Matthew 16:13-18 | Romans 12:4-8
It’s a deeply held truth in the Goringe household – and I know that we are not alone in this – that when a man becomes a father, he loses all ability to judge the quality of a joke, and, indeed, is imbued with a deep and profound ability to make extremely bad jokes. In my case, much to the distress of my children, most of those jokes involve a play on words; I can’t resist a good pun. Problem is, I can’t resist a bad pun either, and I generally can’t tell the difference.
But I do remember a pun a bilingual friend told me at school. It went like this: Two potatoes crossed the road. One of them was ran over, and the other said: “Oh my goodness”. The pun, of course, doesn’t work in translation. Hold that idea for a moment.
Today’s gospel reading brings us perhaps the most influential pun in human history. Having declared that Simon’s proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah, the son of the living God, came to him not from human wisdom, but by divine revelation, Jesus says “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church”. The pun, of course, is in the Greek – the similar sounds of the name Peter (Petros) and the word rock (Petra). “You are Petros, and on this Petra I will build by Church”.
But what is interesting is that just as the pun doesn’t translate into English, it doesn’t work in Aramaic, either. Unless Jesus was speaking in Greek, the joke, the pun, doesn’t work.
So this pun, found only in Matthew’s gospel (written for the Jerusalem Church), is a wordplay that doesn’t work in the language Jesus probably spoke. Which might lead one to suspect that these words were an addition, from the pen of Matthew, intended to boost the status of Peter in the debates that we know raged within the early Church – in particular the debate between Jewish and Gentile Christianity.
And of course, the boosting of the role of Peter is exactly the way the pun has been used throughout history, in the establishment of what became the papacy and of the authority of the hierarchy of the Church.
Peter, we are often told, means “the rock”; Jesus gives Simon that name and declares that he is the rock on which the Church will be built.
But the word Petros, Peter, actually doesn’t mean rock. It means stone. The word Jesus uses when he says “on this rock I will build my Church” (and elsewhere – for instance, the wise man who builds his house on a rock), petra, means the mass of connected rock – bedrock, a cliff, a mountain. Petros, by contrast, specifically means an isolated piece of rock, a stone, something someone could throw.
Without wanting to put too much emphasis on such details, it’s far from clear that the words recorded in Matthew’s gospel were intended to establish Peter as the “rock” on which the Church would be built.
It might be more productive, instead, to explore the play on words this way: Simon, having made his declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, is to the foundation of the Church as a stone is to the mountain – made of the right stuff, but only a small version, a fragment, of the real thing.
Simon – Peter – is stone now, for he has had revealed to him the truth of who Jesus is. But God’s Church will be built not on one small stone, but on the mass of connected rock. Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch even to think that many stones, many Peters, joined together, might make the rock on which the Church can stand so firmly that the gates of hell will not prevail.
But I’ve skipped over what I think might be the more interesting part of this passage. This short conversation between Jesus and his disciples is one of those passages that occurs in all three of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – and which also sits in very much the same place in each narrative. In each, it marks the first place where a human speaker explicitly names Jesus as the Messiah.
He’s been with them for over two years; the idea that he might be the one, the messiah that had been promised, and that John the Baptist had declared was coming soon, must have occurred to them. But it hasn’t crystalized, or hasn’t become clear enough in their minds for them to make the outrageous claim.
And of course, he hasn’t made that claim for himself, either – not directly, unambiguously, at any rate.
It’s as if Jesus didn’t want the title, the label, of Messiah, with all it’s baggage and preconceptions, until the time was right. So he spent two years or more with the disciples, teaching them, sharing his life with them, showing them, like a master showing an apprentice, the ways of the Kingdom of God that he had come to proclaim.
They needed to know him, as Jesus, before they knew him as Messiah. Our first thoughts about anyone or anything powerfully shape how we see what comes after – first impressions really do count. If the disciples had known him as Messiah first, and the person Jesus second, everything he said and did would have been seen and heard through the preconceived ideas of Messiah: but by allowing them first to know him as he was, it was possible for him to redefine the idea of “Messiah”: they saw the Messiah through the lens of the person Jesus, and not Jesus through the lens of Messianic expectations.
Perhaps this is why, in each of the three gospel containing this story, the declaration that Jesus is the Messiah is immediately followed by the command not to tell anyone. Because he doesn’t want people’s ability to hear his message to be shaped by their identification of him as Messiah.
And I wonder how much we suffer from that problem. Our ideas of Jesus are not, for the most part, shaped by Messianic prophecy; but each of us encounters the gospels already knowing much – perhaps too much – about Jesus. It’s hard – not impossible, and well worth the effort – but hard, for any of to “meet Jesus again for the first time”, as Marcus Borg named it. We see him too strongly through what we already know or believe about him.
When, for instance, we think about the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus – the Christian declaration that Jesus was not just fully human, but also fully God – we tend to hear this doctrine through the lens of our ideas about God. And we accept it – or reject it – on those terms.
But when the Christian faith declares “Jesus is God” instead of hearing “so everything you know about God is true of Jesus”, we ought perhaps to hear “so everything you know about Jesus is true of God”. If we want to know about God – we start, not with theories of philosophy, not even with the revelation of the Old testament or the epistles: we start with Jesus.
As the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, … He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being
Or indeed, in the opening to John’s gospel, we read:
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
It’s the outrageous claim of our faith that if you want to know what God is like, what God cares about, then you don’t look first at God’s self-revelation in the Old Testament, or in the epistles; you first have to look at Jesus. Look at how he treated those who were different, marginalised, excluded, young, old, foreign. Look at what he taught, and showed, about a life lived fully for God.
And this idea – that Jesus made himself known before he advanced any claims about his identity, that he wanted people to know who he was and what he was like and how he lived before they were presented with the labels – Messiah, Son of God – surely has a profound impact on how we communicate the good news of Jesus; to our children and grandchildren, to our friends and neighbours.
For so often Christian education and Christian evangelism seem to start with advancing claims about Jesus and attempting to sustain them; telling people Jesus is their saviour, that he is God, that he died for them.
But the model of Jesus was, as every writing class will teach, to show, not tell. To live a life that clearly pointed to something, and only then reveal that that something was God. He taught them about the kingdom of God, and called them to follow, but the claims about who he was, he kept quiet, even once those closest to him started to cotton on.
Which leaves us with a two-fold challenge, as we seek to share the good news through our community. The first is to enable others to see and hear the life of Jesus – making the stories of Jesus, and not just doctrinal claims about Jesus, known. Which has to mean, to really know those stories for ourselves. To be so immersed in the gospel narratives that we could tell a Jesus story at the drop of a hat.
And if that sounds demanding, uncomfortable, threatening, it’s nothing to the second challenge: which is to live lives so shaped by the values of the Kingdom that Jesus declared; so shaped, in fact, by the same things that shaped Jesus, that when people discover we are Christians, their reaction is “oh, that explains it” (and in a good way).
As Peter himself (perhaps) would later write: always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you for an account of the hope that is in you; the implicit challenge, of course, is to live in such a way that they ask.