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Proper 16, Year A

Romans 11:33-36 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 16:13-20 - link to NRSV text

It's a little ironic, isn't it? Two Sundays ago, we read the story St. Peter walking on the water -- a story often used as an occasion to criticize Peter for doubting when in the story, Jesus is pointing out at least as much that Peter DID have a little faith as he is inviting Peter to deepen it. And this Sunday, we've got a gospel that's often used as an example of faith, Peter's great shining moment, when the story is an example (and perhaps the best one, shy of Peter's later denials that he knew Jesus) of Peter being seriously off the mark.

That becomes clear in next Sunday's gospel (Matthew 16:21-27), when Jesus looks at Peter and says, "Get behind me, Satan!" -- and I wish very much that our lectionary kept intact this single pericope that begins this week and ends next week. Read as a whole, Matthew 16:13-28 shows us that Christian faith is a lot more than assigning the right titles to Jesus. Indeed, the story shows us that sometimes these titles can get in the way of understanding who Jesus is at least as much as they help.

I'm thinking of the emperor Constantine, who underwrote the Council of Nicea, giving him opportunity to decide which bishops got invited and the final say on any statements that came out of that gathering. Legend has it that the statement that the Son is of "one substance" or "one Being" with the Father was his suggestion.

People argue over whether Constantine had truly converted to Christianity -- he wasn't baptized until he was on his deathbed, but that practice wasn't uncommon among Christians of his time; he was a patron of Christian churches, but he also continued to build and worship in temples to Sol Invictus, the conquering sun-god his ancestors worshipped. I have no trouble believing, though, that he really believed that Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God.

Constantine was right on the question of Jesus' titles. Unfortunately, he was wrong on the far more important question of Jesus' character, and the character of the god who is Jesus' Father. Constantine grew up worshipping a god who was all about power, and specifically the power that would help him become powerful, victorious in battle, supreme over his enemies. And he never stopped worshipping that god. He never stopped worshipping power. And so Constantine could confess that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God, and could put an empty throne next to his so he could claim to rule as Jesus' agent, and still murder his children if they posed a threat to his power. He turned Jesus' name, Jesus' God, and even Jesus' cross, into symbols by which he hoped to conquer and rule.

Peter made a similar mistake -- for a moment -- in today's gospel. It's much lesser in degree than the category confusion Constantine made, but it's still there. Peter gets an important point right in this Sunday's gospel: that Jesus is the Messiah, God's anointed. Peter has a huge head-start on Constantine in deciding what this means too, as Peter knows that the God who has anointed Jesus is the God of Israel -- the god who liberated the slaves from Egypt, and who in the desert made them a people, a community centered around God's justice and mercy. In other words, Peter knows by whom Jesus has been anointed, and that tells him something of who Jesus is.

The open question, though, is what Jesus has been anointed to do -- and the biggest problem that Peter has is that he thinks that part goes without saying. Jesus is God's messiah, God's anointed. He's going to be victorious, which (in Peter's view) pretty much precludes his being tortured and executed as a shameful criminal. Peter rightly says that Jesus is God's son, and he is blessed to have that much revealed to him. But only after Jesus has died on a Roman cross and been raised by the God of Israel can Peter bring together that God's blessing and anointing doesn't preclude dying. Peter's attachment to victory and what he believes is and is not associated with it is threatening to override his trust in Jesus. Once he lets go of being victorious in the world's terms, though, he'll be open to God's victory, which defeats even death.

There's a timely lesson for us in Constantine's confession and Peter's, in what they get right and where they fall short, and it goes back to the discussion we were having two weeks ago about faith. Faith isn't about assenting to a proposition; it's a relationship of trust with a person. Faith in Jesus isn't primarily about saying or thinking correct things about him. Faith in Jesus is following him, serving those the world despises; it's not a guarantee of earthly glory and success, but willingness to share the scorn that the proud heap upon the humble.  Faith doesn't found empires, but frees us to live as sisters and brothers of all nations. Faith in Jesus doesn't tell us that we will defeat our enemies; it moves us to love, forgive, and be gracious toward them as Jesus was toward his.

The height and depth and richness of that grace is beyond description, and almost beyond comprehension. Small wonder that Peter didn't perceive it at this point as he would come to perceive it later. The moment described in the gospel passages for this Sunday and next were a turning point, though -- not because of what Peter did understand, but because of Jesus' graciousness when Peter didn't understand.

