Sunday, August 27, 2017
Readings and Psalm
The enduring foundation of God’s salvation
O LORD, your steadfast love endures forever. (Ps. 138:8)
One body in Christ, with gifts that differ
The profession of Peter’s faith
Messianic secrets. The mystique of charismatic leaders. The banality of evil.
Into all this mist and mire, smoke and dust, enter Jesus.
“Who do the people say that I am?”
In the turmoil of reflection that is my creative process, I’ve been grappling with the fascinating, yet horrifying book called Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss. And I’ve been grappling with American politics and current events.
Amid monuments and violence on both side, yes on both sides, and media that isn’t news, and media that isn’t even diverse in ownership, and Nazi propaganda and vague but inspiring speeches, I wonder, how did Hitler come to be seen as a savior of his people? A messiah.
The messiah was nothing like this! I shudder to think that Hitler was taking a page from Christ’s playbook. But it’s possible that people aspiring to greatness try to take pages from Hitler’s playbook.
A narcissist would never ask “Who do the people say that I am?” That would be to risk too much. They need to believe they are adored by all. They need to believe they are god-like.
But Jesus did ask, and the disciples said “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” These are people sent by God to share a message from God. People sent by God to lead people back to God. These were not people who believed that they could become like gods.
You are God-Incarnate, but you are not God. We’ll come back to this because it is important, it is the key.
“But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.
And Cephas answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
To us, who know the story, this is obvious. But what Simon Peter is saying is that Jesus isn’t just a person sent by God to lead people back to God. Simon Peter is saying that Jesus has a kinship to God that is closer than other people’s. Cephas knows that Jesus is not just another prophet.
Jesus rejoices because this is an expression of faith. An expression of the kind of faith that is the gift of the Holy Spirit. “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”
He doesn’t say to Peter, “you rock!”, but he says you are a rock! Not a rock star, not world leader, but a rock. When he says, on this rock I will build my church, he is not making Peter the foundation and leader of the church as we know church. One might even suggest that he isn’t talking about church as we know it at all. The word ekklesia, which we translate as “church” in a fuller sense means, “people called out from the world and to God”.
Certainly Jesus is playing with words. But it would have been clear to the listener that the rock that is Peter is not the rock that is the foundation of the church. It would have been clear because the language they spoke, Aramaic, and the language the gospel was written in, Greek, are grammatically gendered. The rock referring to Peter is grammatically masculine and the rock referring to the ekklesia, and the ekklesia, are grammatically feminine.
Jesus was playing with words, but he wasn’t laying the foundation for a cult of personality.
The Holy Spirit has gifted Peter with faith and that rock of faith is what will call people out of the world and to God. Further, Jesus tells Peter that he will give him the keys to the kingdom.
It’s tempting to think that Jesus is referring to some secret knowledge here. Especially when we read this together with the last verse of today’s reading “he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
Secret knowledge is a key element of charismatic leadership. Hitler had Goebbels to build up a mystique of messianic power, an aura of god-hood, around him. Goebbels is considered by many to be the founder and best practitioner of propaganda. Hitler himself was very careful to never offer proof to the contrary. He never offered details about how he would lead his country to greatness again. In fact, he didn’t participate in planning much of anything. Alone he made decisions and set directions. He followers were free to implement these directions and achieve these goals as they saw fit. Here is the really terrifying premise of this book: Hitler gave voice to the baser fears a person tries to rise above, he validated racial hatred, and he gave people permission to act on those fears. He never condemned violence. He did distance himself from specific acts of violence, but he never condemned it.
But Christianity is no more about secrecy than it is about violence. Regardless of how many leaders throughout the ages try to leverage Christian faith to their own advantage, ekklesia is not about political science or controlling the masses.
And Jesus does not keep secret the keys to the kingdom. He begins right away. First, know that heaven and earth are bound together, nothing happens on earth that is not experienced in heaven. This is what he means when he says “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The Gospel of Matthew devotes the next four chapters to demonstrating and explaining the kingdom of heaven.
It all points back to the commandment: love God; love others as you love yourself and it’s corollary: God loves you, so completely, so fully, as if you were the only one; and God loves everyone else the same way.
It’s is difficult to know which is harder to accept, that God loves you unconditionally, or that God also loves the other person unconditionally. When we can accept these teachings, the incarnation of God that is in us shines through and ekklesia happens, the kingdom of heaven is opened.