by John Shelby Spong
In this episode Jesus asks: “Can one read the signs correctly? Does a clear sunset today anticipate fair weather tomorrow? Do dark clouds announce the presence of a storm? Do you not yet understand about the loaves?” When will his disciples accurately perceive who he is? Those are the questions articulated as Matthew draws his series of Sabbath day stories, designed to fill the weeks between Sukkoth and Dedication, to a close. As he does so, Matthew has Jesus and his disciples arrive in the town of Caesarea Philippi, where he will focus their attention on his identity. Jesus inaugurates this crucial conversation by asking them to disclose the gossip they are hearing: “Who do people say that I am?” Tell me the speculation, he demands.
The disciples give him their answers. Some people say you are John the Baptist, some say you are Elijah and some say you are Jeremiah or one of the prophets. It was all very flattering. Each of these people was a Jewish hero, but it was all still gossip, nothing more. Jesus then changes the dynamic by drawing the conversation to a level where commitment has to replace gossip: “But who do you say that I am?” This question made the issue existential. The disciples were now being asked to put themselves on the line. Peter becomes their voice; that is a frequent pattern. To understand the role Matthew has assigned to Peter, let me lift Peter out of this gospel and see how Matthew has portrayed him.
Matthew first mentions Peter in chapter four. It is the story of when Jesus, walking along the Sea of Galilee, beckons two sets of brothers to become his disciples. Peter, quite characteristically, is the first one to be invited. He is then followed by his brother Andrew. Shortly thereafter on the same lake shore, Jesus calls James and John, the two sons of Zebedee. At this point, the disciples are four in number. All four are fishermen. To be a fisherman was a very low position in Jewish society. It did not require either the ability to read or to write.
That is how Peter enters Matthew’s story. He is not mentioned again until chapter 10, when Matthew simply gives us a list of the twelve disciples. His original order is still intact. Peter is first, then Andrew, followed by James and John. Only then do we learn the names of the other eight. In this gospel, Peter is always listed first. In chapter 14, Peter once again is lifted out of the pack and made to play a pivotal role. This is when the story of Jesus walking on the water is being related. It was Peter’s test and as usual he failed it. Peter wanted confirmation that the ghostlike figure walking on the water was really Jesus. “If it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” Jesus bids him to come. He steps out of the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus, but his courage quickly fails. Fear consumes him and he cries out in panic. Jesus, we are told, lifted him back to his feet and ultimately into the boat. Courage and fear are always coupled in Peter.
Next comes this Caesarea Philippi episode in which Peter is said to be the first to recognize messiah in Jesus. His words, Matthew said, were: “You, Jesus, are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” It is a significant moment in the story. Matthew has Jesus commend Peter on his insight. You have seen beyond the normal limits of human life, Peter. You have articulated a truth that flesh and blood could not have revealed to you. It is that kind of faith and commitment which must form the foundation of my movement. You, Peter, will, therefore, be the rock upon which I will build my church. You, Peter, will hold the keys to the Kingdom. What you bind and loose on earth, shall be bound and loosed in heaven. You will act with my authority, as my surrogate. It was a powerful affirmation.
Peter, however, immediately wobbles. When Jesus begins to tell him what messiah means, his courage once again fails him. Matthew has Jesus say to him: “I must go to Jerusalem. I will suffer many things. I will be put to death and I will rise again.” That is what being messiah requires. Horrified, Peter cries: “God forbid. This shall never happen to you!” The one, who moments earlier, was proclaimed to be the rock is now identified with Satan. So, Peter the man of courage, who sinks on the water, becomes Peter, the man of faith, who is now Satanic.
We meet Peter next in this gospel on the Mount of the Transfiguration (Matt. 17). He is once again the leader, who identifies Jesus with Moses and Elijah, in a trinity of Jewish heroes. He is then rebuked by a voice from heaven for his inability to understand the uniqueness of Jesus. Messiah is not one among equals.
The pattern continues again and again in Matthew. Peter next will claim that he has left all to follow Jesus (Matt. 19:27), but then he will ask Jesus what his reward for doing so will be. He rises and falls on every wave. Next he becomes a braggart. “I will never forsake you” (Matt. 26:33), he claims. Quickly however, his braggadocio fades and his vow to defend Jesus turns first into being one who could not even stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, to being the one who denies Jesus three times.
