Pentecost 15A, 2008
Matthew 16:13-20

A Liturgy is also available


Let me tell you a story of a story.

In Nikos Kazantzakis' novel Zorba the Greek,
the boss asks Zorba what a man is.

Zorba replies with a story about his father.

Every day his father would leave the house early in the morning
and walk seven miles to begin
plowing and planting a field.

Before he would begin his day's work, he would sit down under a tree,
fill his pipe with tobacco, and have a leisurely smoke.

One day when the father opened his tobacco pouch, it was empty.
He went into a rage and ripped the tobacco pouch to shreds.
Then he stopped and realised what he had done.

From that day forward he never smoked again.

Zorba ended the tale with, "That is a man" (Shea 1996:158).

The teller of the story story, Jack Shea, went on to say:
“To be human is to be transcendent - to be a little bit more than our habits and behaviors… We humans are constantly breaking out of the prisons we ourselves have constructed.  We play all the roles – warden, guard and inmate.  But the moment we most enjoy is when we are dancing in freedom on the far side of the wall” (Shea 1996:158-59).

I resonate with this story because, after a bit of effort, perhaps
we can hear echoes from it way back in Matthew’s story.

Although to be honest, Matthew’s story is a difficult one to play with.


From all Matthew’s stories we have heard in the past couple of weeks or so,
a bloke called Simon Peter gets a lead jersey.

Change was happening all around Matthew and his small Syrian ‘Jesus Movement’ community.
The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed.
Judaism was beginning to be reshaped.
A bloke called Paul was gaining both Jewish and ‘god-fearers’ converts
to his personal “mystical experience” (Wilson 2008:126) Christ Movement.

So to be honest I wasn’t surprised when I read in
Eduard Schweizer’s (one of my NT lecturers at Theological College) commentary:
“The Syrian church in particular appears to have based its claims on the authority of Peter…

And a few sentences later:
“…we might be dealing with the Syrian church’s declaration of independence from the mother church at Jerusalem… since [some verses base] the authority of Peter as rock of the church on his authority to teach…” (Schweizer 1975:338).

Yep… internal political manoeuvrings were beginning to take shape
within the Jesus Movement, as one branch, led by Simon,
aimed its evangelistic efforts at the Judean community in Palestine.

And another branch, led by Paul, focused its evangelistic efforts on pagans and gentiles.

So, as I suggested last week, it is interesting if not a little ironic
that Simon was given the nickname ‘Petros’.
Ironic, because some scholars who know a lot more Greek than I,
reckon while the Greek word can be translated as ‘rock’,
or more accurate translation is ‘stony ground’.

Australian sociologist John Carroll says of Simon:
“When Simon the fisherman was called to follow, he heard the word with joy. But the forewarning is that he has no roots, so the moment there is stress, or fear… he will wither” (Carroll 2007:31).

And again:
“[Simon] exemplifies what it is to have no roots. Weak characters wilt under pressure. Boldness is not enough, if there is no anchor…  On stony ground, men stumble” (Carroll 2007:138, 139).

So with sharpened stick in hand, and a pot of ink dye at his elbow,
the storyteller sets the scene:
Jesus, in the rich Jewish tradition of dialogue, asks a question or three:
What are you hearing around the traps about me.
Who do people say that I am?
Who do you reckon I am?

At first glance, according to some commentators, this appears
to be a series of abstract theological questions.  That
“[i]n spite of popular bumpers sticker theology, there is no one way to understand Jesus’ personhood and relationship to God and humankind” (BEpperly P&F web site, 2008).

Or, in the spirit of Jack Shea’s earlier comments,
we humans are constantly breaking out of the prisons
we and others have constructed around us.

But on the other hand there are those commentators
who approach this story from the Lectionary perspective.

That is, at least one other of the Lectionary readings set down,
also contains verbal connections or wordplays to ‘rock’:
Isaiah exhorts the people to look to the ‘rock’ from which they were hewn.

