Cry Out At The Gates

Week of Sunday 24 August – Pentecost 11
 Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some <<- men: certainly or indeed say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, <<- John Petty: the very last two verses of the Old Testament, Malachi 4: 5-6, say:  "Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes." and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah,<<- that is; the Christ the Son of the living God. <<- Hosea 1:10:  "...in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people’, it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’"17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter,<<- Greek: petros and on this rock <<-Greek: petra I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I 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 <<- Loader: Binding and loosing reflects technical language and refers both to binding and releasing interpretations of law (scripture) and their consequences.  in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

As they drew near to Washington DC Jesus said to them, "Who do you say that I am?" And he asked them again as they drew near to Canberra, and to Adelaide,  and as they walked past the businesses,  churches, and shops in every small town. "Who do you say that I am?"  

It is no accident that the story begins at Caesarea Philippi because it is the seat of government; the Tetrach Phillip named it after Caesar and himself. Jesus is laying down a challenge to the disciples, and to us. Are you on the side of the government and the powerful, or have you committed to me—  to the Kingdom of Heaven to which I point?

That challenge remains. There is no such thing as a Christian country. There is the Kingdom of Heaven come near, and countries and institutions which fall short. In the Romans reading for this week Paul says, "2Do not be conformed to this world, [or, age] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:1-2)

We may see that Jesus is fierce for righteousness like John the Baptist. We may see he is a great prophet of God like Elijah. We can even understand he is a suffering prophet like Jeremiah, but none of this counts unless we confess that he is Messiah, Son of God. This  confession is not a credo, not what I say I believe, but a praxis, what I live.

Bill Loader points out a subtle difference between Mark's story of Caesarea Philippi and Matthew's edition of the story. In Mark 8, Peter's confession is the great breakthrough recognition that Jesus is the Messiah. This is not so in Matthew. In Matthew the disciples have already confessed him to be Son of God in the episode on the sea. (Matthew 14:33) Bill says

So instead of the passage celebrating a turning point in recognising who Jesus is, as in Mark, it has become in Matthew a celebration of what the church is...

Matthew makes extraordinary claims about those who are "my church"; that is the "called out" ones.   Like Mark, he offers immediate boundaries and correctives which, sadly, we too often forget. Bill again:

Next week's passage will show that it is possible for [Blessèd] Peter to be a Satan to Christ and the gospel. History has many examples where Peter's success rate has been matched.... The foundation for such authority and confidence is that Jesus is the Christ and this cannot be appreciated until we know the whole story (16:20). The whole story portrays brokenness in compassion which God affirms by resurrection. Without the whole story (and without next week's passage) the dangers are enormous. The church has always been in danger of becoming one of the powers which we are called to confront. That reality is lived out in history - on a grand scale, but also in each of us. The will to power is very seductive, not least in ministry.

How do we make sense today of the community of Matthew's conviction that they are the "called out" (Greek ekklesia, translated as church) of Jesus, and understand what this means?

It will help to get beyond the biological connotations of being a "son." If we are embarrassed by the title Son of God, then we may be conflating biology with a metaphor for conferred authority.  

Biblically, "son" is often a term of authority, not biology. Sometimes a biological son is also a son with authority, but we need to be clear which meaning is intended. For example,  Jesus is "Son of God," not because the Spirit is his birth father, but because God has chosen him and conferred authority upon him. (Mathew 3:17) Matthew's stories of Jesus' birth indicate this was no late or casual choice on God's part but is a choice of long standing and part of the whole scheme of Israel's being. In the contemporary culture Julius "Caesar's will named Octavius [Augustine] as his adopted son and heir."  (Wikipedia. See also the link on adoption.)

If Jesus had been female then she would have been Daughter of God. There is nothing necessarily or intrinsically male or masculine about Jesus except the accidents of history and culture.

Despite this, Matthew is using an extended gender based metaphor.

The kings of Israel were the "sons of God." We see this in Psalm 2: 7

7 I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
   today I have begotten you. 

Second, Son of God is being "played in tune" with Son of Man. This title Son of Man comes from Daniel 7:13 and its significance in Matthew is neatly highlighted by Brian McLaren.

