21st Ordinary Time • Isaiah 51:1-6 • Rom 12:1-8 • Mt 16:13-20 • August 23, 2020
Jesus often orders the disciples not to tell others who he is. Why not? Is it a secret—the Messianic secret, as scholars call it? The story we just heard suggests that the answer has less to do with what Jesus wants people to know than with how he wants them to know it.
We heard the question “Who do people say that I am?” contrasted with the question “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus is inviting the disciples to search beyond public opinion for an answer. When Simon (not yet called Peter) avows a perception of Jesus that does indeed diverge from popular views, Jesus raises the question of where his answer came from, saying, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.” If the source wasn’t human authority, what was it? It seems that Simon listened with the ear of his heart, and Jesus blessed this listening by affirming that what Simon heard or felt to be true came from “God in heaven.”
Both European and yogic traditions recognize three sources of knowledge: experience, reason, and authority. The passage we just heard lifts up a fourth, which we might call inner knowing, intuition, or revelation. This source of knowledge is notoriously slippery, because some of the “revelations” people experience conflict with each other or just seem plain wrong.
And yet, despite this… what if the “rock” on which Jesus is building a community of faithful is not so much Simon the individual as Simon’s intuitive act of deep listening?
That would create a double joke. The first joke is familiar: giving the mercurial Simon the name “Rock”, or Peter, is like nicknaming a large man Tiny. The second joke is more subtle. It’s the irony of founding a church on the “rock” of slippery, unstable intuition.
And yet, what else should a faith community be founded on? A community founded on experience and reason sounds more like a university than a church. A community founded on authority sounds more like a nation state—or a cult. But a community founded on listening for the whisper of the Divine… yes, that is a church, albeit a fallible one. Its foundation is vulnerable and unreliable—just like Simon Peter. And inspired—just like Simon Peter. In matters of faith, there are no guarantees, or it wouldn’t be faith.
From this perspective, the “keys” of heaven take on new meaning. What if these keys represent, not a power of fiat, of making things so, but a blessing of perception? If heaven is not necessarily or merely a place, if it might encompass a state of being or a hidden dimension of reality, then perhaps being bound or loosed there might mean being bound or loosed in God’s eyes, in ultimate reality. The Greek can be read as saying, “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Could Jesus be saying to Peter, “Because you listen with the ear of your heart and are not bound by human opinion, you have the capacity to discern how things really already are—what is really binding, and what is really freeing”?
Jesus then challenges Peter to stretch his insight. No sooner has he said that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the budding faith community than he foretells his own persecution and death (as you’ll hear next week). Peter, still fallible, snaps back to human perspective, certain that the persecution and death would mean that the gates of Hades prevail after all.
But what if our faith lives are born or renewed precisely by passing through the gates of Hades, rather than avoiding them? What if clinging to the comfortable is ultimately binding, and risking our comfort zones in the name of Love is ultimately freeing? The Resurrection and its transforming effect on the disciples are a founding archetype of a universal truth. The third joke is on us–at least on our egos: the way to the life we want is through a door we don’t want at all.
This door takes the shape of experiences that remind us we’re not on top, not in control, maybe not even who we thought we were. These experiences can be external or internal, devastating or subtle. They range from pandemics, storms, and bereavement to the disappointment and shame that follow a relapse into a bad habit. (Did I just spend the last 90 minutes on Facebook again? Did I just violate my own values, in a tiny and sordid imitation of the Peter who denied Christ rather than the Peter who recognized him?) Paul’s advice not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think is a finger pointing to this door of transforming and renewing our minds.
Buddhists point another finger to this door. One of their superpowers is knowing that salvation comes from letting go of any attachment to rock-like stability, in ourselves or in the world around us. The invitation is to let go into an open, spacious grace of ever-changing possibility.
When we accept that change is inescapable, we remember that although crucifixions happen, resurrections happen too. When we accept that we ourselves are fickle and fallible, we remember, as Paul says, to look for help from beyondourselves—from each other, our co-members in the Christ-body, and from grace itself, the Source of whatever gifts we have.
St. Benedict is not to be outdone in pointing to the paradoxical blessing of impermanence—or, in David McKee’s wonderful word, infirmanence. In Benedict’s Rule, conversion is expected to be an ongoing process. The young Peter didn’t stay converted; we don’t stay converted; no one stays converted. That’s all right. We just walk through the door again. And again.
Isaiah’s description of impermanence is the bluntest of all: “…the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats.” Those words hit me like a slap in the face in these days of pandemic, climate change, ecological devastation, species loss, and politico-economic systems that discriminate and exploit and decimate. Those who live on the earth are already dying like gnats, and it’s likely to get worse.
Yet even so, Isaiah says salvation is forever, and impermanence itself is a doorway into the eternal Now. We don’t see eternity with our eyes or grasp it with our “flesh and blood” mind. But we do feel it sometimes. I can’t say it better than T.S. Eliot:
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall…
After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.
Only through time time is conquered.
May it be so.
Let us turn to God in prayer.
That world leaders may pass through the door that returns them to graced inspiration, we pray…
For renewed faith in the unpredictable and yet always loving Ground of our being, we pray…
For the grace to remember that the gates of Hades, small and large, can lead us again and again into the eternal Now of God’s presence, we pray…
For the prayers written in the Book of Intentions, we pray…
For the prayers of our hearts, held in silence or spoken quietly now…
God of time and eternity, we lift up these prayers and the unspoken prayers in the hearts of each of us. Continue to gather us into the renewed and renewing awareness of your Presence. We ask this through Jesus, whose pattern transforms us according to your eternal design. Amen.