When Jesus had come to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They said, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. He said to them, “But who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Then Jesus said to him, “How blessed are you, Simon, son of John! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven has. I tell you that you are Peter, and it is on this rock that I will build my church, and the powers of hell will not conquer it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you prohibit on earth will have been prohibited in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will have been permitted in heaven.”
Then he strictly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he would have to go to Jerusalem and suffer a great deal because of the elders, the high priests, and the scribes. Then he would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God be merciful to you, Lord! This must never happen to you!” But Jesus turned around and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an offense to me, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts!” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me continually. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
I know I’ve mentioned before the story I was told of the German soldier in World War II who received a mild shrapnel wound while on the front line and was told by his commanding officer to take himself to the field hospital.
When he got to the field hospital there were two doors – one for officers and one for enlisted men. He took the second door, as he wasn’t an officer. He then found two more doors – one for Nazi party members, one for non-members. He took that latter door as he was not a member. This led him to a third set of doors – one saying ’seriously injured’ and one saying ’not seriously injured’. He took the latter door and found himself back out on the street. He returned to his camp and reported to hs commander. He asked him how he had found the hospital. He said, ’well, it didn’t do a lot for me, but they are tremendously efficient!’
And I think that sums up the experience of church (at least at an institutional level) for so many of us. We’re not really sure how much good it is doing anybody but it’s an impressively efficient institution!
I remember well a few years ago I had a visit from a group of professional consultants who had been employed by the Diocese to look into the ways individual churches related to Head Office. I was told that our parish had been specially selected from any number of parishes, and these guys wanted to know what our experience had been. I was seriously encouraged by this and spoke very frankly to the consultant and at length about my concerns as to the way the Diocese treated smaller parishes, the way I’d seen good people sidelined, and the way in which voiceless people tended to get chewed up in the Diocesan machinery.
The consultant had to stop me mid-rant, unfortunately, and he told me (rather pain-faced) that his brief was not to improve on pastoral care or fairness, but only efficiency!
It’s worth reflecting on this, I’d suggest, as we think about the role we (the church) should be playing in today’s world – a world that rapidly seems to be falling apart around about us – and it’s worth reflecting on this particularly today, as we look back at this passage in Matthew 19 that we associate with the very foundation of the church – that scene where Peter is first consecrated Pope!
Well, that’s how the Catholic side of our church community would tend to see the scene: “You are Peter”, says Jesus, “and it is on this rock that I will build my church, and the powers of hell will not conquer it.
Powerful, triumphalist, this is clearly the beginning of something big, and the powers of hell will not prevail against it!
And I know the good Evangelicals amongst us will say that the ‘rock’ upon which Jesus founds this church is not so much the man Peter as it is his confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” – that the church is founded on this truth rather than on any fallible human being – and that may be right, but my concern, quite frankly, is less with who or what the thing was founded on as it is with what it was that was being founded, for I’m not sure any of the people there then had any idea what it was they were getting themselves into!
There they were – a motley crew of fisher-folk, freedom fighters and taxation agents. Could any of those disciples possibly envisaged that within a few generations of their time their church would develop into an enormously powerful, global institution with money and property and the power to appoint kings and bring down governments.
Can we imagine how those disciples would have reacted had they been able to get a glimpse of the global network that their church was going to develop into 2000 years thence, with its torrid history of inquisitions and crusades, and with all the money and power and sophistication.
Yes, there have been moments of great glory but also long periods of great shame, where we have abused members and non-members alike, crucified our clergy, and then tried to cover it all up lest we put our resources at risk.
Could any of those disciples have envisaged what the church was going to become? Could Jesus have envisaged what the church was going to become? There were a few things that Jesus said quite openly He didn’t know. Could this have been one of them?
I’ve always blamed Constantine.
Like a lot of us, I tend to romanticise the early church somewhat – the church as we see it in the book of Acts, for example. “All the believers were together, and they shared everything with one another. They made it their practice to sell their possessions and goods and to distribute the proceeds to anyone who was in need. They had a single purpose and went to the temple every day. They ate at each other’s homes and shared their food with glad and humble hearts.” (Acts 2:44-46)
It sounds like Heaven, doesn’t it (which is exactly what it is supposed to sound like, of course)? No one was concerned about money or power or even with for Councils and creeds (or so it seems). So when did the rot set in?
Constantine. That’s always been my answer.
For those who don’t know, Constantine was the first ever politician to align himself with the Christian faith in the hope that this might give him victory over his enemies. He was the first but by no means the last!
