I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
my salvation has gone out
and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
and for my arm they hope.
All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
for great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly;
but the haughty he perceives from far away.
Do not be conformed to this world, 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.
Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And 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. And 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.’
This text lays a foundation for both Romans and Matthew. First, look to the rock from which you were hewn; remember your roots.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many.
Here there are echoes of the call of Abraham in Genesis 12,
I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
In verses 4 and 5, “the peoples” are rendered in the Septuagint as ἐθνῶν and ἔθνη; the Gentiles; the non-Jews. I think the key is that being a blessing to all people – inclusion, not exclusion – is in keeping with God’s covenant with Abraham and Israel’s deepest heritage.
We have now moved into the section of Romans, chapters 12-16, where Paul deals with the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. The letter is written from Corinth sometime in the mid-50s, and there had been an expulsion of Jews – and therefore also Jewish Christians – from Rome during the reign of Claudius. (There had also been an expulsion under Tiberius.) They had been allowed to come back to Rome during the reign of Nero. One can imagine the tensions that this may have caused; Jewish Christians returning to their communities only to find that Gentile Christians were now “in charge”. It’s a bit like some congregations were “newcomers” trying to take over too quickly! (And, IMHO, I suspect that the Gentile Christians were always considered newcomers by the Jewish Christians.)
One can sense Paul’s desire to reconcile these differences as he uses the same “body” analogy that he used in an effort to bring unity to the community at Corinth. And prior to that he writes,
“Do not be conformed to this world, 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.”
The Greek word for perfect is telion; that which brings about the perfect result or goal. The transformation (metamorphosis) is from being conformed to the way that the world and the structures of the world work to how the body of Christ functions. It is in sync with what Paul says when he writes, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” All of those were categories of social caste and structure in Roman society; castes and structures that had no place in the Christian community. I am reminded of a piece written on “Pauline Ethics” by Dr. David Fredrickson at Luther Seminary,
“The community of believers is a speaking place, where the future of the community is determined through unhindered conversation. To grasp the radical openness of the Christian congregation, it is important to note who was not granted freedom of speech in ancient democracies: women, slaves, foreigners, and children. Paul tore down the barriers to full participation through his conviction that the Spirit grants free speech to all who belong to Christ. For the church to be the church, the voices of all must be heard.”
I suspect that many of these tensions and issues still exist within our congregations and communities today. From my experience, I think the hardest barriers for a congregation to break down are the socio-economic castes. It is something that we would do well to examine.
Caesarea Philippi had been annexed to Judea during the reign of Herod the Great. In honor of his patron, Herod built a temple to Augustus alongside the existing temple to Pan. His son, Philip changed its name to Caesarea Philippi in honor of Augustus. Following Philip, Agrippa II made it the administrative capital and built an extensive palace there. Vespasian rested and quartered his troops there prior to the siege of Jerusalem. Agrippa II sent some of his own troops to aid in the siege.
In short, the point is that Caesarea Philippi was not a politically neutral venue for Jesus to ask, “Who do people say that I am?” And it was certainly not a neutral atmosphere for Peter to aver, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Those were imperial titles. Caesar was the Christ, the son of the god – the Caesar – that had preceded him. The confession was treasonous.
In Mark, which I assume that Matthew has before him as he writes, Peter’s confession – coming halfway through Mark’s gospel – serves as a “hinge”. It is the turning point. Prior to are miracle stories, healings, exorcisms, power over nature, and even a raising from the dead. Then, in the face of all that, the question is asked, “Who do people say…?” After Peter’s confession the rest of Mark’s gospel deals with the fact that Jesus will be crucified at Jerusalem – and what that means for his disciples and discipleship. Mark’s intra-Jewish theological argument is, “What does it mean to follow a crucified Messiah?” In the wake of the thousands that died and/or were crucified in the siege of Jerusalem, what does it mean to follow someone who also wound up crucified outside the city’s walls?
How then does the confession function in Matthew’s narrative? Certainly Mark’s theology of the cross, the via crucis, still holds; as Jesus says a few verses later, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For 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?”
It’s insightful how Matthew redacts Mark’s text. Matthew inserts, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And 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.I 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.” It is not an insignificant insertion.
Of course, it does give Peter preeminence and authority among the disciples and in the early church. The “you” is second person singular. (The question of Petrine succession is another issue; and there is the Paul/Peter confrontation in Galatians.) But then there is also the question, “What does preeminence look like among disciples called to follow the way of the cross?” Certainly the mother of James and John doesn’t quite get it in chapter 20. (In Mark, James and John ask the question for themselves; I’m not sure what Matthew’s “mother redaction” is all about.) Peter doesn’t even get it in the following verses. “Peter, get behind me. Get back in line. I lead; you follow.”
And then there is the matter of “the keys” and “binding and loosing”. Luther in his Small Catechism reinterprets or expands this to be a power or authority that Christ give to the church to forgive and/or bind. (Heresy alert!?) Maybe so, but even such an interpretation smacks of a type of imperialism when understood apart from a discipleship via crucis; instances of abuse abound.
I think that an interpretation more attuned to Matthew – where Jesus is the “new Moses” reinterpreting the law; creating a new Torah for Jewish Christians – is that it is a caution, a warning, that “what goes around, comes around”. It goes back to Jesus first sermon – teaching section – in Matthew 7. In short, “Be careful what you bind up, because you will also be bound by the same.” As noted in Matthew 7: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
It would be a good question to explore in a sermon. What does it mean for people of the cross to have authority? How will we as the body of Christ loose the bound? How will we be about the task of forgiveness and reconciliation in a culture that is becoming increasingly polarized?
Grace and peace,
Pastor Don Carlson