At this moment, Peter is stuck in all-or-nothing thinking: if Jesus is messiah, it's got to be the whole glorious picture, and the cross doesn't fit in with that. Our lectionary, in dividing Peter's confession and Jesus' praise of it from Peter's "surely not!" to the cross and Jesus' stinging rebuke, unfortuantely plays into the same kind of thinking: in a lot of minds, Peter gets to be pure hero this week and pure cluelessness next week. But Jesus doesn't treat Peter like that. Peter's confession, especially if his current understanding of it becomes the substance of what he proclaims about Jesus to the world, has some deeply problematic dimensions. But Jesus receives what Peter has to offer that came as a gift from God. Most importantly, Jesus receives Peter himself, with all his flaws, as sharing in the victory he will win on the cross -- even as Peter tries to set a path for Jesus that would preclude that victory.

I opened with pointing to this moment as the second best example of Peter going seriously off the mark. The best example is probably Peter's denials that he knew Jesus in the hours following Jesus' arrest. And I suspect that as Peter looked back on these disappointing moments in the full light of Jesus' love for him, they became deeply powerful experiences of grace, inspiring a life of self-giving love that testified more profoundly to what Jesus was anointed FOR than any words could.

Thanks be to God!

August 17, 2005 in Faith, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Romans, Year A | Permalink

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We can confess with Peter that Jesus is Messiah and Lord but it's not just any old Jesus we're talking about. Before Jesus is anything else Jesus is the One who meets us at the cross. While God could have come to us in all kinds of ways, God chose to come down here to meet us in the most unlikely place of all: On the cross, in the face of an outcast and a stranger, who suffered there and died.

No one in their right mind would imagine that God, the maker of everything that is, seen and unseen, would come down here to us in such an odd and sad and scary way.

Because Jesus is Lord, we can expect to be surprised by a God who comes to us in the most unlooked-for ways and in the most unexpected places. There is nothing expected about the God who meets us in the One who hangs there upon a cross.

Posted by: Tom in Ontario | Aug 18, 2005 10:56:35 AM

What do you think of this? A bit of fun or blasphemy?

Posted by: The Bongo Man | Aug 18, 2005 12:59:30 PM

Thankyou for the showing us faith in such a clear and beautiful way.

It's not about intellectual assent or having your "Christology" all worked out. It's about struggling with the question of the Christ "who do you say I am?" The answer is not found in axioms and assertions. It is found in a living relationship with Christ and a willingness to walk his way of service and suffering: To be with Christ the Last who has been made First.

Posted by: Pastor Matt Thiele, Townsville, Australia | Aug 19, 2005 9:03:29 PM

Thanks for your insight into a difficult passage. This will greatly aid in my teaching a group of energetic teenagers the message of Jesus.

Posted by: Kelly Yates | Aug 23, 2008 11:00:12 PM

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Dylan's lectionary blog: Proper 16, Year A

« new page: Dylan's digest | Main | Proper 17, Year A »

Proper 16, Year A

Romans 11:33-36 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 16:13-20 - link to NRSV text

It's a little ironic, isn't it? Two Sundays ago, we read the story St. Peter walking on the water -- a story often used as an occasion to criticize Peter for doubting when in the story, Jesus is pointing out at least as much that Peter DID have a little faith as he is inviting Peter to deepen it. And this Sunday, we've got a gospel that's often used as an example of faith, Peter's great shining moment, when the story is an example (and perhaps the best one, shy of Peter's later denials that he knew Jesus) of Peter being seriously off the mark.

That becomes clear in next Sunday's gospel (Matthew 16:21-27), when Jesus looks at Peter and says, "Get behind me, Satan!" -- and I wish very much that our lectionary kept intact this single pericope that begins this week and ends next week. Read as a whole, Matthew 16:13-28 shows us that Christian faith is a lot more than assigning the right titles to Jesus. Indeed, the story shows us that sometimes these titles can get in the way of understanding who Jesus is at least as much as they help.

I'm thinking of the emperor Constantine, who underwrote the Council of Nicea, giving him opportunity to decide which bishops got invited and the final say on any statements that came out of that gathering. Legend has it that the statement that the Son is of "one substance" or "one Being" with the Father was his suggestion.