His great vision took place just before his showdown with Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in the year 312. Constantine (for those who don’t know the story) saw a cross in the sky on the night before the battle, and the words “by this conquer!”
He then ‘turned to Christ’ (as his General) and fought under the sign of the cross, and slaughtered his enemies in the name of Jesus, thus starting a tradition that we still live with today.
Anyway, I’ve always tended to blame Constantine, believing that this was the point at which the church transitioned from being a dynamic, compassionate community of persons living on the edge to being the establishment (with all the bloodshed and institutionalised violence that comes with the title).
Reading our Gospel passage again this year though I’m now wondering whether I’ve been a bit too hard on Constantine – at least in the sense that I’m realising that the lust for power didn’t necessarily start with him. Indeed, in our Gospel reading today it’s already on display in the person of Peter!
Jesus began to show his disciples that he would have to go to Jerusalem and suffer a great deal because of the elders, the high priests, and the scribes. Then he would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God be merciful to you, Lord! This must never happen to you!”
Jesus’ response to Peter, of course, was astonishingly harsh: “Get behind me, Satan!” He says, making clear to us that Peter isn’t just mistaken about the course Jesus’ future is taking. Rather, Peter’s entire agenda is on the wrong track!
Peter, like James and John and the other disciples, had a very clear image of where Jesus’ campaign was leading, and it was leading to triumph and to political power. Peter and his team could not divorce their spiritual aspirations from their hopes for a sovereign and independent state. Their hopes and prayers had always had that political framework in the background.
And why not? These people had laboured under the Roman yoke for long enough. They desired freedom. They desired justice. And they had every reason to think that in Jesus they had found the one who was going to give a fresh start to their entire nation. And so this talk of opposition, failure, suffering, and death had no place in Peter’s campaign vocabulary. This was not the path for Jesus, for Peter, or for their people.
And Peter’s position makes sense (even if it is the position of Satan) just as Constantine’s position makes sense (even if he was being driven by Satan too), which is what leads me to think that maybe the real issue here is not Peter or Constantine as such, but really the Gospel itself!
For really, in as much as Constantine and Peter before him might have been driven by an ungodly lust for power (for at least a part of their lives) their position on all these things is straightforward. It’s the Gospel that’s the problem! It’s the association of the glory of God with the suffering and humiliation of the cross that doesn’t make sense!
“Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on….”
“Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognises him in the humility and shame of the cross.”
(Luther, Heidelberg Disputation. 22, 20)
Let me cut to the chase here:
I believe that the Gospel is divine revelation, and I think the most obvious sign of the Gospel’s divine origins is the fact that it is so counter-intuitive.
I do believe that at the basis of almost all religion, humanly conceived, is that basic religious intuition we all share – that good should be rewarded and evil punished.
That was how Emmanuel Kant formulated it, at any rate. It’s that fundamental spiritual intuition that we can’t explain but that we all have (and I find that atheists build their lives around this intuition just as consistently as do religious persons) – that good should be rewarded and evil punished.
And while I don’t mean to trivialise anybody else’s religious tradition, my (admittedly limited) knowledge of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism would suggest that these religions (and probably any number of others) do all sound this same theme.
And the church too, over the centuries, has repeatedly fallen back into preaching the same message of “all good children go to Heaven”, whereas bad boys who don’t eat what was served to them and who are rude to their parents, along with Catholics, all go to hell! (c’mon, I know some of you were brought up like that too!)
But this is not the Gospel of Jesus, is it? Indeed, Jesus confronted the simplistic voice of our religious intuition at both ends – most obviously in the Gospel of Grace, where He tells us that the bad boys, along with the good, are all invited to the great King’s feast, and less obviously in (what Kierkegaard called) “the Gospel of suffering”, where we discover that good is not always rewarded, and that you can do your best and receive no more for your efforts than a kick in the teeth or nail in the arm and spear in the side!
This is the Good News of the Gospel, and it is good news, even if it is not the news we were initially expecting. It is counter-intuitive in so many ways, and that’s why we need to keep meeting together and re-telling the stories of Jesus, and hearing it again from Jesus himself.
For we only need to take our eyes off Jesus for a short time and we’ll find that we start building our community around our spiritual intuitions, as Peter wanted to, and that’s when the a community of disciples starts to become more like the Nazi field hospital than a church – wonderfully efficient, but ultimately not of much use to anybody.
May God give us Grace to keep our eyes on Jesus, so that He might remain the centre of all we do and of all we are. Amen.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, 21st August, 2011