Thursday, August 5, 2010

You Are Peter, And Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church.

Thursday of the Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
Jeremiah 31:31-34
The days are coming, says the LORD,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their fathers:
the day I took them by the hand
to lead them forth from the land of Egypt;
for they broke my covenant,
and I had to show myself their master,
says the LORD.
But this is the covenant that I will make
with the house of Israel after those days,
says the LORD.
I will place my law within them,
and write it upon their hearts;
I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
No longer will they have need
to teach their friends and relatives
how to know the LORD.
All, from least to greatest, shall know me,
says the LORD,
for I will forgive their evildoing
and remember their sin no more.
Today we have our final reading from Jeremiah, although there are still more than 20 chapters of the book left. This passage is regarded as the high point of the prophet’s words with its promise of a new covenant. And we need to remember that this was written 600 years before the coming of Christ and the New Testament or Covenant he brought.

The Jerusalem Bible describes the significance of the passage:

In verses 31-34 Jeremiah reaches its highest peak of spirituality. The old covenant has been violated, and the attempted reform under Josiah has been short-lived: it is evident now that God has other plans. A disaster will ensue, leaving only a ‘remnant’ of the nation, and then an everlasting covenant will be made, a covenant as in the days of Noah. The former perspectives remain: man’s obedience to the Law, and the divine presence bestowing peace and material prosperity, this ideal being summed up in the formula: ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’. But the covenant is ‘new’ in three respects:

1, God’s spontaneous forgiveness of sin;
2, individual responsibility and retribution;
3, interiorisation of religion.

The Law is no longer to be a code regulating external activity but an inspiration working on the heart of man, under the influence of the spirit of God, who gives man a new heart, capable of ‘knowing’ God. This new and eternal covenant, proclaimed again by Ezekiel, by the closing chapters of Isaiah, and operative in Psalm 51, will be inaugurated by the sacrifice of Christ - and the apostles will proclaim its fulfilment.

This passage is the longest sequence of Old Testament verses to be quoted in its entirety in the New Testament. It is found in the Letter to the Hebrews (8:8-12) and quoted again in part in Hebrews 10:16-17. This is the only passage (in v.31) in the whole of the Old Testament where the term ‘new covenant’ (or ‘testament’) appears. That ‘new covenant’ we now recognise in the new relationship with God established by Jesus Christ through his Paschal Mystery.

Jeremiah begins by proclaiming that “the days are coming”, a phrase that often refers to the Messianic era and, for us, there is a strong Messianic tone to the passage.

In those “days” God will make a “new covenant” with the Houses of Israel (in the north) and Judah (in the south), which will once again be united as one kingdom. “New covenant” is a term which is picked up in the New Testament more than once by Paul in his letters and in the Letter to the Hebrews. We know now that, while the old covenant was solemnised by the pouring of the blood of sacrificial animals, the new covenant will be solemnised by the blood of Christ poured out on the cross. The new covenant will differ in many significant ways from what will henceforth be called the “old” or “first” covenant made at Sinai.

In those days Jeremiah says, in a lovely phrase, God “took them by the hand”, echoing the beautiful words of Hosea: “It was I… who took them in my arms; I drew them with human cords, with bands of love. I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks” (Hosea 11:3-4). Yahweh took his people to liberate them from the slavery of Egypt but, as we have seen many times in these readings, it was they and not God who broke that covenant and, as a result, they experienced many hardships.

They would have to learn by painful experience that the Lord and only the Lord was their true master. (The word ‘master’ here can also be translated ‘husband’.)

Then comes a description of this ‘new’ covenant to be made with the house of Israel, now seeing both kingdoms as one.

It will not be simply a legal code, like that of Moses, to be observed by external acts. “Deep within them I will plant my law, writing it on their hearts.” So that it effectively governs their lives, in contrast to the ineffectiveness of merely presenting it in writing, though inscribed on durable stone.