The last portrait of Peter in Matthew’s gospel is not a picture of a rock, but of a broken man, defeated and weeping bitterly. After this episode Peter never appears again in Matthew’s gospel. He is not mentioned in any of Matthew’s stories of Easter. That surprises people when they finally sort the gospels out from one another and force each gospel to stand, not in one homogenized composite, but alone in the authenticity of each separate book. Nowhere in this gospel is the one called “The Rock” rehabilitated from his denial, collapse and failure.
Nothing in this story of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi is history. There is no evidence that Jesus ever thought of himself as building a church. He certainly did not choose, train and ordain the twelve disciples to be the first bishops to form in the beginning what later came to be called “Apostolic Succession.” He did not designate Peter to be the first Pope. That is little more than the much later, pious claims of those who wanted the authority of Jesus to bolster their own ecclesiastical claims, which made sense only when church and synagogue split apart around 88 CE and the claim had to be made that Jesus had prepared them for this moment.
So, Peter, the classic flip-flopper, the man who always talked better than he acted, is in this gospel a symbol of the struggle that all of Jesus’ followers were destined to have. They had to make sense not only of Jesus’ death, but of what would later be their synagogue expulsion. Peter was the symbol of those who had to act before they could see or claim their future.
Messiah to most Jews meant vindication. Messiah embodied the Jewish hopes that the throne of David would someday be re-established and the nation of Judah would once again be recognized as a country of worth. In their dreams messiah would bring triumph not tragedy, victory not defeat. The disciples of Jesus had to deal with the hard facts that the one they called messiah had been crucified; that did not fit into any part of the traditional expectation.
Despite that reality, something continued to drive his followers in a radically new direction. Something compelled them to re-form themselves as a community after the crucifixion. Something about him transcended every limit of death and defeat. Something about him transformed Canaanites, Samaritans and Gentiles into part of the same family. Something gave his disciples a new vision of who God is and that enabled them to step beyond their boundaries, to discover love without limits and to understand being without status. Something gave them a vision of wholeness. Something empowered them to go where they had never gone before. Something convinced them that everything they meant by the word “God” they had found in the human Jesus of Nazareth. Something enabled them to see that resurrection can come out of crucifixion, that life can emerge out of death and that being can be found, not in the quest for survival, but in the act of giving one’s life away. Something redefined messiah not as a warrior in victory, but as something that can be found in losing, in dying, in powerlessness and in living for another.
Peter stands for every man and every woman who has ever lived through this transition of consciousness. He stands for those who could glimpse the truth long before they could live on the basis of that truth, for those who waffled between faith and fear, between courage and cowardice, between strength and weakness. Peter was the universal symbol of all who struggle in faith.
Matthew was not writing history, he was chronicling the human response whenever the transcendent is engaged. Jesus did not predict his passion, those were rather the stages through which believers had to travel. Christianity was not born in a one time conversion experience, but in the struggle to understand, to be the person one yearned to be, to reverse the human expectation bent on the quest for survival and to discover that God is not found in power, but in weakness, not in life but in death, not in separation but in unity.
The Church of Jesus Christ was never built on solid rock; it was built on a compromised and weak humanity. The Christian life is not the life of victorious winners. It is like the unseen leaven in the loaf that causes the bread to rise; it is like the salt in the soup of life that gives life its flavor; it is like the pinpricks of light that penetrate the darkness. The Christian movement was never designed to dominate the world, or to rule with some claim of divine power. The concept of “Christendom” deeply distorts the gospel. We are rather weak, wobbly, compromised human beings in whom glimpses of the holy can occasionally be seen. God works through the ordinary, the powerless, the human and the broken to bring about the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where unity overcomes all divisions, where love transcends all boundaries, where oneness in God creates a new humanity.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
That is not a creed, that is a confession and into that confession we walk every day of our lives. That is Peter’s identity. He is the symbol of our humanity. With him we walk into a faith we will never capture, for the journey, not the destination, is the meaning of God.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
by John Shelby Spong