The Gospel and the Catholic Church

The Revd Laurence Price
Eleventh Sunday after Trinity


Sung Eucharist

“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church”

Names have power. From Odysseus to Rumpelstiltskin, we love telling stories about the power of a name. Our Gospel today takes place in the district of Caesarea Philippi. That’s a name that drips with resonances of secular power:  Caesar, the Roman emperor - Philip, the local prince who does what the Romans tell him And in this town of powerful names, Jesus asks the disciples who do people say he is. Actually, Jesus says  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Why does Jesus use that odd phrase- Son of Man?

In Aramaic, it could just mean “me”- or even a “human being”. Nothing to see here, then. But underneath that ordinariness,  it also might be one of the boldest claims that Jesus makes- that he is the one given power and authority by God.  That phrase "son of man" points back towards one of the strangest, darkest parts of the Old Testament: the Book of Daniel, “I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship."

Names have power. Power is dangerous- especially when new power challenges existing power structures. I think Jesus was being extremely clever and cautious when he claimed the name Son of Man- it’s filled with revolutionary power, but it's also plausibly deniable. To be fair, it might have been a bit too clever for the disciples. They take Jesus's question at face value. And even then they struggle for answers- they come up with a list of other names: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah- and all of them are dead. That seems odd. Jewish people aren’t big on reincarnation.So I don’t think the disciples and the crowds literally believed that Jesus was one of those great names, back from the dead. 

They are trying to use those names to answer a deeper question. What sort of prophet is Jesus? He doesn't fit into any of the usual categories... And so Jesus pushes the disciples. He asks them possibly the most important question in the bible, maybe even in all of history- who do you say that I am? (I always imagine a slightly awkward silence at this point). But Simon cuts through. He makes one leap and then another. You can always trust Simon to leap, whether it’s out of a boat or into trouble.

The first leap he makes is to stop thinking about the past- whether it’s the recent past, talking about John the Baptist, or the distant past, with the other prophets.For Simon, Jesus is himself the Christ, the Messiah- the anointed one of God, to redeem Israel now.  Jesus is not just another prophet, but the culmination of all the prophets, the Messiah: that's the first jump. And then an even bigger leap. Perhaps Simon’s imagination was sparked off by Jesus using that phrase Son of Man. Because he turns it round- Jesus isn’t just Son of Man, but Son of God. And it’s almost like Jesus is taken aback. The disciple has leapt forward so quickly, it’s startled the teacher. 

And Jesus gives Simon the most appropriate gift possible in return: a new name and a prophecy. "You are Peter, and on that rock I will build my church." It's not just a prophecy though- it's a pun. Peter- Πέτρος in Greek- means rock. You are Rocky and on that rock I will build my church.  What does Jesus mean here?

What is it to be a church built on the rock that is Peter? There's an obvious place to look. A church literally built on top of Peter. St Peter’s in Rome is an astounding metaphor enacted in architecture- a dome of thousands of tons of stone suspended directly above a vault which contains Peter’s bones. (Probably). Hundreds of feet up around that dome is Jesus's pun and prophecy, golden mosaic in Latin: You are Peter. Tu es Petrus. The Rock on which I will build my church. All that gold, all that Latin: at St Peter's the architectural language of Imperial Rome expanded beyond the dreams of the ancient world, and it’s festooned with Baroque decorations for good measure. And despite the fall of the Roman empire, Rome as a city continues to speak the language- both literally in the shape of the Latin liturgy and figuratively in the way the imagery of Rome persists throughout the culture.  

But there's a danger here. A Roman Catholic friend of mine said to me "In Rome, you get a sense of the universal church…”  But is that an illusion? That sense of the whole world church coming together over Peter's tomb is attractive- seductive even. But is that a way of thinking designed for a city which still speaks the language of Caesar and empire? Is that marble, unyielding quality of St Peter's just a local custom that has been universally applied by accident of history- a particularly persistent meme, if you like?  If we don't keep alert to the dangers of that approach, if we go along with that marble, stony picture of a church full of its own confidence, we can fall into a dangerous error- one that’s at the heart of imperialism. And I mean the mistake that the local and the particular is actually the universal. That one language alone (whether it’s Latin, or English) is a language divinely appointed for giving orders.  That one skin colour is normal and others are aberrations. That one place is most fitted for the entirety of the rest of the world to revolve around- as the venerable Bede said, when Rome falls, so will the whole world. Is that the sort of church Jesus prayed would grow up on Peter the Rock? Imperial, changeless, stony.

That's not the Peter we see in the Gospels, not even in this passage today. Because aren't nicknames often reversals of the truth, steeped in irony? Think of Little John in the Robin Hood stories- not the smallest person in Sherwood Forest. That irony fits with what we see of Peter elsewhere. Peter is impetuous- the moment he is called by Jesus, he leaves his father behind  in the boat.  He makes emotional outbursts- "I will never deny you!"- and promises which he doesn't keep.  He combines unreliability and brilliance.  Maybe Rocky Peter was more like Flaky Peter at times. Something happens immediately after this story- and it’s a warning for a church built on Peter. Because just a few lines further on in the gospel of Matthew, Peter gets something totally wrong. I imagine Peter is brimming with confidence at this point- but then Jesus starts talking about how he's going to Jerusalem to suffer and die! 

So Peter takes Jesus aside in all his new confident authority, and says "you can't say things like that!" And so Jesus gives Simon Peter his second new name. Not a playful, loving nickname like Peter.  Jesus says "Get behind me, Satan". In Hebrew Satan means a tempter, an adversary. An opponent who puts God's people to the test through suffering. Peter must have been shocked. But I think we need to be shocked too. This is a warning to the church throughout the ages and to us now. The church is built on the rock that is Peter. And the church will, like Peter, go wrong sometimes. It may even deserve to be called an adversary of God.  And those mistakes come when the church is at its most confident and powerful.

Now some people might say in comparison to the stone-rooted magisterial authority claimed by St Peter’s successor in Rome, we have the opposite problem here. Sometimes it seems that the Church of England is less rock, and more paper. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t got to heed the warning as well. When we as a church try to use our name to exert our own power, it often seems to go wrong. Our paper church has a habit of crumpling whenever we use it to beat people round the head.  But if we as a church let ourselves be filled with the breath of the spirit, we can soar and leap like Peter.

Archbishop Michael Ramsay had this to say about the Church of England in his book The Gospel and the Catholic Church: ‘Its credentials are its incompleteness... It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as “the best type of Christianity”, but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church.” Jesus calls us to be a church built on Peter: but our model shouldn't be that one time Peter clung to authority, but on his lifelong willingness to make leaps, to be broken and re-made by God. We should be building not so much on Peter's bones, but on his imagination: that leap of faith we heard about today that took even Jesus by surprise- when Peter named Jesus as Son of God, and accepted a new name in return. Names are powerful. Caesar, Son of Man, Son of God, Peter... Jesus. Jesus is still asking us, "who do you say that I am?". How we answer that question transforms us, renews the church, and it can re-make the whole world in the name of Jesus: and the gates of Hades will never prevail against that name. Amen.