Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
‘On this rock I will build my church.’ (Matthew 16:18). The church in Rome and the doctrine of the primacy of Peter is built upon a single sentence Jesus uttered in a place called Caesarea Philippi. As Lutherans, we can trace a straight line from the Roman Papacy to the financial and spiritual corruption that built the magnificent St. Peter’s cathedral to the Protestant Reformation and the formation of a half dozen Protestant denominations that exist today. Peter got it right –Jesus is the Messiah—AND he got it wrong –forbidding Jesus to die on a cross. (We’ll explore that part of the story next week.)
Down through the centuries, Christians who get the gospel partly right will sadly repeat Peter’s error again and again, not so much by denying the cross (although they will do that too), but by claiming Jesus’ words award them special power to exclude anyone who does not affiliate with their unique brand of the faith – or that only clergy people can control the keys of love and forgiveness.
Our gospel includes one of the relatively rare uses of the word ‘ekklesia,’ from which we derive our word ‘church.’ If you’re like me, Jesus’ promise to build his church on Peter, ‘the rock’ connotes mental images of great big beautiful solemn and solid church buildings. Yet, the actual word paints a picture, not of a building, but of a people—literally, ‘the called-out.’ The question is what are we called out from? What are we called out for?
I think we find a clue in Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (16:13). Studying the gospel this week, I did a double take. To my way of thinking, ‘The Son of Man’ is a synonym for the Messiah. It would be like if Jesus’ question included the answer. ‘Who do people say that I, the messiah, is? Instead, Jesus’ self-proclaimed a title comes from the Book of Daniel which was a popular book in the 1st Century. Daniel chapter seven outlines a hopeful political vision of a hero called ‘the Son of Man’ who brings an end to the reign of oppressive empires.
We find another clue from the setting of this story. Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, about twenty-five miles north of their home base in Galilee, a favorite vacation spot for Roman officials, it probably felt like another planet. An ancient temple to Baal had been there and another complex there was devoted to the worship of a half-goat, half man deity named “Pan.” Just a few decades before our story the Roman emperor, Augustus, had placed governance of the city in the hands of Herod the Great. To express his gratitude Herod built a large temple made of white marble dedicated to his benefactor, Caesar Augustus. After Herod’s death, his son, Philipp renamed the city, Caesarea Philippi. It was a place that represented the power of the empire and reiterated the values of imperial theology: Caesar is lord, and Rome always wins at any cost.
Part of what we get wrong about this gospel, I think, is not noticing that Peter’s confession ‘Jesus is the Messiah,’ was not some abstract doctrinal statement but a declaration of who’s side he was on, Jesus’ or Caesar’s? “In a place where the power and methods of the empire were evident, and where Caesar was clearly lord, Jesus is asking his disciples if they align with the empire’s means and ends, or with his Kingdom of God message.” (Pastor Josh Scott of GracePointe Church in Nashville, Sunday Musings, 8/27/23). “You are the Messiah,’ Peter said, “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Given the choice between Lord Caesar and Lord Jesus, and Peter is choosing Jesus. You are King Jesus, who will liberate us from the bestial power of King Caesar, now and for all time.
Jesus came to give us a way of being human that does away with empires that operate with violence and force. What Peter could not foresee, and what he got wrong (which we will hear more about next week,) is that God’s kingdom comes with a completely different kind of politics. Instead of a politics based on law backed with the force of sanctioned violence, the politics of God’s kingdom are re-centered the law on love by way of the cross. “Violence cannot defeat violence. Hate cannot defeat hate. Fear cannot defeat fear. Domination cannot defeat domination. God’s way is different” (Brian D. MClaren, We Make the Road by Walking, pp. 118-19). “For Jesus’s earliest followers this declaration was a way of affirming that Jesus’s message of nonviolence, abundance, generosity, compassion, and inclusivity align with the very character of God” (Scott).
Moreover, Jesus gave over the keys to this new kingdom, not to a person, not to an institution, but to a people who are called-out to love and serve God and to advance the kingdom of justice wherever they find themselves living and operating in the world. God builds on the rock that human builders would reject. Peter, who himself at times is a stumbling block to Jesus, rocky soil that withers faith at times of persecution. None of us would choose this kind of Rock on which to build the church. But Jesus does.
From the beginning, when God created Adam and Eve, God brought them all the animals to be named. God put them in charge of stewarding creation. Despite our failure to understand, like Peter, our limitations and propensity to use our power for selfish ends, God has given you a lot of keys. God’s dumb idea is our great privilege. God’s work is in our hands. What an awesome task and responsibility! It is the defining mission of our lives. It is the great adventure begun in us at baptism.
The mainline church finds itself today at a Caesarea Philippi–like moment. Christian Nationalism is presenting a Caesar-like Jesus, who is willing to dominate anyone to achieve his ends—through a church controlled by white, cis, straight men. “Though Jesus didn’t bow to the tempter to gain the kingdoms of the world, some of his followers are enthusiastically doing so today. In the face of this rising allegiance to a counterfeit Christ, the Jesus of history has a question for us: “Who do you say that I am?” (Scott).
You and I are holding the key from this gospel to renew the called-out people and to undo the power of empire. Do you remember where you put them? Do wonder how they all work? What happened when you tried them? What shall we lock up and what shall we set free? Even now, Christ is building a house of living stones. “We are his own habitation; he fills our hearts [from] his humble throne, granting life and salvation. Where two or three will seek his face, he in their midst will show his grace, blessings upon them bestowing.” (ELW #652)