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September 12, 2003
Friday's eMo is always a meditation on the lectionary texts for the coming Sunday. As with all the eMOs, preachers and teachers are welcome to borrow, with the usual attribution.


And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Mark 8:31

The moment before these discouraging words is a classic: Peter makes his famous confession of Jesus as the expected Messiah. I remember watching the moment of Peter's confession in Sunday School: we had a noisy 16mm projector, and a series of films that illustrated famous Bible moments. The series was low-budget -- a series of tableaux, was what it really was: frame after frame of sober-looking actors in bathrobes, frozen in significant poses. Dramatic tension was attempted by lingering on a frame and offering successive close-ups: there was Peter's earnest face, suffused with awe. "You are the Christ." And there it was again. And again. And again.

The film ends, in my memory, with that inspiring close-up. But surely it must have gone on, as Jesus did, to explain what it was going to mean, to be the Christ. Jesus was going to suffer. People were going to kill Him. It must have included those unpleasant details, but what I remember is the awe: Peter's face, glowing with religious fervor.

This Sunday we read about the moment a Mark records it -- the earliest record of it. By the time the story gets to Matthew, though, it has been embroidered considerably: now Jesus goes on to name Peter (who used to be Simon) and to tell him that he's going to be the rock on which the Church is built -- Mark's Jesus didn't mention anything about a church. This is the papal proof text of Roman Catholicism, which long ago convinced itself that all this is about Peter being the first Pope. And who am I to say he wasn't? But still, in the oldest extant version of this moment: no Church and no pope. Just the confession of Peter -- "You are the Christ" -- and then some bad news.

This embellishment over time is what Max Weber called the "routinization of a charism." We take something God does and make it into something we do. Maybe we repaint it and add some gold leaf. Soon we have it bronzed, so it can never change. So we can never lose it.

But in making it an institution, we lose it anyway. Those of us who are in church every Sunday and many other days, who know the Church and love the Church and understand the Church -- must also remember that the Church is not God. It is a structure purposed to bring people to God. Nor are its categories of thought God, nor its traditions. Even its scriptures are not, themselves, God. They reveal God through the lens of human experience, that of the reader as well as of the ancient writer.

We took a moment in which someone witnessed the joining of heaven and earth in the person of Jesus and made it the founding of an organization. We took Peter's experience and made it a rule. We took someone named Simon and turned him into a rock -- "Peter" is "Petrus" -- meaning "rock," as in "petrified." But Peter was a man, not a rock. He goes on, in the gospel stories, to be an emblem of us, a bumbling everyman who gets everything just a little bit wrong. His most powerful witness is as someone who lives with Jesus and grows to maturity the hard way, the way we do it: by making mistakes, some of them grievous ones. By learning from them. In scripture we spend years with Peter, and we see him change. Eventually, the man who denies his Friend three times find within himself the courage to accept death rather than abandon Him.

Peter's most profound gift to us isn't an institution. It's his own journey of faith, a journey whose outlines we can trace in these ancient stories. The institution grew as institutions grow, a tangle of divine gift and human frailty, so intertwined throughout its history that one will not be separable from the other until the whole mess enters the Kingdom of God.
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