Sunday, August 21, 2011, Pentecost 10, Proper 16A
Preached at Holy Cross Monastery
As all the brethren know, I have just returned from two weeks away. I left, as I always do, with a small library of books I intended to read: David Brakke’s Athanasius and Asceticism; another book on asceticism, Margaret Miles’ Fullness of Life, which I should have read when it came out in 1981; two recent compilations of essays on the Venerable Bede; and Harold Bloom’s latest work of literary criticism, The Anatomy of Influence. I always do this: I pack the books I ought to read. I know I will return a much better person if I read them all, and I never do. I crack them, read a chapter or two, and then, somehow, mysteriously, move onto something else. This time I read two books which were actually a lot more fun: Jonathan Yardley’s wonderful short essays on neglected classics called Second Reading, and John Julius Norwich’s just-published narrative romp, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy. If you want the serious history of the popes, of course, you have to go to the Germans, someone like Bernard Schimmelpfennig, who thinks it is terribly important that the reader understand that the likelihood that Peter ever even got to Rome at all is practically zero. He dissects the papacy like a coroner dissects corpses, looking for evidences of foul play.
Norwich is not of the Schimmelpfennig school. He nods his head to the grim truth that much has been lost to us in the mists of time. But he loves to evoke the living reality, so he tells the stories, and there are a lot of good and juicy stories to tell. The papacy has been around in one form or another going on two thousand years, and its story is a fascinating narrative with a cast of hundreds in the starring roles and thousands surrounding them. The Vatican officially lists Benedict XVI as number 265, and that doesn’t count the numerous popes of disputed title. There are lots of saints and quite a lot of remarkable and admirable men on that list. But there are also more than a few scoundrels, and some stories that will curl the hair of the most ardent proponent of the See of Rome. My personal favorite among the flagrantly ambiguous reigned from 1492 to 1503. Alexander VI, the first Borgia pope, was a great administrator and diplomat, a patron of the arts and of learning, and devoted to his family. He was a man of enormous charm which he used to great and positive effect at some quite dangerous and difficult moments. But as greatly charming persons sometimes are, he was also possessed of dubious personal holiness and habits of life. Among the four publicly acknowledged children by his mistress Vanozza dei Cattanei, all of whom he provided for in quite a grand way at the expense of the Church, was the irrepressible Lucrezia. I recommend Norwich to you to fill in the details.
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Whatever construction later ecclesiastical theory put on this statement, and it is the key scriptural basis for the primacy of the successors of Peter, it is clear that the early church thought that the Lord’s words to Peter were central to its self-understanding. Something essential about the leadership of the Church is indicated by the exchange between Jesus and Peter. Something worth looking at.
Jesus is asking his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter, without any hesitation, answers, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." An amazingly rich and complicated exchange, using in such a short space three of the most loaded titles in all of scripture, about which commentary has swirled and proliferated likely since the moment this conversation was uttered. Indeed, the first commentary on it comes from Jesus himself: The one who has identified Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God is the rock on which the Church will be built. That is how important Peter’s statement is.
I find it interesting that Jesus uses the word rock here, and also that the early church remembered it and made it central. Remember the parable of the two houses, one built on sand and the other on rock? The one built on sand is swept away. The one built on rock outlasts the storm. Jesus wants his movement to continue long after he is gone. But he seems to be worried that it won’t last, that it will be built on a false foundation. The church requires rock for its foundation. It may be, as later was taught, that the rock is the character of Peter, and it may be that his official successors will inherit his strength of character and immovability. The colorful story of Peter’s successors shows that some were rocks and some, well, not so much. Yet mysteriously, the church endures.
But I wonder if Jesus’ statement is not about something more direct in his exchange with Peter. The rock to which Jesus refers can be interpreted as Peter’s confession, that Jesus is Messiah and Son of the living God. This is what calls forth the Lord’s declaration. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that if a leader wants to follow in Peter’s steps, it is Peter’s confession that provides the strength and solidity, the genuineness, the integrity on which the church can continue to be built. What matters in a leader of the Church may include being a good administrator or a good diplomat, or a person devoted to his or her family (and what family doesn’t have its ups and downs!). But what makes Christian leadership genuine is that the leader points to Jesus of Nazareth and declares to all who may care to hear that it is this one – not some other – who is the one anointed to bring in the kingdom of God, that is to say, this is the one who is the answer to how we should order our lives, individually and collectively; that it is this one – not some other – who bears the divine nature in human form, that is to say, this is the one who shows us what it ultimately real.
The rock solid foundation of the Church is its understanding of who Jesus really is. Leaders who truly follow Peter, who are genuine rocks on whom the church is built in every age, indeed in our own age, are those who say with unequivocal certainty that Jesus is the one who brings in the kingdom and shows the true nature of God to us.
In eight days, on August 29, the list of official nominees for the election of the 16th Episcopal Bishop of New York is to be announced, and exactly two months later the Convention will vote, and, one hopes, elect. There are many qualities which one can desire in a bishop of a diocese as large and as complex as New York. We have had good administrators, diplomatic personalities, and men devoted to their families, though not all of them quite as colorful perhaps as Alexander VI. Whoever is elected will need many gifts, but more gifts will be needed than any one person can possess. Inevitably he or she will lack some important ones, and in ten years or so it will be clear what they are.
But there is one gift this new Bishop, in fact every bishop, in fact every Christian leader, in fact, every serious Christian, must absolutely possess. When asked the question, Who do you say that I am? by the Lord, or when asked by others, Who is Jesus?, that person should be one who, with Peter, can say with unequivocal certainty who Jesus is: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And mean it. And understand it. And interpret it to others. And put it into effective practice in this time and in this place. And build the church on it.