Reading Matthew 16.13-20
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
This is one of my special possessions: a piece of rock brought back for me years ago from Israel – indeed from the very location of this morning’s Gospel reading, Caesarea Philippi, where today a church commemorates the site of Jesus’s words to Peter, telling him he was to be the ‘rock’ on which the church would be built. Those words have, of course, remained potent for the RC Church’s understanding of itself, specifically the status of the pope as Peter’s successor, as the Church looks back at ‘the rock from which it was hewn’. Each pope is a reminder of where the Church comes from, and provides a focus of unity.
Some 800 years prior to this morning’s Gospel account, the prophet Isaiah reminded the Hebrew people to look to the rock from which they were hewn. In their case, it meant looking back to Abraham – and others – who inherited and embodied God’s promise. Abraham had to leave behind familiar surroundings in order to follow God’s call. He exemplifies how faith is essentially nomadic, contradicting the received wisdom that it is sensible to settle down….
Both readings – Isaiah and Matthew – deal with the past, the present and the future. First of all, Isaiah tells his hearers to look back to their past, then to listen to the prophet today if they truly seek God, and also to believe his promise that the Lord would make Zion’s wilderness like Eden – the promise of a better future. Jewish settlers turfed out from Gaza in recent years will find that prophecy pretty difficult to stomach, but it remains a beautifully poetic vision that, one day, joy and gladness will be the inheritance of the Hebrew people – and, we pray, the inheritance of all the people of the perennially conflicted Near and Middle East.
Matthew also alludes to the past. When he records Jesus asking who people say he is, the answers, predictably, come from history – the Hebrew prophets: Elijah, Jeremiah or some other figure. But then the question is brought directly into the present, as Jesus asks the disciples: ‘And who do you, now, say I am?’ Peter, with his customary eagerness, is the one who recognises in Jesus the true fulfilment of Hebrew prophecy; the Messianic figure who had been foretold is present there among them. And Jesus responds with a future promise, just as Isaiah had done in the past. He says to Peter, ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’
This focus on past, present and future is reflected in the liturgies of the Church. In the Eucharist, for example, we recall a past event and are reminded of the rock from which we were hewn. But it is not merely a memorial that belongs to history. The Last Supper becomes, once again, a present reality each time we celebrate it. Not only that, it equips us for the present and the future as we are sent out from it ‘to love and serve the Lord’.
The relationship between past, present and future, and the weight given to each, lies at the heart of our understanding of the nature of the Church and of tradition. It is central to many of the controversies in the Anglican Church and Communion in recent years. Some say that the Church’s nature and belief are inherited and so the task of each generation is to pass that on essentially unchanged to those who come after. If that is our view, then our stance on Scripture, belief, practice and present debates is likely to be quite conservative. Effectively, nothing can change approaches to Scripture and tradition because these are, in themselves, immutable and applicable to every age. We have no right to meddle, and certainly not until the entire catholic – that is, the universal church – agrees. That, as we know, was what lay at the root of some people’s objections to women’s ordination to the priesthood.
The now retired Bishop of London, Richard Chartres wrote, ‘Part of the mission of the Church is to embody the things that do not change and to sustain the memories which help us to know how to live wisely.’ But he went on to say that there is no doubt that the Church needs to spend more energy in communicating the faith afresh to this generation, in ways that connect with where the people of England are today. Of course the past is important, and we should honour it; without it we have no real foundation. But we need to beware that the rock on which we are founded does not render us unintelligible or irrelevant to modern culture, which is what some people fear is happening with the Church today.
Although the Church has not always conceded it, approaches to belief and practice have frequently been reassessed to relate meaningfully to new human understanding and insights and cultural shifts. That was the case from the beginning, as Christianity spread into different contexts and cultures. Such adaptation does not mean bending to every passing mood or whim that comes along, or compromising what the Church sees as central to the Gospel. But the Church has perhaps too often been tempted to retreat into the supposed security of its tradition, which has had the effect of shutting down debate and excluding people who either do not or cannot fit the church’s strictures or meet its conditions. Jesus’s quite brief earthly ministry was radical, and it seems he spent a good deal of his time expanding its remit. That meant there was a place for those routinely shunned in society and who doubtless assumed there was no chance they could ever be included. There was space for those who asked difficult questions, or challenged the status quo, because Jesus himself challenged, when necessary, his own religious system, and sometimes wrestled with the tradition he had grown up in.
One notable and moving example of the need not to be afraid to let go of the past is the experience of Mary Magdalene in the resurrection garden. ‘Do not hold on to me’, said Jesus to her, implying that while you honour and value the way things were in the past, you must also have the courage to move on, and to let the past go. Moving forward in the new life of Jesus means that tradition is constantly being recreated – springing up from the past, certainly, but also enabling the present and inspiring the future.
And that’s the thought I want to leave you with in these rather turbulent days in the life of the world and of the Church. Let us not lose sight of the foundation on which we are built, but let us also be courageous in letting go of what might need letting go of as we embrace the future.
If we ever feel we’re not up to the task, remember Peter, whose life could never be the same again after his encounter with Jesus. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who played safe or hedged their bets, he wasn’t afraid to take the leap of faith and proclaim who he recognised Jesus to be. He was (as we all are) full of human foibles and, later on, as we know, he would weep bitterly as he denied knowing Jesus at all. Nonetheless, Jesus clearly saw in Peter the potential to become what he eventually became, the rock, one of the leading figures in that new understanding of God and religion that Jesus inspired.
Finally, back to the rock from which Jesus was hewn, and in whom all of us in the Judaeo-Christian tradition find our faith origin – Abraham. As I said at the start, it is Abraham whose own example teaches us that faith is essentially nomadic, contradicting the received wisdom that it is sensible to settle down, but rather inspiring us to set out in faith, even if (like Abraham himself) that means not knowing where we are going, yet remaining sure that God travels with us and will be faithful to the promises he made.