Saturday, August 20, 2005

Who do you say I am?

Now I think somewhere along the way, I’ve already let slip that I have a certain fondness for the animated cartoon show, ‘The Simpsons’.  The whole idea I guess is that Homer as the dad and Bart as the 10 year old son are so self-centred and lazy that neither of them will ever amount to much – the whole family so dysfunctional that it’s bound to fall apart – and yet every episode reveals how at some level the characters really care for one another – in spite of everything these flawed characters manage to affirm some good quality in one another – Homer regularly starts out acting selfishly but ends up remembering what’s really important to him –  Homer knows what’s right and he loves Marge and the kids; and in the end he always finds out that that’s enough - in fact, like Odysseus in the epic poem, Ulysses, written by the original Homer over 2500  years ago, it seems the whole idea of Homer Simpson is to show us how far you have to travel sometimes to find your way home.  I think part of the long fascination people have had for Homer Simpson is that he is a sort of ‘Everyman’ – Homer like Odysseus before him represents every one of us when we have to negotiate the path between what we fantasise about and what we know deep down is most important.

I am always reminded of Homer when I read in the Gospels about Peter, because it seems to me they’re very similar characters.  Peter of course is the one who’s forever opening his mouth to change feet – impetuous but not very brave, enthusiastic though it seems not very clever – and at the same time Peter is the disciple many of us feel we best relate to – like Homer Simpson, Peter maybe stands for all of us when we’re divided and uncertain, when we want to be disciples but aren’t so sure we’ve got what it takes.

Today’s Gospel episode is one that gets an interestingly different treatment, depending on which gospel you read.  For Mark, the earliest of the gospel writers, the issue is all about recognising who Jesus is, and he sees the disciples as a pretty thick bunch who systematically miss the point all the way to the cross – where they scatter in terror – so much do the disciples fail to get the point in Mark’s gospel that who Jesus really is almost seems to be a secret – except here where you can almost see the light bulb going on – you’re the messiah, the one we’ve been waiting for! – and straight away Jesus tells him not to tell anybody – like he’s saying OK – but do you really know what you’re saying?

Because almost straight away we realise that Peter hasn’t really worked it out at all – when he calls Jesus the Christ, this word means he thinks Jesus is the king that the people of Israel have been expecting for hundreds of years – and yes, that’s what Jesus is – but Peter doesn’t understand what it means for Jesus to be this sort of king, because in the very next verse when Jesus starts talking about how he is going to have to suffer and die, Peter tells him off for being defeatist.  Peter doesn’t know what sort of king finds victory in humiliation and death. 

But Matthew does something a bit different with the basic story that presumably he got from Mark.  Matthew has a better opinion of the disciples than Mark does – like maybe my opinion of Homer Simpson might be more generous than yours – and Matthew has already told the story of Jesus stilling the storm where the disciples all recognise him as the Son of God – so I think for Matthew the main emphasis in this story is not so much on recognising who Jesus is but on Jesus identifying who Peter is, not so much on the identity of Jesus but on the identity of the church.

So, where Mark has Peter saying to Jesus ‘you are the Christ!’ – in Matthew, Peter adds, ‘the Son of the living God’.  Now, that’s another title for Jesus that we have to be careful about, because it doesn’t mean quite the same thing here that it means later, when the early church started to work out how Jesus could be both fully human and divine – back then Son of God could also be a political title, in fact it was one of the titles that the Emperor Caesar Augustus used.  And there’s an interesting contrast going on here, because the place this conversation is happening is Caesarea Philippi, where Herod the Great had built a temple to Caesar Augustus.  But when Peter applies it to Jesus it means something a whole lot more – in Matthew’s gospel the disciples have already recognised Jesus as one who has an intimate relationship with God the Father - so when Peter claims here in Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Son of God – not only is he saying that for Jesus’ relationship with God is very different from the emperor’s – but it seems he also knows that disciples who identify with Jesus’ announcement of God’s coming kingdom are going to get some opposition from the status quo, from the religious authorities and from the Roman state.  Which makes Peter either very bold or very foolhardy.

Maybe both.  Because Jesus praises Peter quite extravagantly – this, he says, came to you straight from God – and he gives the disciple who used to be called Simon a new nickname – ‘Rocky’ – which in Greek is of course Peter.  My Bible commentary suggests what Jesus has in mind is a verse from Isaiah chapter 51 that refers to Abraham as the rock from which God’s people are carved out, in other words that Jesus is saying Peter is going to be like a new Abraham – a founding father for a new Israel.

But here’s the irony – because really Peter isn’t very solid at all – like Homer Simpson, Peter means well but goes all to pieces on a regular basis – it’s just two chapters ago that Peter is the first one to want to get out of the boat and walk across the water to Jesus – only to lose his nerve and end up needing to be rescued -  Jesus might just as well have said, ‘you’re a blockhead, but it’s blockheads like you that I’m going to build my church out of’.  Because it’s Jesus that’s going to build the church, not Peter, or me or you.  We’re just the raw materials, and I don’t know about you, but for me it’s a comforting notion that the very bottom brick is a bloke that’s so ordinary that the only thing he’s really got going for him is that he chooses Jesus, and Jesus chooses him. 

And what does Jesus tell Peter about the church that he is going to build out of these not-so-flash bricks?  Firstly, that it’s going to last.  A big claim back then, and even now after the church has lasted two thousand years it’s a claim that we need to hear for ourselves in our own generation.  Next time you hear someone confidently predicting the church is on the way out, remind them of this passage.  ‘The gates of hell’, says Jesus, aren’t going to overcome this church.  This church is not going to be overcome by the powers of evil, and it’s not going to vanish in the sands of time.  When Jesus puts the church in the same breath as the gates of hell, we can be pretty sure he means there’s going to be some opposition, there’s going to be some narrow scrapes, but the church which is going to be tossed around and battered a bit – the church which is going to have to live right in the middle of the clash between God’s kingdom and the self-serving interests of the political, religious and economic status quo – God’s church which is the visible part of God’s kingdom on earth is going to last, and it’s going to last because it is Jesus who builds it.  You and I just get to decide whether or not we want to be part of the brickwork.

And then Jesus makes Peter a very peculiar promise.  It’s always Peter in the cartoon strips isn’t it? who meets you at the gates of heaven and either lets you in or gives you the bad news that you haven’t got a booking.  Except that I think what Jesus is talking about here has got more to do with Peter’s role as the foundation of the church here on earth than as a gatekeeper in the hereafter.  Because when Jesus talks about binding and loosing he’s using a standard rabbi’s phrase for interpreting the Torah, the book of the law, and applying it with authority to guide the life of God’s people.  And that’s almost as surprising!  Jesus is giving Peter the job of being a teacher, of being responsible for how the church interprets and applies the scriptures, how the church remembers and applies Jesus’ own teachings.  A lot of commentators believe this bit may have been put in a bit later by Matthew, who some 50 years after the death of Jesus is very much concerned about the need for a bit of structure in the church.  But whether or not these words go all the way back to Jesus the point is that Jesus sends people like Peter, people like you and me, people with more enthusiasm than good judgement, with more idealism than follow-through, and he says to us; I choose you.  You didn’t arrive where you are today all by yourself; but if you recognise who I am then you’ve already been blessed by God more than you know.  You might not feel very solid; you might feel like you haven’t got much to contribute but you have a very important mission, and that is to be available.  To be attentive.  To be in love.  You’re the building block I need to build the church that – for the rest of time – is going to be my physical presence in the world.  I’m relying on you, but you don’t have to do it by yourself.  I’ll be with you.

And all we have to do is answer a singe question: ‘who do you say I am?’