Thursday, June 10, 2010

Who do you say that I am?

When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" So they said, "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he commanded his disciples that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ.

- Matthew 16:13-20

In today's reading, we get a surprising glimpse into the insights of faith and its working in us, through the apostle Peter. We recall that in yesterday's reading, Jesus took the disciples to task because they failed to understand his teaching, when he taught them to "beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Today, we begin to understand more deeply the revelations of faith, and what they mean as we go more deeply into its power working in us.

When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, "Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" So they said, "Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven." My study bible has a note on today's entire passage that reads as follows: Who do you say that I am? (v. 15) is the greatest question we can ever face. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (v. 16) is Peter's ringing confession -- an insight given to him by the Father (v. 17). Jesus' messianic identity and divinity, the mystery hidden from eternity, cannot be truly known by human reason, but only by God's revelation (1 Cor. 12:3). Christ means 'the Anointed One.' Christ is the Son of the living God, whom the Father has anointed with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38). David says, 'Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions' (Ps. 45:7). Isaiah, speaking in the name of the Lord, says, 'The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me' (Is. 61:1)." It's interesting to me that this comes just after the incident in the boat, when the disciples failed to understand what Jesus was talking about when he referred to the "leaven of the Pharisees." In yesterday's reading, Jesus takes them to task for their failure to understand him, and called them "you of little faith." But today in our reading, Peter answers for them when he gives his confession of faith, this revelation or knowledge of Christ's identity.

"And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." My study bible has a note on this verse: "Peter/rock is a play on the word for rock in Aramaic and Greek (petros/petra). Rock refers not to Peter himself but to the confession of his faith. The true Rock and foundation of the Church is, of course, Christ Himself. The Church rests upon this Rock by her unchanging faith, her confession. With this faith as the foundation, the gates of Hades, the powers of death, are powerless against her. In the Old Testament gates suggest a fortified city (Gen. 22:17; 24:60; Is. 14:31). Hence, by shattering the gates, Christ is opening the stronghold of death to set free the souls of righteous men. In all the Gospels, church is mentioned twice by the Lord, here and in 18:17, describing the true Israel whose citizenship is heavenly. She is the body of Christ, the divine-human organism, and to her comes the call of Jesus for the whole of mankind to abide with Him and in Him (Eph. 1:23)." It's interesting to think about the "gates of Hades" as that which is the power of death - and the fact that it is contrasted with faith. Yesterday we discussed the notion of faith, and I find it particularly profound to understand that the power of death is contrasted with the power of faith and what it creates. I'm not the first person to think about the positive force of faith as a contradiction to all the "no's" we hear in the world, the power of nihilism, of negativity. Faith is the seed that builds something impregnable, that negates the power of death in the world and all it stands for.

"And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Again, there is a note on this particular verse: "Keys of the kingdom clearly implies a special authority given to Peter himself, but never separated from his confession of faith. While Peter was a leader of the disciples and of the early Church, all the apostles were empowered with Christ's authority (18:18). Further, Peter was not a leader over the others but a leader among them, as seen at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), where elders, or presbyters, met with the apostles together as equals. ... Binding and loosing is a reference to the teaching, sacramental, and administrative powers of the Apostles which were transmitted to the bishops of the Church." I certainly cannot claim to have any sort of expertise on the powers of bishops as transmitted by the Apostles. However, I firmly believe in this power that is given through faith, through this confession of Peter. So often, we find in the gospels that Peter speaks for the apostles -- whether it is his over-exuberant embrace as in his exhortation to Jesus to also wash his hands and head at the Last Supper, or his earlier refusal for Jesus to wash his feet in the first place; whether it is his fear of sinking into the water after he demanded that Jesus call him to walk upon it, or the number of incidents that we can name in which Peter seems to express what the others may feel. Peter speaks, I find, not only as a sort of voice for the disciples but, in effect, as a voice for all of us. He expresses humanity in his exuberance of emotion, and also the Church and the "Rock" that Jesus calls him through the powerful transformation wrought by faith, and by the effects of the Spirit (including his transformation from the apostle who denied Jesus three times to the great leader that he was, and his martyrdom by crucifixion). Just as in yesterday's reading, when we understood the apostles to have failed to catch on to what Jesus was teaching, so we understand in Peter our human limitations which are innumerable -- but also he stands in for the greatest of the triumphs of faith which are possible in each of us as well.

Then he commanded his disciples that they should tell no one that he was Jesus the Christ. At this point, they are not to reveal what they know and what they understand to others. But this secret never remains hidden for long. It is too potent, too powerful, it cannot be contained.

So let us return to the theme of faith, as addressed in today's reading in Peter's confession. What is your rock? Upon what do you rest in your faith? This is a growing and dynamic relationship, and we have innumerable aspects of help around us as well to this faith and in this faith. We have the Spirit, and all the angelic presence and saints and those we love who help us to find our way on this journey ourselves. Ultimately, faith is that relationship that we find to the Divine, to Christ. My study bible calls the Church, the body of Christ, "the divine-human organism." This is quite an amazing idea, but it strikes at the heart of his teachings in the gospel of Matthew so far. A divine-human organism is a good way to describe the leaven of the kingdom with which the whole dough was leavened in the parable Jesus taught. Somehow faith works as a kind of "Yes" inside ourselves: "yes" to all sorts of possibilities, "yes" to Jesus' call to Peter to "Come" when he wanted to walk on the water to Christ. It is the power of the gates of Hades that says "No." To what do you give your yes? And then, in faith, there is a great "Yes" as a response when we ask what we can do. The power of faith, this Rock, is a transforming reality that is full of possibilities and "life in abundance." It is something that goes to work within us, as described in the parable of the leaven. The leaven of the Pharisees says "No" - it misses possibilities, it cannot have faith. It denies. But the leaven of the kingdom is something different; and when we add our "yes" to its suggestion of potentials and possibilities, then all the power of Hades cannot prevail against it. So it worked this way with the apostles, with Peter, and the building up of the church. How will it work in us? How does the power of "yes" work in you?