I want to take you all through today’s Gospel as if through an allegory, through a plot which we recapitulate each and every time we gather together as the Body of Christ here at Emmanuel Memorial. This exercise will not be too much of a stretch, I assure you, as a “recapitulation” -- or, to put it literally, a “repetition of the head” -- is a common narrative device throughout Scripture. In fact, it’s more than that, for the New Testament itself is nothing other than a recapitulation of the Old. When Christians read the Old Testament, everything is read as a foreshadowing, a prefigure, of the Incarnation of the Son of God. And aside from that, there’s also the more obvious fact that the founding of the Church is the central crux of today’s passage.
So I want us to meditate on the Church, specifically on its unity and on its journey through this world towards eternal life in the world to come. To begin, the passage today begins by telling us that Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi. Now, this is a very different setting from what immediately precedes today’s Gospel. Before, we were with Jesus at the Sea of Galilee, but Caesarea Philippi was some twenty miles north of there. And not only that, but it was not a Jewish area, but was rather populated mostly by Gentiles. This is significant. In the previous chapter, in Matthew 15, we read of the intense experiences of the feeding of the four thousand and the various disputes Jesus had with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Those experiences are indicative of the inevitable turmoil that comes about when Jesus, himself a Jew, begins revealing himself as the Messiah, the hope of Israel. But this journey to Caesarea Philippi represents a departure from all of that. To go to Caesarea Philippi is to take a break from the cacophony of a people who are anxious to figure out just who this Jesus is, and who are personally invested in the answer. By contrast, Jesus and the disciples have come to a place surrounded by those for whom Jesus’ identity is really neither here nor there. But given the context, this journey away from their own people suggests that perhaps Jesus and the disciples are in need of a moment of clarity.
Maybe this sanctuary is kind of like that for you. Perhaps this place is a place set apart from the unremitting engagements and demands of your normal life where you can hope to experience the clarity of singleness of heart. And maybe this town that for Jesus and the disciples is a place of strangers is kind of like the place where the Church always becomes conscious of herself. The Church always knows herself to be a stranger in a strange land, yearning for the New Jerusalem amidst the exile of this world that is passing away. It is precisely by being a stranger that the Church can perceive what the world cannot; it is the means by which the light overcomes the darkness.
Away from the crowds and the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Jesus turns the disciples’ attention back towards them, to consider them from a distance. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” And they answer, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The world which they look back upon from Caesarea Philippi, and from within their intimate company with the Lord, is a world of multiple voices, competing narratives, and dissonance about the identity of Jesus. But Jesus quickly turns their attention back to their own company, asking them directly, “But who do you say that I am?” The line in the sand is drawn, and Jesus has shifted his questioning from one side to the other. There is that which the world says and there is that which the disciples say. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say that I am?” I was curious about the original grammar of these questions, so I took a look at the Greek and confirmed that the “you” of the latter question is still plural, addressed to all the disciples as was the first question. But the shift of attention from what the people say to what the disciples say that’s taking place is more radical than that, for only one disciple answers the question. For “Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’”
Do you see the progression here? First, Jesus and the disciples were among the people of Israel as members of the people of Israel; indistinguishable, except of course for the miraculous wonders being performed and the shocking claims being made. Then, Jesus moves them to a place that’s separate from all of that, to Caesarea Philippi, but still presents the broad opinion of the Jews as the main object of consideration. The real crowd has become the idea of the crowd in the minds of the disciples. Next, Jesus narrows the focus exclusively to the disciples themselves: “but who do you say that I am?” The disciples become the only people who’s opinion matters. And finally, after narrowing down the focus, the one comes forward and Peter alone proclaims the truth about who Jesus is. It’s a powerful moment on its own, to be sure, but there’s drama here even in the setup. It harkens back to this recurring theme throughout Scripture where the one whom God has designated for some special purpose is gradually isolated until the call is made, one on one. Moses particularly comes to mind in this regard. So in short, we move from the many to the one, from the people who say any number of things about who Jesus is to Peter, the lone, solitary disciple who confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
When it comes to the Church, the one always precedes the many. We are not first a sum total of random individuals who then happen to say and do similar things. No, the singularity of Peter’s voice confesses that Jesus is the Son of God comes first, and then all that we say and do shares in and partakes of that singularity. Peter’s confession is that in which our unity consists. But to be clear, Peter’s centrality is neither arbitrary nor is it on account of some special gift or quality that he possessed of himself. Moving on from Peter’s proclamation to Jesus’ reply, Jesus tells Peter that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Peter’s revelation was not the result of any human perception -- like the perception that Jesus was one of the prophets, say -- but was rather a revelation from the Father himself. The knowledge of who Jesus is is of divine origin. But in keeping with the nature of divine revelation, such knowledge doesn’t hover above in some ethereal realm, accessible only by those who are smart enough and clever enough to uncover the secrets, but instead is manifested in and by ordinary people. There is definitely a paradox here, for while flesh and blood are not the source of divine revelation, the content of divine revelation is flesh and blood, specifically the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. This paradox is what makes possible the extension of the revelation to Peter, whose flesh and blood become the rock on which the Church is to be built, which in turn makes it possible for us to be graciously accepted as living, flesh and blood members of Jesus Christ. Having narrowed down from the many to the one, we then return back again from the one to the many, from Peter’s solitary confession to the innumerable confessions of the Church throughout the ages.
I have two final points in conclusion.
First, as an Anglican, it’s impossible for me not to comment briefly on how we interpret this passage in light of the interpretation of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, who see here the foundation for the primacy of Peter, and subsequently of papal supremacy. This is a massive topic, and is perhaps the thing which perpetuates the sad division between us, but for the time being, I’ll leave it to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Michael Ramsey, to explain it for us. He says that: A Papacy, which expresses the general mind of the Church in doctrine, and which focuses the organic unity of all the Bishops and of the whole Church, might well claim to be a legitimate development in and through the Gospel. But a Papacy, which claims to be a source of truth over and above the general mind of the Church and which wields an authority such as depresses the due working of the other functions of the one Body, fails to fulfil the main tests. (65)
So it all goes back to the divine origin of Peter’s revelation that Jesus is the Messiah. Being of God, this revelation is not the sole preserve of Peter such that he can possess and dispense it apart from the Church which is nevertheless built upon his confession. But this doesn’t mean that Peter and all the bishops which have and will continue to succeed him do not receive a unique dispensation to uphold and safeguard the true confession. As Archbishop Ramsey says, bishops have the authority and responsibility to express the general mind of the Church. And this moves to my second and final point, which has to do with the talk of binding and loosing in the passage.
When Jesus tells Peter that “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” he’s talking primarily about our language, about what we say as those who have encountered the revelation of the Son of God. To proclaim the Gospel and to confess the truth about Jesus is to manifest a concrete reality in the world: a world with Christians walking around talking like Christians is a different kind of world indeed. The singular voice with which we speak is the voice of every tongue on earth which answers the truth of the question “but who do you say that I am?” The many in and through the one faith, one baptism, and one Lord. And though flesh and blood have not revealed this to us, this speech is embodied in our flesh and blood nonetheless. Heaven and earth are no longer the same, they are bound and loosed accordingly, for the Father in heaven has deigned to share his knowledge with us here on earth.