Twin star Biblical Interpretation

El Greco’s painting of St Peter and St Paul

Friday was the feast of St Peter and St Paul. I would have thought they were uneasy feast day sharers, Paul’s strident certainty must grate on Peter’s impetuosity of faith and visa versa.  It is too simplistic to see Peter as all emotion and Paul as all intellect. A careful reading of Paul will show plenty of emotion hidden behind rational words. Equally, Peter is quite capable of intellectual religious insight. However, that is not the coupling I want to draw attention to. What I want to draw attention to is the way St Matthew has coupled together two episodes the first of which is often read on this Saints’ day.

One half of the couple I am interested in is the Gospel reading for the mass on that day, Matthew 16:13-21. I will give it in full

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
      And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock[a] I will build my church, and the gates of hell[b] shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[c] in heaven.”  Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

Now first of all this is key passage for me ever since my late twenties and I sat in the evening service of my church I heard a sermon that took us into the scene and posed a fresh the question “Who do you say I am?”. The struggle to answer in a credible way that question has been a struggle. On the one hand, how can I possibly summarise all that Jesus is into a few succint phrases. The second is that for those phrases to be true they must run like quartz veins through the granite of my life and over-blow flowers of words do not feel right for that. As a woman who works in academia, I like to be very sure before I put something into words.  I think I have an answer but it has taken over twenty years to get there. I stand in awe of Peter and the risks he takes as he splurts out “You are the Christ the Son of the living God” . The audacity, the risk taking and the willingness to trust his insight is breath taking.  Peter is vulnerable, he has stated what others have half thought and if Jesus rejects this, remember that John the Baptist had already rejected this and some following him had been followers of John, he would be left looking a fool. You can see in this vulnerable faith something that indeed the Church could be built on.

But the passage stopped there on Friday and as quick as a flash through my brain ran the thought “how convenient”. The thing is that the passage is paired with a second interaction between Jesus and Peter in Matthew 16:21-23

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord![a] This shall never happen to you.”
But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance[b] to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

The two passages are clearly deliberately put together yet we rarely struggle with the conjunction. Jesus goes from saying in verses 17 & 18 “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. ” to saying in verse 23 “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man“. In eight verses Peter goes from being seen as one who God reveal things to, to being one who is set on things of humanity. He goes from the one who Jesus will build his grouping on to the one who is a hindrance to him. He goes from being called blessed to being called Satan. The turn round is abrupt and complete.

The only bit that is not turned round is “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church“. Now I am not going to get into arguments about whether this literally means Peter or it means the faith Peter has demonstrated. What I want to say is this holds whichever you take.

What you are seeing are the two sides of what it means to be a Christian. On the one side there is the person who stretches out in faith and grasps the truths of God. On the other there is very much the person concerned with the things of being human, power, prestige, and just plain survival. The two are interlinked. They are true of me, they are true of the greatest of Saints. Peter to this extent is the archetypal Christian. The only difference between him and us is that contrast is more clearly seen in him.

What you are seeing are also the two sides of the Church. There is the side that springs from all the reachings out and grasping of the truth of God. The church is glorious, it is blessed through Christ in sacrament and word, it does have people really striving to know God, many faithful servants of God in it and it can be a radical prophetic community. It also has the other side, the side that is concerned with our position in the world, how much influence we can yield and about the respect we get. It often cares more for its own status, than for the demands of compassion and truth. It can be an community fall of keeping the status quo, intrigue and vindictiveness.

It both grasps the nature of God’s gospel and is caught up with the concerns of the world. It is both the Ark of the Covenant and the Anti-Christ.

Lord have mercy

Christ have mercy

Lord have mercy

Where else should we go, for you have the words of eternal life?


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