confess him as our Lord and Savior?
As you leave Church today, what if someone walked up to you in the parking lot and asked, “Just what is it you folks do in there?” What is it exactly that you believe? What would you say to that person? How would you say it?
Second, there is agreement that when the church is truly what it is intended to be then we are true to Peter’s confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. But, if what you shared with the person in the parking lot left out ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, then you haven’t quite gotten the whole story, according to the apostolic tradition handed down to us.
When the Church is truly being the Body of Christ we are actively going about our business of living Christ’s love and proclaiming forgiveness of sins. Only God can forgive, but the church has the privilege of proclaiming and offering a loving and forgiving God. The Church also has the responsibility to be prophetic and say the hard word that calls people to repentance and to return to God.
This is what the text means when it says, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The power to loose and to bind comes from the Hebrew understanding of being responsible in the teaching of the Torah.
Peter was given the keys, not to be the Sergeant-at-Arms at the gate of Heaven deciding who gets in and who does not, but to be the chief teacher and administrator of the apostolic tradition. The rabbinic language of binding and loosing thus applies to Peter’s authority to interpret scripture.
But, Jesus also gave this authority to the other disciples and to the whole church, not just to Peter, as we read later in Matthew 18:18, where we encounter the same language. In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he refers to Peter, James and John as ‘pillars’ of the church (2:9). Peter was the foundation rock, but the church is built upon the teaching of the apostles who proclaimed the good news of “Jesus Christ is Risen” and is our Savior.
Third, we agree that we are to actively proclaim the gospel. The puzzling aspect of this lesson is if Peter was praised by Jesus for giving the correct answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” why does he then, “sternly order the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah?” There are perhaps a couple of good reasons:
The crowds might have gotten all excited and mistakenly thought he was the long expected Messiah in the mold of King David, a military deliverer. Jesus knew that his disciples, as well as the crowd, did not yet understand what kind of Messiah he was…a Messiah that had to shed his own blood for others, not the blood of someone else.
Jesus wanted them to wait until they could see his life from the perspective of the resurrection….then they would have the whole story to tell.
All of us who live, and have lived, on this side of the resurrection do not need to worry about keeping the fact that Jesus is the Messiah a secret. The Life and ministry of Jesus is what God is like. We are to proclaim it in our words and deeds. We do that, as St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson….
by presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God…
by not being conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds….
by using the gifts given us, for each of us has been given at least one of the gifts. Whether that gift is teaching, preaching, caring, generosity, leadership, diligence, compassion or cheerfulness. Each of us has at least one gift and God calls us to employ it.
The story is told about the famous author of “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson when he was a child. He had been watching the street lamp lighters one evening from his bedroom window as they went along lighting the gas lamps. His nanny came in to tuck him good night and she asked him what he was doing. “I’m watching a man poke holes in the darkness.”
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples and asks us, his current day disciples. Christ is truly the one who pokes holes in the darkness and we are the ones who are called to share the light of Christ with the world, whether we are Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians or any other church that calls itself a follower of Jesus Christ.
*See Eugene Boring, NIB, vol. 8, p 347