The passages in Matthew and Romans in today’s lectionary readings are very well known and loved. We have Peter’s confession of who Jesus is, and Jesus’ statement of who Peter will be . And we have Paul’s instructions on how Christians should live their lives.
The story in Matthew is set in Caesarea Philippi. This is a region and a city deeply associated with sovereignty and imperial power- Roman power. Matthew is giving us a clue as to what his story will tell us. It’s about sovereignty, in the church.
The story begins with a question, a naïve enquiry. ”Who do people say that I am?” And the disciples reply with four options: maybe John the Baptist, maybe Elijah, maybe Jeremiah, or, some other prophet. Then Jesus asks, “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” That sentence has been used by countless evangelists and missionaries. “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter has the answer: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God”.
Straightforward, isn’t it? The truth in a nutshell. But is it? There are a few problems here. No one seems to know what this term Christ, Messiah, or Anointed One means. And how could God have a child, a son? How can human be divine? But let’s move on.
Jesus blesses Peter and commends him, not so much for his perception, but for being a channel of revelation. It was God told Peter that Jesus was Christ. And then, in the story, the flowback begins. If Peter can name Jesus as Christ, then Jesus names Peter. He is a rock. He is the foundation of the Church. He has the keys of the kingdom, he can prohibit on earth and in heaven, he can permit on earth and in heaven. Here is the authority for all those stories and jokes about Peter at the Pearly Gates, admitting ministers and turning away lawyers and accountants.
Are you starting to feel a little uneasy about this exchange of titles and sovereignty between Jesus and Peter? You should be. For this conversation never happened. It’s an invention by Matthew, writing in the 90s long after Jesus death; and of the politics of the church at that time. The Jesus Seminar Fellows, the best informed and largest group of NT scholars in the world, agreed by consent that all the words attributed to Jesus in this passage are inventions by later authors. What we know of Jesus from passages definitely attributable to him, he was a Jewish peasant teacher , healer and life changer. He was sane, but gloriously irreverent and an upsidedowner of culture and class. A person who thinks he is the son of God is not sane, not believable, in need of a psychiatrist. I can’t imagine Jesus seeking the title of Messiah or Christ. But I can imagine the early church wanting to raise the status of its message by that claim.
All organizations are political. Matthew, writing in the 90s, wanted Peter to have the preeminent place amongst the disciples. He wanted Peter to be the leader, the top man, the king. Robert Funk says: “This undoubtedly reflects Peter’s position in Matthew’s branch of the emerging Christian movement”. We don’t know much more, but we do know that before long some Christians were saying that the Bishop of Rome, with the authority of Peter transmitted to him, was the sovereign leader of Christianity. And Jesus wept.
Because if there is one thing Jesus definitely is not into, it’s sovereignty. Or power. Or control. Or status. But all of those things are different to leadership.
And now we come to Paul…
Lloyd Geering says that Paul was the founder of Christianity. Paul never knew Jesus, never heard him teach, never read a gospel. But within a few years of Jesus’ death, Paul was a leader in the Christian community, visiting and writing all over the Roman world. Romans was written in the first 20 years. In Acts we read of Paul contending with Peter and James for leadership in the church, which was mostly house groups at that time.
Some parts of Paul’s writings are amazing and perceptive, though often not much to do with the message Jesus taught. Other parts are incredible convoluted metaphysics that are quite contrary to Jesus’ message. See Romans 11 for instance. So Paul is the founder of Christianity, while Jesus was the founder of the kingdom of heaven.
In today’s passage Paul makes four points: Be a living sacrifice; Don’t be conformed to established thinking; Be modest about yourself; and, We are all parts of one body. As Derrida said, Context is everything. To make sense of these teachings, we need to remember they are addressed to the leaders of the house groups in Rome. They are about appropriate attitudes for leaders. They are about, for us, how to vote in the election in three weeks time. And how to be good leaders in the church, or in the community, or in our families. The context of these teachings is : leadership.
Paul first of all connects into the idea of sacrifice. For centuries people had offered sacrifices to the gods- food and produce, and especially animals, whose blood was seen as precious. Sometimes even humans were sacrificed. Now Paul says to move on from this wastefulness, and present yourself, your whole self and personality and gifts, as a sacrifice: to God. If Jesus had been making this point, he would have said that God has no need of sacrifices: offer yourself, all you are, to others. They manifestly do need care and help.
Next, Paul says not to be conformed to the standards of this world. Here he is in tune with Jesus’ message and parables about the upsidedownness of love, that accepted standards and wisdom may need to be seen in a different way. But Paul thinks that if we just let it happen, God will transform us inwardly, and we will know God’s will. We’ll know what is good and pleasing and perfect. Good luck with that. People have argued over what is God’s will for ever. If Jesus had been on this one he would have said: “Let me tell you a story about being conformed, or not. Then you think it through for yourself.”
Thirdly, Paul says:” Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.” This sentence is anathema to counsellors, who work so often with people with low self esteem. The World Health Organization includes low self esteem in the six most prevalent illnesses in our world. It destroys people; their happiness, their productivity. And never ever say to a child or young person: “Don’t think highly of yourself.” Tell them they are princes and princesses – there will be enough others putting them down.
But context is everything. Another huge problem in our world is what Freud called grandiosity, and sometimes narcissism. Though it is actually and paradoxically usually motivated by low self esteem, there are some people who think far too highly of themselves. And these people are often attracted to positions of leadership. So Paul addresses the leaders in Rome and says” You may not be God’s ultimate gift, the infallible, all knowing person your ego thinks.” And in the election choices, we should beware of candidates who think more highly of themselves than they ought.
Lastly, Paul turns to one of his favourite images, one he develops in I Cor 12. We are all parts of a body. We are not self sufficient: we are inter dependent. So leaders should see themselves not as the head, the sovereign, but as one part who needs the others; and who is also needed , to be a contributing part.
I believe the saddest song ever written was the one Frank Sinatra made famous: “I Did It My Way’ It’s about a man full of himself, conformed to a standard of individual success, who doesn’t know the meaning of sacrifice, who can’t even think about let alone mention his regrets. He’s not part of a body; he’s the whole creation. I expressed this opinion once in a social gathering, and one of my friends said: ‘That’s not fair, how else could he have done it, rather than his way?”
And I thought, “Well, how about our way?”