Sunday, 23rd August 2020 is ‘The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity’ in the Church’s calendar.
Today’s Gospel (Matthew 16.13-20) has given rise to lots of jokes about Peter and the pearly gates. If you ask me, when you see me in the street, I’ll share a few with you that I couldn’t share online or in a sermon!
Jesus tells Peter he is the rock upon which he will build his church. But, did Jesus intend to found a church? The French theologian Alfred Loisy famously said that ‘Jesus preached the kingdom and it was the church that came’.
Matthew’s Gospel alone makes reference to the church, twice using the word ‘ecclesia’, and so it’s dubbed the ecclesiastical Gospel. The church envisaged by Matthew was very different from the great, bulky, bureaucratic, hippopotamus figure, as TS Eliot called it, that we know today. If Peter is a rock, then the church is living stones. It isn’t a building, but an assembly; not a thing, but an event; not a place to visit, but a community to belong to; the community gathers around Jesus, and to Matthew Jesus matters decisively. The promise Jesus makes is that the church will endure and ‘the gates of Hades will not prevail against it’. It’s not a claim for the numerical size of the church, rather it’s a claim that the ‘living stones’ that continue to gather faithfully around Jesus will always be the witness of God to the world.
Peter is entrusted with a responsible role in the new ecclesia. He is the gatekeeper who holds the keys. His authority is not for the afterlife but for oversight of the infant church. And so, the keys are not to the gate to control admission, but rather to the storehouse to enable him to make provision for the household. Far from blocking people, Peter felt God’s pressure to open the gates to the Gentiles.
As well as keys, there is the image of rope. The rope isn’t for tying people up. It’s most likely about issues being tied up or loosened. Our deep divisions in the church come down to binding and loosening. One group argues that the church is doing too much binding, expecting people to believe and to live in a certain way. Others claim the church is doing too much loosing and that it’s time that people were bound to more rigid beliefs and conduct. The answer to that issue relates to the purpose of the church and especially to who Jesus is.
‘Who do you say I am?’ asked Jesus. Peter trotted out a formulaic response, but we have each to answer for ourselves. Don’t say what you think others want, or expect to hear. It’s your vocation to say who you believe Christ is and we’ll all have our our own understanding and interpretation. It’s our church’s vocation to help us learn and know who Jesus is and then to provide the safe space where we can all practise voicing our convictions and hammer out our beliefs. We have so much to learn from Jesus’ subtle, humble teaching and example, from the church which is our family. And we do so in the assurance that the church will not cease until the gospel is known in all the world.