Signposts and Seeds

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

This week’s comments are pointings and plantings rather than a single extended reflection. My focus is on Matthew 16, but first a word about the other readings.

Rene Girard’s seminal insights, as well as those of his able interpreters (and critics) provide a profound context for the lectionary passages of the day. It is worth wrestling with how these insights shine light on parts of the texts that can be overlooked in more conventional readings: seeing through the “official” policy of “justified,” veiled violence by telling the story from the perspective of victim; turning “the logic of sacred violence” and blood sacrifice on its head, unveiling God’s revelation of Christ’s atonement and the witness of the Church as “living sacrifice.” Psalm 124 then becomes testimony. (Athanasius says that most Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us).

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side…Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Now some signposts and seeds from Matthew 16:

1. The language of our confession

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

The legendary graffiti on the bathroom wall in the basement of Duke Divinity School’s library gives a paraphrase of this encounter between Jesus and Peter: Jesus turned to his disciples and said, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ Peter responded, ‘Thou are the eschatological manifestation of the ultimate ground of our being.’ Jesus turned to Peter and said, ‘Say what?!’

In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell offers another famous paraphrase. He translates Ecclesiastes 9:11 – I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all – into what he calls “modern English.” “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

Orwell’s explanations for why the latter is so abominable, especially the “flight from concreteness,” are worth reading, at least once a year. Likewise his warning:

Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

The flight from concreteness is not only a linguistic dead-end; it’s a theological dead-end as well.

2. The practice of our confession

Currently, Rosanne Cash is on tour promoting her newly released memoir entitled Composed. My wife and I enjoyed a delightful evening recently when she came to Asheville. At one point, she talked about the songwriting classes she taught and how her students had the common misunderstanding that a truly great song comes from a single, immediate burst of inspiration. As a way of correcting their misunderstanding while teaching them the craft and discipline of songwriting, Ms. Cash quoted Linda Ronstadt: “You have to refine your skills to support your instincts.”

Later in the evening, someone asked her about spirituality (a word Kim Fabricius defines as “the cunning way consumerism inoculates itself against its discontents”). Ms. Cash responded, “Oh my, God, whoever that is, is too big and mystical.” Either she forgot her earlier stated wisdom about music, or else she did not make the connection. It’s a common mistake.

Simon Peter’s revelation did not arrive in a single, immediate burst of inspiration. Before he made his blessed confession, he had obeyed and followed Jesus all the way to Caesarea Philippi. Jesus joins Peter’s confession with “church” and joins “church” with specific practices of discernment (Mt. 16) and reconciliation (Mt. 18).

“You have to refine your skills to support your instincts.”

3. The unity of our confession

When asked by an interviewer if Muslims and Christians worship the same God, Miroslav Volf gave this jolting reply: “First, all Christians don’t worship the same God, and all Muslims don’t worship the same God.”

That being the case, how can we possibly speak of “church,” much less “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”? No little ink and blood have been spilled over Matthew 16:18. What is the church that will prevail against the very gates of hell?

The wide and easy way that leads to destruction says, “It doesn’t matter; we all have our ways to God.” In his astringent God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero claims that “we are willing to follow our fantasies down the rabbit hole of religious unity [because] we have become uncomfortable with argument.”

How blessed are those peculiar friendships, based on the language, practice and unity of our common confession of “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” and characterized by what my old teacher George Buttrick called “the friction of friendly minds.” Stanley Hauerwas describes these friendships as “this strange ecclesial anomaly to which God seems to have called some of us.”

May the offering of these signposts and seeds be used to bring a measure of direction and fruit to all those charged with preaching and teaching these texts.

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