Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Peter's Declaration About Jesus: Head of the Church or Discipleship?

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time have probably read through the comments section of several postings and been introduced to Kathy.  Kathy has repeatedly offered the Roman Catholic position on many teachings of Christianity, and, of course, we have butted heads repeatedly because of some very different, basic assumptions.

One particular passage she harped on me about was Matthew 16:13-20 or Peter's declaration that Jesus is the Messiah.  This passage is used to justify the primacy of Peter as the head of the Church and then subsequent passing on of that lineage to each Pope (head of the Church) throughout the centuries.  Of course, Protestants do not read the passage in this fashion.

Recently, I preached a sermon on the text immediately following Matthew 16:13-20, and as I read through that text, I marveled at how this chapter tends to be divided up and separated instead of read as a coherent whole.  And, I submit, if taken as a coherent whole, these passages are much less about who is head of the Church and instead focuses on the nature of discipleship and on the nature of human sinfulness.

First, let's put everything together:

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 say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, 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, the Son 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, and on this rock 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 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.’  24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27 ‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’   (New Revised Standard Version)
 I found it extremely helpful to put the events of this snippet into a parallel format:

There are more than a few interesting things of note when you put these passages side by side.

In the first exchange between Peter and Jesus right after Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus points out this knowledge did not come from Peter himself.  Peter did not acquire it on his own.  Peter did not work for it.  "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you," Jesus says, "but my Father in heaven."

Much like salvation, the knowledge that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, is not something a human can work his or her way up to.  God is involved in the process bringing a person to this knowledge.  Belief--or in the Greek: ultimate trust--is something given by God.  I think this is an extremely important part of this conversation.

Which moves us into the next piece by Jesus, and this is where much of the problem of interpretation lies.  Jesus says, "I tell you, you are Peter (Greek: Petros) and upon this rock (Greek: petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."  The linking between Peter's name meaning rock and the rock upon which the church is built becomes the proof many Roman Catholics use to say the Church is founded upon the apostle Peter.  However, the Greek is a little more ambiguous--especially since every ancient manuscript we have comes without any sort of punctuation.  The Greek could be pointing toward Peter's declaration about Jesus--that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God as the "rock" upon which the Church is founded. 

Fortunately, there is help in working through this issue, and that help comes in the parallel passage surrounding Peter.  For whereas in the first passage, tons of praise is heaped towards Peter when Peter announces what God has revealed to him; in the second, Peter receives quite the opposite.

For after Jesus and Peter have their first exchange, Jesus announces that He will head to Jerusalem to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, killed and to rise again.

This was not in the Messianic narrative.  No Jew of that time believed the Messiah would undergo such a trial.  What Jesus announced about His future did not gel with what every good Jew knew the Messiah would do.  Enter another encounter with Peter.

Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Him.  As I wrote my sermon not too long ago, the Greek verb translated "rebuke" actually means to assign the proper value given a particular situation.  The situation is that Jesus is the Messiah, and Peter has to give Jesus the proper value.

Jesus reacts quite harshly because Peter's words hearken back to the temptation Jesus faced from Satan in chapter four verses 1-11 in the book of Matthew.  "Get behind me Satan," Jesus retorts.  "For you are a (Greek: skandalon) stumbling-block..."

Interestingly enough, these parallel meetings, Jesus invokes spiritual powers in regards to Peter's words.  "My heavenly Father revealed this to you."  "Get behind me Satan."

Continuing the intriguing links, in these parallel meetings Jesus invokes the imagery of rocks.  "On this rock, I will build my church..."  "You are a stumbling-block..."

Did you notice the subtle, but important shift in Jesus' speaking?  Did you notice how in the first meeting, Jesus says, "Upon this rock..."  Jesus did not say, "Upon you, I will build my church..."  Yet, in the second and parallel meeting, Jesus is absolutely specific.  "You (Peter) are a stumbling-block..."

I believe the shift in the language is not an accident.  I believe Jesus is not specific in the first encounter because Jesus is referring to the ultimate foundation of the Church--the fact that He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  The gates of Hades most certainly cannot prevail against this statement.  If we need any further evidence that Jesus isn't referring to Peter, it comes just a few short verses later when the gates of Hades--Satan--has prevailed in Peter's own heart and mind.  Jesus doesn't mince words, "Get behind me Satan.  You are a stumbling block."

Jesus turns His back on Peter at this point, and He reveals the true essence of discipleship--taking up the cross and following Him.  Suffering, death, and resurrection are central to discipleship--and trusting the one who upon the cross brought reconciliation to the world.

Peter in these parallel encounters provides us with a fantastic glimpse into our own lives as those who follow Jesus.  At one moment, we are praised because we get it.  We know Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  We did not acquire this knowledge on our own, but it came to us and was implanted in our hearts by God the Father through the working of the Holy Spirit.  But we too are quick to turn around and tell Jesus what we think He should do for us--following our own path and not His.  We too become stumbling-blocks.

And Jesus calls us back to the cross.  Jesus leads us to the place where He won our salvation and our reconciliation to God.  These two interchanges between Peter and Jesus lead us straight to the Gospel--what God has done for us.

For certain, Roman Catholics will disagree vehemently with this interpretation.  They have for centuries, and I have no issue with them doing so.  Nothing will change on that note; however, I think putting these two encounters in parallel allows one to get a better grasp of what is going on here.  It isn't about who gets to be head of the Church--it's about discipleship and how we both accomplish it and fail at the same time.

1 comment:

Kathy Suarez said...

Wikipedia gives the facts. The Reformation and the breaking-apart of the Church turned on Luther's new interpretation of Matthew 16:18 --

In January 1519, at Altenburg in Saxony, the papal nuncio Karl von Miltitz adopted a more conciliatory approach. Luther made certain concessions to the Saxon, who was a relative of the Elector, and promised to remain silent if his opponents did.[56] The theologian Johann Eck, however, was determined to expose Luther's doctrine in a public forum. In June and July 1519, he staged a disputation with Luther's colleague Andreas Karlstadt at Leipzig and invited Luther to speak.[57] Luther's boldest assertion in the debate was that Matthew 16:18 does not confer on popes the exclusive right to interpret scripture, and that therefore neither popes nor church councils were infallible.[58] For this, Eck branded Luther a new Jan Hus, referring to the Czech reformer and heretic burned at the stake in 1415. From that moment, he devoted himself to Luther's defeat.[59]