Daniel 7 ... describes bestial empires that dominate and destroy everything in their path. This is how all empires behave, including the American Empire, when they have excessive power and not enough accountability (driven by a story of domination). Then, up to the throne of God comes a “Son of Man,” a frail human being. Son of Man could be translated as a New Generation of Humanity — to this one a new Kingdom is given which will last forever. Son of Man in the context of Daniel 7 is both an individual and a community. (Notes from a DVD quoted by Paul Nuechterlein)

Finally, Peter is called son of Jonah by Jesus. (cf. John's gospel where he is called son of John.) Jonah was legendary for spending three days in the belly of a great fish, a kind of Leviathan, or monster of chaos. Yet he escaped from the monster. In the same way Jesus spends three days in the belly of the monster death, but also cannot be held there.

What authority is Jesus giving Peter and those who build upon him? We are given authority to be children of suffering! For what we find after our reading this week— our reading should never be read without the one which follows—  is the kind of authority to which the extended "son" metaphor is pointing:

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ 23But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

All this authority is for suffering! There is an authority here which is contrary to our word's understanding of authority. It clearly claims power over the political powers; Jesus allows himself to be called Messiah and Son of God at the Empire's seat of power. And yet he submits to that power and allows it to destroy him. The idea that he would confront it as a military messiah is explicitly disowned: Get behind me, Satan!

He confronts the wrong of the world. But the power that overcomes the Leviathan of death is not found by forcing the world to conform to him as Empires do. His power, his being Messiah, is found in his suffering and death at the hands of Empire.

He is vitally interested in justice and right practice of the Law, yet there is a kind of disinterest in his claim to authority. The Authorities are roundly criticised by him throughout the gospel, but there is no sense of him trying to remove them. They are almost irrelevant in his picture of the world; seeking earthly power does not seem to be on his agenda.  

The church is built upon the petra of Petros; the rock of Peter. There is a very definite claim by Matthew that the Petrine tradition in the church is the normative tradition, but it is not a claim to world government. Instead, the church will confront the gates of Hades.

Hades is both place and person. It is a Greek rendition of the place of the dead; a Sheol, and as Petty reminds us, "in Greek mythology, Hades, along with Zeus and Poseidon, claimed to rule the cosmos." Perhaps the goal of gaining of earthly power fails to recognise that being top of the political heap misses something of the essence of humanity and of ultimate human concerns. Perhaps the concerns of the Herods, and even of Caesar himself,  are small beer in the Kingdom of God, and there is something much more profound and important about the reality of all that is.

Built upon the rock that is Peter son of Jonah,  we too are to be taken into the belly of the monster, the Beast which like those in Daniel 7, pretends to power. It is this which confirms us as a Daughter or a Son. It is this which protects us from seeking to be seated in the plush leather of Caesarea Philippi and Canberra,  and being conformed to the world. It is this which can protect the church from becoming the abusive power we have so often been.

We walk in dangerous territory.  If we are a loyal Australian, rather than a Christian who finds themselves in Australia, we are slipping away from Peter's confession. We may pray for the welfare of the city we are in, (Jeremiah 29:7) and work for its good— we must!— but it is not our city.

It cannot be our city. We are called follow the Christ out of the city Caesarea Philippi, and travel with him on the road to Jerusalem. If we seek political power to rule we risk becoming a "Satan." Jerusalem kills the prophets and stones those sent to it. (Matthew 23:27) Success in Jerusalem is failure.

•••

How then do we praxis our confession of faith? What will mean that we are breaking open the gates of Hades which bind people with fear? If we cannot have worldly power how do we not simply withdraw into silence? Richard Beck says, "for my part, the only way I know to save the world is by going to church."

The church to which he refers in his post is comprised of Hispanic folk, Black folk, and White folk like himself. They are people "called out" to live differently to their environment of "racist enculturation and deeply institutionalized systems of inequality." 

It is being just and compassionate church, and therefore inclusive church, that lets us experience and see a wider vision than earthly power. What matters is humanity, not power; compassion, not success; including and loving all, not winning. Really being church abandons all the worldly power which divides, excludes and destroys. It lives in contradiction of the "deeply institutionalized systems of inequality."

Seeking to be a just, compassionate and inclusive church—
     this goes beyond race and includes income,
     social status, gender, sexuality, employment....
—  is what tempers and heals or lust for power. It makes us cosmically significant. It gives a voice which has something to say. It makes us real.  We learn we are not "making this up"; he is Lord— look what he has shown us and done to us! And it will cost us.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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