Let’s start with Paul. Now, there are many who would stop reading at that point. They are convinced that most of what is wrong with the church, and really wrong - not just the goofy stuff - can be laid at the feet of Paul. It is his treatment of women, for example, that set a pattern for church-sponsored sexism for centuries. It is his soft approach to slavery that led to unimaginable suffering that still hasn’t come to an end.
It is easy to be sympathetic to their concerns, and certainly some of what Paul wrote (or what was written in his name) has been used to damage the cause of Christ historically. But a proper reading of the context and some historical reflection can reinterpret much of what has been misused. Perhaps in the Kin-dom, Paul frequently shakes his head at the church and says something along the line of “That’s not what I meant!”
The passage we examine this week isn’t at all controversial. It contains, in fact, two of many people’s favorite verses in the whole Bible. It makes sense that the passage would continue on after the first two verses. But those first two verses can’t really stand on their own. If you snip off verses 3 through 8 (not to mention most of what follows in the Epistle to the Romans), you’ll hear a very individualistic message (which we need to hear from time to time, and I’ll get to that). But I want to work backward for a moment. Look at where the passage ends. It ends in community.
Verse three introduces humility. “Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought.” That is a very countercultural message these days. We are all about self-esteem, about building up. “I’m worth it,” purrs the woman touting the expensive hair care products. And why not? We are worth it. We are of immeasurable value. Esteem is a biblical concept, to be sure. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them (Psalm 8:4),” says the psalmist. “Yet you made them a little lower than God, crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). You can’t get more esteemed than that, can you? “Even the hairs on your head are numbered” (insert relative numbers joke here), “you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12-7). All right, not the same punch as glory and honor, but you get the point. We are valued, we are worth it.
But Paul seems to deny it—a least at first. We don’t like being put in our place (“more highly than you ought”). We like to think we are high, and no one is higher. Paul isn’t really denying what the psalmist and Jesus said. He’s just saying that we ought to remember that those things weren’t said to us individually, but to us collectively.
The problem we have with the self-esteem emphasis is that we usually turn it into who are we better than rather than simply we are good. It is not a competition, says Paul, it is a state of being. All are good in God’s eyes, and all have a role to play in the kingdom, or in that image of the kingdom called the church. So, step up and join the party. Step up and take an oar. Step up and bring the piece you’ve been perfecting. However you want to envision the invitation, it is to be a working, rejoicing part of the community.
The first two verses prepare us for taking our part in the party we call the kin-dom. We need to be prepared to serve. This is where Chapter 12 begins, with this call for commitment to the whole. And all it takes is everything - body and soul. Re-read those first two verses:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect
Note a couple of important things, please: First your body is needed. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Jesus wants your body. OK, not as good as a T-shirt slogan since it is subject to misinterpretation. But it is true. Jesus needs us to do our faith, not just think about it. Our commitment to Christ comes out in our hands and our feet, as well as in our thoughts and our words. It how we live each and every day. And it is a sacrifice, a gift given away; it isn’t about what we get out of it; it isn’t to make us feel good. That it does, in fact, make us feel good is just a bonus. But if the feeling good part becomes the end, we are liable to not work when we don’t feel like it. That is where we lose the sacrifice part. Present your bodies.
But Paul says Jesus doesn’t want unthinking drones doing manual labor. Instead, he wants to work transformation within us through our minds. “Be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” Minds means brains, in part. But Paul is talking about more than just our intellectual capacity. Paul means all that makes us the unique creatures that we are. It is our essence, our being, the real inner us. That is what Jesus wants us to offer and through which he wants to work. We might understand it to be soul. Jesus wants us, body and soul.
There is another reality check in those first two verses. Paul reminds us that change is inevitable. We might as well get used to it. Better than that, we might as well direct it, or choose the kind of change we prefer. Something is going to change us - either the world or Christ. Why not choose? Do not be conformed to this world - do not be changed by this world - but be transformed by the search for the will of God at work in you. Stay alert, Paul warns, stay tuned to what God wants to do in and through you, or you will drift into patterns of thinking and behavior that fit into the world in which we live. You will discover yourself thinking thoughts and engaging in behaviors that are far from the person you want to be or that God created you to be. Pay attention, says Paul.
You are defined only in relation to the one we follow. That’s where Matthew’s Gospel text comes in —with Jesus’ insistent and important question. It is important because all four gospels include this question. You know how rare that is. The question is insistent because it demands an answer.
This seems to be an important moment in the teaching ministry of Jesus. The importance is attested by the repetition of this event in three of the four gospels. Something significant is going on here, but what is it exactly?
Our first question must be who is this about? Is it about Jesus, or is it about the disciples? Matthew seems to come down on the side of the latter. His expansion of the conversation between Jesus and Peter indicates that for Matthew at least this was a teaching moment for the disciples and for us It was not the moment for declaring to the world who Jesus really is; it was an insider moment, a called out community moment.
What is significant about this passage (or one significant thing anyway) is that this is one of only two uses of the word church in the gospels. And the other use of the word is two chapters later in Matthew, when Jesus is telling us of the reconciliation purpose of the church. So, we need to listen closely to hear what is being said.