So, says this commentator:
“… Matthew shows Jesus calling Simon Peter the rock on whom the church will be built” (PNancarrow P&F web site, 2002).

While Matthew’s use of similar words have created much ado in various quarters,
perhaps it can foreshadow a clue we, in the 21st century, need.
That is, this story is a comment about ‘authority’ and ‘leadership’.


‘Authority’ and ‘leadership’.  Certainly issues alive at the moment.

And I hope some of you had an opportunity to read Cynthia Banham’s recent article
on the subject, in the Sydney Morning Herald
Cynthia was the Australian journalist who survived
a plane crash in Indonesia last year (SMH, 9-10 August 2008:28).

So let me offer a brief comment around both.

As you know more than 600 Anglican bishops - the voices of authority and leadership
within that global community - recently met in Canterbury
to thrash out one or two important issues.

And prior to that gathering, another 300 bishops and others,
led by Sydney’s Archbishop Peter Jensen, met in an alternate gathering, near Jerusalem.

The latter boycotted the former!
The leader of the former refused to invite a colleague because he was gay
declaring by his actions, the gay bishop was someone
the Archbishop did not have to consider!

Towards the end of the Canterbury meet, participants were addressed by
Britain's chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, who appealed to both Jews and Christians
to forge a common cause and to reach out to other people in a world dominated by politics and economics.

“Though we do not share a faith, we surely share a fate”, he said.  “Whatever our faith or lack of faith, hunger still hurts, disease still strikes, poverty still disfigures and hate still kills” (Insights/30.7.2008).

Speaking with both ‘authority’ and ‘leadership’, Rabbi Sacks said faith
brought a “covenantal relationship” of cooperation to an
economic and political world based on the logic of competition.
“If there is only competition and not cooperation, if there is only the State and the market and no covenantal relationships”, he said, “society will not survive… [But} what is the face religion all too often shows to the world?  Conflict between faiths, and sometimes within faiths” (Insights/30.7.2008).

Again, in the spirit of Jack Shea’s earlier comments:
“To be human is to be transcendent - to be a little bit more than our habits and behaviors…” (Shea 1996:158).


Matthew’s Jesus does not end his dialogue with abstract theological reflection.
The storyteller personalises the question, enabling the leadership of Simon,
for better or for worse, to be confirmed.

In our world and in our time, when television
has invaded our lounge rooms letting the outside world in, and
turned the family circle into a semi-circle…

And where globalisation is thrusting us together as never before,
where every event modifies and affects every other event, (McLuhan 1999:33)
we need courageous, honest, and cooperative leadership.

Courageous, honest, and cooperative leadership in politics.
Courageous, honest, and cooperative leadership in religion.

In our day and in our time, some of that ‘courageous and honest’
leadership within progressive religion globally, is being
offered by Canadian, Gretta Vosper.

In her book With or Without God she offers a blessing which
reflects the honesty and the thesis of her book.  She says:
“The world you go into is a world filled with challenges, with crises, with pain, with disappointment.
You go as people who know these things intimately because
you have felt them, experienced them, and railed against them.

“Go now as those who would see not only what the world is but what we can make it be,
and may your hands, your heart, your voice be turned toward making it so.  Go in peace” (Vosper 2008:355).

May it indeed be so with us as well.

Carroll, J. 2007.  The Existential Jesus. VIC: Melbourne. Scribe Publications.
McLuhan, M. 1999.  The Medium and the Light.  Reflections on Religion. Edited by E. McLuhan & J. Szklarek. Canada: Toronto.  Stoddart.
Schweizer, E. 1975.  The Good News According to Matthew. GtB: London. SPCK.
Shea, J. 1996.  The Legend of the Bells and Other Tales.  Stories of the Human Spirit. IL: Chicago. ACTA Publishing.
Vosper, G. 2008.  With or Without God. Why the Way we Live is More Important that What we Believe. Canada: Toronto. HarperCollins.