rethinking Jesus’s vision of church, Peter, and the love of GOD
We mistake the naming of Peter as reflective of his character, rather than His.
a Homily for Proper 16 A | Text: Matthew 16:13-20
Again the Pharisees. Those ancient ideological evangelicals–obsessed with rule-following–return. This time they’ve brought back-up: the Sadducees. Not normally friends, the Pharisees and the Sadducees represent the religious establishment. They are like rival gangs teaming up to take on the young pup trying to make a name for himself by honing in on their turf.
Give us signs of your power! they say. Prove yourself!
Like Satan’s tempting, inviting Jesus to prove himself, the elites ask of Jesus what He isn’t to give. Because it isn’t about Jesus: what Jesus can do. It is about GOD. What GOD wants for the Children of Israel. There is no proof. No proving. Jesus tells His followers that signs aren’t there to prove, but to mark. To show how GOD already loves. Not that GOD loves, but what love looks like and how we know it.
The naming of Jesus as Messiah and the naming of Simon as Peter is such a sign. It is the revealing of love as it exists, not because it is requested.
A parenting tip we read some time ago reminded Rose and I that parents ought not make their children kiss them. Our place as parents isn’t to receive affection from our children as a payment or from demanding that behavior. We aren’t to impose rules that require affection or give our children The Top 5 Reasons to Kiss Your Parents guilt trip.
Our job is to show our children what love is like so they can know what love actually is. That they can feel love before they can know to express it.
So we learned not to force our children to kiss our cheeks, but kiss theirs. It is affection and praise when she wins and when she loses; when he falls and when he celebrates. That love isn’t a reward or an accomplishment; it isn’t something to withhold or legalize. Love is given like a gift and revealed so that it might be known.
Our insecurities or fears or rules or expectations don’t reveal love. Probably they reveal our neuroses.
Jesus warns the disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees right after getting ambushed by them and right before this morning’s part of the story. He warns them because their teaching didn’t reveal love or encourage it. Teachings that are so like our own: about obedience to authority, condemning the outsider, ignoring the plight of the weak, making love transactional.
In all of the ways we as Children of the Living GOD fail to reflect GOD’s love, we fail to teach love itself. We teach obedience and condemnation and selfishness. We reveal nothing like love itself. We reveal the evil of expectation–like Satan and the Pharisees–of certainty and affection, not for people, but for the status quo: for a world ruled by empire; a world more comfortable with the violence of authority than the genuine care for the afflicted. Such as listening to what 50 years of police brutality feels like. Certainly this is nothing like love that we offer. Nothing like GOD’s love.
when a rock is not a rock
All of this colors the way Jesus turns to His disciples to ask them who they think He is. I don’t think this is a test, but a check in. Where are they right now?
Peter’s response, as we know, is like the kid who gets the right answer without doing the right work. He doesn’t reason it or know it or prove that he’s smarter or more faithful than the rest. He gets there, as Jesus points out, because GOD reveals it to him. And this is the point here: it isn’t Peter. It isn’t him. It isn’t his being smart or praying right. it isn’t his dedication or because he has listened to Jesus better. This is something that can only come from GOD.
So when Jesus names him Peter, like Petra (rock), calling him the foundation, Jesus is saying this without regard for Peter’s personal talent or skills. We mistake the naming of Peter as reflective of his character, rather than GOD’s.
In all accounts; before this moment and after; reveal that Peter isn’t sturdy or solid. He is the definition of a flimsy and malleable disciple. He may in fact be like the sand Jesus warns us not to build on. But it isn’t that Peter is like a rock as we know it, but a rock as GOD reveals it in Peter! Peter teaches us what a rock can be to GOD!
We get confused and conflicted and troubled and it is OK! The church can handle it! Because this isn’t about human skill or reason, but the subversive love of GOD.
finding/revealing the love of GOD
This passage is one of the most written about in all of the Greek Scriptures. Often it is used to justify the papacy. Peter, the Roman church leader, regarded as first pope. The cornerstone and rock of the church. So like the disciples, who in verse 16:7 hear about the yeast of the Pharisees and think Jesus is talking about bread. Too literal; not revealed.
This rock doubts. He rejects Jesus three times. He struggles to stand up to Roman authorities after Jesus is gone. He isn’t monolithic or hierarchical. Neither is the church as GOD knows it. Neither are we.
We doubt and struggle. We long to make our children love us or impose rules on them rather than freely offer our love. Our faith is chaotic and troubling. But it is supposed to be. From Jacob to Jonah to Jesus, we see wrestling with and running away from and doubting the very existence of GOD’s love. We see struggles and pain and it is from that place that we race to simple solutions and weak authorities to tell us how to make the pain go away. And every time we could stop and listen to the voice who says Don’t be afraid! Over and over. Don’t be afraid! The Messiah who calms the storm and encourages us to feed the multitudes in the midst of scarcity, who says that signs are all around if we would just look at them.
Signs that show us how to love and respect and give and hope that in our darkest time we can live again. Signs that reveal how to reveal love to others so that we both might learn. Signs from the most unlikely of places.
May you know the love that GOD has for you, see the love GOD has for every human being, and may we learn to share that love, respecting every person as a blessed, loved, and cherished child of GOD.