This is a passage about identity. It is first about the identity of Jesus. Who was he? Who is he? Peter got it right. Jesus says so. "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Theologically, he is declaring that Jesus is the one we have been looking for, the one we need, whether we are aware of that need or not. “You are the Messiah.” And that this Messiah, the one we need, is the one who comes from God - is of one essence with God - the Son of the living God. Peter declares, whether he realizes it or not, that Jesus is the one who connects, who brings together human need and divine presence. Jesus is the one who reconciles, who puts us in our brokenness back in touch with God’s wholeness.
But it can’t be just about the identity of Jesus. Because of the identity of Jesus, our identity is transformed. We are now not just individual followers, but we have been called into a new community of faith under the lordship of Christ. We are different because of the claim that Christ is Lord. Our identity is wrapped up in the person of Christ.
And what have we become? What is the nature of the church that Jesus identifies? He gives us hints in his conversation with Peter that afternoon near Caesarea Philippi. First, acceptance of Christ is transformative. You are Peter, says Jesus; you are new, are different, have a purpose in the community of faith.
As an aside, some scholars wonder whether this is the place where Simon came to be called Peter. There is no evidence that the word “petros” was used as a name before this historical figure. But then, within the passage itself, Simon is identified as Simon Peter, even before Jesus declares him so. This might be a case of using the name he was best known by, even though not historically accurate. Or it might be that it was a nickname, or even a name of derision - Simon the blockhead, dumb as a box of rocks, or something like that. Then Jesus takes what was once a title of derision and turns it into a name of honor. You are Peter, the rock upon which I will build my church.
The identifier of those who belong to Christ is that they are willing to be foundational; they are willing to be built upon. Paul talks of Christ the cornerstone, but Matthew says Peter - and I believe by extension all of us - is the foundation. Christ is the builder; we are the materials; we are the ones who give shape - like the foundation gives shape - to the building that is the church. But it all rests upon us.
Next is the promise: “The gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). It being the church; it being the community of which we are foundational. It being all we are called to be and all we long to be. It being the body. Hades was seen in the first place as the realm of the dead, which means that it will not end. All things have a lifespan; we have come to believe. Things, institutions, lifestyles, civilizations rise and fall. But the church - not necessarily any denomination or human manifestation - will survive into eternity—that is the promise. That means we can be bold, as we seek to give shape to the church, to be foundational. We can take risks, because we can’t kill it! That is pretty amazing, when you think of it. Why should we fear failure when Christ tells us that the church will endure?
It also means that the attack from the forces of darkness - the gates of Hades being the conduit from that world to this - will not succeed either. We need not live in fear of any attack, demonic or human. We are stronger than we realize.
Finally, we have the keys and the binding and loosing (verse 19). What is that all about? Is Jesus establishing the hierarchical system that became the Roman Catholic Church? Does he offer to Peter the ability to determine who is in and who is out? Is it now the church’s job to determine worthiness for eternity and entry into heaven? Do we indeed hold the keys to entrance into the kingdom of God?
Some have argued so. The church has taken on the task of being the arbiter of salvation and has been all too willing to withhold entry into the community to any who don’t measure up to an uncomfortable ideal that we are ready to declare. Surely, it is the responsibility of the church to make this determination. Or is it?
What are the keys that Jesus hands over to Peter? What is the power that now resides in our hands? What was it that gave Peter the recognition from Jesus in this passage? Knowledge. And not just any knowledge, but the knowledge of the identity of the Christ. The key to the kingdom that was handed to Peter and that is now ours is the knowledge of who Jesus is. We are called to teach and to interpret. Binding and loosing is a descriptive way of talking about Bible study. We are to interpret the scriptures in such a way that they become intelligible to a new world. We are to inform, to share, to teach about who is the answer to our prayers, the desire of all our hearts, and the fulfillment of our needs.
We are called to share the identity of Christ with the world, so that they too can become a part of the called-out community called the church. We welcome; we invite; we encourage; we instruct. And verse 20 is, I think, an action plan.
“Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” There are all sorts of biblical and theological interpretations of this verse, many of which are compelling arguments for the drama of the Christ event. But for our purposes, there is only one that makes sense to me. Either we say that this was a timed command that is no longer in force; it was for the first hearers for specific reasons that no longer apply. Or it is reminding us how to evangelize.
Evangelism begins with conversation. It begins, many argue, with listening. We can no longer, if we ever could, argue folks into belief in or acceptance of Christ by relying on the authority of scriptures or doctrinal statements. “The Bible says” does not carry any weight in our world. Beginning with “Jesus Christ is Lord; the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” sounds to most folks like nonsense, like bumper-sticker rhetoric. It isn’t convincing.
So, what is convincing? Jesus says don’t tell anyone I am the Messiah, but perhaps he meant we are to show them that he is the Messiah. Folks no longer want to know what we believe; they want to know how we live. Does our belief in Jesus make any difference to us, besides how we spend some time on Sunday mornings?
In other words, Jesus wants us to show and then tell—to be the community at work in the world and then respond to the inevitable questions with the gospel of Jesus Christ: “Why are you doing what you do? Why do you care about me so much? How can you be so loving?” We don’t lead with doctrine; we end up with it. We do what we do Because God.