“I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The terms of the old covenant remain but it is superseded by the new which will fulfil and go far beyond what was understood by the old. It will be a law totally assimilated into their very being so that its observance will flow naturally in all their words and actions. The old covenant is not abrogated; rather it becomes fully internalised.

Jesus will spell this out, especially in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, when he says that he comes not to abolish but to fulfil the Law.

And only then will the covenant statement be really fulfilled: “I shall be their God and they shall be my people.”

Finally, there will then “be no further need for neighbour to teach neighbour”. In other words, there will no longer be those who are ignorant of God and his will for their lives. True knowledge of the Lord will be shared by all - young and old, the peasant and the powerful.

Because, “they will all, from the least to the greatest, know me”. Using the word ‘know’ in its fullest sense, it indicates a deep, intimate and direct knowing and not simply an intellectual ‘knowing about’.

The consequence of this deep interpersonal relationship is that “I will forgive their sin”. The very mutuality of the relationship will result in perfect reconciliation and forgiveness and the covenant promise will be fully realised: “I will be their God and they my people.”

There will ensue that unity between God and his people of which Jesus will speak at the Last Supper. “I in them and they in me.”

It is for us to live the terms of this new covenant to the full. It is easy for Christians to fall back on an external living of their faith, seeing its observance in the keeping of external rules and regulations. We need to learn how to ‘know’ God in the deepest recesses of our hearts, to find him in every experience, to be aware of his unconditional love and to communicate that love to all those around us.*
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 52 
Create a clean heart in me, O God.
A clean heart create for me, O God,
and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Cast me not out from your presence,
and your Holy Spirit take not from me.
Create a clean heart in me, O God.
Give me back the joy of your salvation,
and a willing spirit sustain in me.
I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners shall return to you.
Create a clean heart in me, O God.
For you are not pleased with sacrifices;
should I offer a burnt offering,
you would not accept it.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a heart contrite and humbled,
O God, you will not spurn.
Create a clean heart in me, O God.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Matthew 16:13-23
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi
and he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter said in reply,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,
but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld
shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Then he strictly ordered his disciples
to tell no one that he was the Christ.

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly
from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”
He turned and said to Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
We now reach a high point in Matthew’s narrative. More than any of the other gospels, his is a Gospel of the Church. (Mark emphasises discipleship; Luke the communication of God’s love and compassion; John unity with God through Jesus.)

We find Jesus and his disciples in the district of Caesarea Philippi. This is not the fine city of Caesarea built by Herod the Great on the shore of the Mediterranean. It was a town, rebuilt by Herod’s son Philip, who called it after the emperor Tiberius Caesar and himself. It lay just to the north of the Sea of Galilee and near the slopes of Mount Hermon. It had originally been called Paneas, after the Greek god Pan and is known today as Banias.

The area was predominantly pagan, dominated by Rome. In a sense, therefore, it was both an unexpected yet fitting place for Jesus’ identity to be proclaimed. He was, after all, not just for his own people but for the whole world.

Jesus begins by asking his disciples who people think he really is. They respond with some of the speculations that were going round: he was John the Baptist resurrected from the dead (Herod’s view, for instance) or Elijah (whose return was expected to herald the imminent coming of the Messiah) or Jeremiah or some other of the great prophets.

The Jews at this time expected a revival of the prophetic spirit which had been extinct since Malachi. John was regarded by many of the people as a prophet, although he denied that he was the expected prophet, often thought to be Elijah returned. The early Christians saw Jesus as a prophet but with the appearance of prophecy as a charism in their communities the term was dropped in his case.

Interestingly, the people did not seem to think that Jesus himself was on a par with these ‘greats’ of their history. We do tend to undervalue the leaders of our own time when compared with those of the past.

“And you,” Jesus goes on, “who do you say I am?” It was a moment of truth, a very special moment in his disciples’ relationship with their Master. Simon speaks up: “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is a huge step forward for Peter and his companions. As we shall see, it is not yet a total recognition of his identity or mission. But Jesus is no mere rabbi, no mere prophet, but the long-awaited Messiah and Saviour King who would deliver Israel. It is an exciting moment in their relationship with him. And it is only in Matthew that Peter calls him “Son of God”.