People argue over whether Constantine had truly converted to Christianity -- he wasn't baptized until he was on his deathbed, but that practice wasn't uncommon among Christians of his time; he was a patron of Christian churches, but he also continued to build and worship in temples to Sol Invictus, the conquering sun-god his ancestors worshipped. I have no trouble believing, though, that he really believed that Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God.

Constantine was right on the question of Jesus' titles. Unfortunately, he was wrong on the far more important question of Jesus' character, and the character of the god who is Jesus' Father. Constantine grew up worshipping a god who was all about power, and specifically the power that would help him become powerful, victorious in battle, supreme over his enemies. And he never stopped worshipping that god. He never stopped worshipping power. And so Constantine could confess that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God, and could put an empty throne next to his so he could claim to rule as Jesus' agent, and still murder his children if they posed a threat to his power. He turned Jesus' name, Jesus' God, and even Jesus' cross, into symbols by which he hoped to conquer and rule.

Peter made a similar mistake -- for a moment -- in today's gospel. It's much lesser in degree than the category confusion Constantine made, but it's still there. Peter gets an important point right in this Sunday's gospel: that Jesus is the Messiah, God's anointed. Peter has a huge head-start on Constantine in deciding what this means too, as Peter knows that the God who has anointed Jesus is the God of Israel -- the god who liberated the slaves from Egypt, and who in the desert made them a people, a community centered around God's justice and mercy. In other words, Peter knows by whom Jesus has been anointed, and that tells him something of who Jesus is.

The open question, though, is what Jesus has been anointed to do -- and the biggest problem that Peter has is that he thinks that part goes without saying. Jesus is God's messiah, God's anointed. He's going to be victorious, which (in Peter's view) pretty much precludes his being tortured and executed as a shameful criminal. Peter rightly says that Jesus is God's son, and he is blessed to have that much revealed to him. But only after Jesus has died on a Roman cross and been raised by the God of Israel can Peter bring together that God's blessing and anointing doesn't preclude dying. Peter's attachment to victory and what he believes is and is not associated with it is threatening to override his trust in Jesus. Once he lets go of being victorious in the world's terms, though, he'll be open to God's victory, which defeats even death.

There's a timely lesson for us in Constantine's confession and Peter's, in what they get right and where they fall short, and it goes back to the discussion we were having two weeks ago about faith. Faith isn't about assenting to a proposition; it's a relationship of trust with a person. Faith in Jesus isn't primarily about saying or thinking correct things about him. Faith in Jesus is following him, serving those the world despises; it's not a guarantee of earthly glory and success, but willingness to share the scorn that the proud heap upon the humble.  Faith doesn't found empires, but frees us to live as sisters and brothers of all nations. Faith in Jesus doesn't tell us that we will defeat our enemies; it moves us to love, forgive, and be gracious toward them as Jesus was toward his.

The height and depth and richness of that grace is beyond description, and almost beyond comprehension. Small wonder that Peter didn't perceive it at this point as he would come to perceive it later. The moment described in the gospel passages for this Sunday and next were a turning point, though -- not because of what Peter did understand, but because of Jesus' graciousness when Peter didn't understand.

At this moment, Peter is stuck in all-or-nothing thinking: if Jesus is messiah, it's got to be the whole glorious picture, and the cross doesn't fit in with that. Our lectionary, in dividing Peter's confession and Jesus' praise of it from Peter's "surely not!" to the cross and Jesus' stinging rebuke, unfortuantely plays into the same kind of thinking: in a lot of minds, Peter gets to be pure hero this week and pure cluelessness next week. But Jesus doesn't treat Peter like that. Peter's confession, especially if his current understanding of it becomes the substance of what he proclaims about Jesus to the world, has some deeply problematic dimensions. But Jesus receives what Peter has to offer that came as a gift from God. Most importantly, Jesus receives Peter himself, with all his flaws, as sharing in the victory he will win on the cross -- even as Peter tries to set a path for Jesus that would preclude that victory.

I opened with pointing to this moment as the second best example of Peter going seriously off the mark. The best example is probably Peter's denials that he knew Jesus in the hours following Jesus' arrest. And I suspect that as Peter looked back on these disappointing moments in the full light of Jesus' love for him, they became deeply powerful experiences of grace, inspiring a life of self-giving love that testified more profoundly to what Jesus was anointed FOR than any words could.

Thanks be to God!

August 17, 2005 in Faith, Matthew, Ordinary Time, Romans, Year A | Permalink

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