The focus now shifts immediately to Simon. He is praised for his insight but Jesus makes clear that it comes from divine inspiration and is not a mere deduction. A ‘mystery’, in the Scripture sense, is being uncovered.

And now comes the great promise. Simon from now on is to be called ‘Peter’, a play on the word for ‘rock’ (kepha in Aramaic, petra/petros in Greek), for he will become the rock on which the “church” will be built, a rock which will stand firm against all attacks on it. A promise which must have sounded very daring at the time it was written but which 2,000 years have again and again vindicated. ‘Peter’ in either Aramaic or Hebrew was not a previously known personal name.

The term ‘church’ only appears twice in Matthew and not at all in the other three gospels. The Hebrew word qahal which in Greek is rendered as ekklesia, means ‘an assembly called together’. It was used often in the Old Testament to indicate the community of the Chosen People.

“By using this term ekklesia side by side with ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, Jesus shows that this eschatological community (community of the ‘end-times’) is to have its beginnings here on earth in the form of an organised society whose leader he now appoints.” (Jerusalem Bible, loc. cit.)

And Simon is given power and authority, the “keys of the Kingdom”, all that he will need to make the Kingdom a reality. His authority and that of the ‘church’ is the authority of Jesus himself. Whatever Peter and the church formally decide is immediately ratified by God; they are his appointed agents.

Lastly, they are strictly ordered not to tell anyone else that Jesus is the Messiah. The people are not ready to hear it; they have their own expectations which are very different from the Messiah that Jesus is going to be. The disciples themselves have a totally wrong idea as becomes immediately clear in what follows.

From the moment that they recognise Jesus as Messiah, he begins to prepare them for what is going to happen. “[The Son of Man] must go to Jerusalem to suffer greatly at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and to be put to death, and raised up on the third day.” This is the first of three ominous predictions.

After the euphoria of knowing their Master was the Messiah, all their dreams and hopes are shattered by these terrible revelations. It is hard for us to imagine the impact these words must have had. Peter, who had just covered himself in glory and been appointed leader, almost patronisingly takes Jesus aside, “God forbid that any such thing ever happen to you!”

For him and the others this was an unthinkable scenario for the Messiah they were all waiting for. How much more shocked Peter must have been at Jesus’ reaction. “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are trying to make me trip and fall. You are not judging by God’s standards but by man’s.” The man who was just now called a Rock is accused of being Satan’s advocate! Instead of being a rock of stability, he is seen as a stumbling block in the way of Jesus.

Peter is seen as doing the very work of the devil in trying to divert Jesus from the way he was called to go, the way in which God’s love would be revealed to us, the way in which we would be liberated for the life of the Kingdom.

It will take time before Peter and the others both understand and accept the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah. It will not happen until after the resurrection. Before that the Rock will be guilty of a shameful betrayal of the Man who put such trust in him.

We too can ask ourselves to what extent we accept Jesus the rejected, suffering, dying and rising Messiah*.

The Irish Jesuits

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

'And so I say to you, you are Peter'

I am struck by the powerful symmetry: Simon bar Jonah is Peter, the rock of the Church, in the same way that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.

Isn't it also typical how, when we finally come to know God, He tells us who we truly are. Self-knowledge comes as a sudden, sometimes surprising, unsought bonus!

Peter was not a given name at this time, but was the city of Petra called Petra then? I tend to visualize the church built on a rock as a fortress on a rocky mound, but perhaps the disciples might have visualized somthing built against a rock face, like the city of Petra. Petra, or what is left of it, seems to be a city of elaborate porticos onto rock tombs, rather like gates onto the underworld.

When we remember the catacombs, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the stinky, tomb-filled medieval churches that the Reformation rebelled against, the strange wish of Christian communities for proximity to the underworld is clear. Perhaps it is linked to Christ's words here - we can stand bold and defiant before the gates of hell - parking our tanks on Satan's lawn, so to speak!