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11th Sunday after Trinity

13 August 2020

Proper 16: Isaiah 51.1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20

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THE New Testament offers an unflinching analysis of the failings of religious institutions — and, at the very same time, affirms the eternal vocation of the Church. The “gates of Hades” will not prevail against the Church; for she is more than a means to an end: she is the body of which Christ is the head.

In this Sunday’s epistle, Paul uses the metaphor of “one body” to emphasise the complementary vocations of her different members. Paul repeats this message throughout his writings, because the Church’s congregations and structures so frequently become sites of petty rivalry and jostling for status and power.

The magnitude of the Church’s vocation stands in judgement over such attitudes. Only decades after Paul’s letters, Pope St Clement had to write, “Why do we divide and tear to pieces the members of Christ and raise up strife against our own body, and. . . forget that ‘we are members one of another’?”

In every generation, Christians are tempted by the values and methods of this passing world. As Paul reminds the Romans, they must not be “conformed to this world”, but, rather, be “transformed by the renewing of your minds”. Pope Francis warns us against a “spiritual worldliness” that “wants to jump on to the carriage of the winner” and “lives off gestures and words that are not forged in the crucible of the cross”.

The confession of Peter is a pivotal moment in the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel. From this time on, Jesus begins “to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering”. Although Peter is “the rock” on whom Christ builds his Church, he has to be rebuked only moments after his great confession; for he cannot reconcile the status of Christ as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” with this prophecy of suffering and humiliation. It is only the “crucible of the cross” that will cure Peter and his fellow apostles of their desire for success according to the values and methods of the world.

Jesus declares that the apostle’s confession is not the fruit of “flesh and blood” but a gift from his heavenly Father. In like manner, Peter’s rock-like stability is a fruit of the Spirit — and of his searing experience of failure when he acted in his own power. “Faith in God and in Christ can only become rock-hard faith in a rocky fortress through God and Christ himself” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Light of the Word).

Paul’s exposition of the doctrine of the Church as the body of Christ also flows from his encounter with the Crucified One. On the Damascus road, Jesus reveals his identification with the fragile and vulnerable body which Paul has been persecuting (Acts 9.4).

As Sarah Heaner Lancaster explains, the image of being “one body” was familiar in classical thought, as an expression of the unity of diverse citizens. But Paul’s experience of the unity of persecuted Christians with their Lord leads him to take the metaphor in a more radical direction: “The body Paul is talking about is not united in citizenship but rather united in Christ. The oneness that this body shares comes from common baptism, which makes them not only members with distinct functions but also members of one another” (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Romans).

As the history of the Church reminds us, such grace is not an inevitable consequence of baptism. The invitation to the Romans (to adapt a phrase of H. A. Williams) is to “become what they are”. They are baptised into Christ’s paschal triumph, and Paul calls them to align their behaviour with that reality, presenting their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship”.

There is an echo here of Isaiah’s message, as he summons his readers to live out the reality of who, by the grace of God, they are. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn,” he urges them, “and to the quarry from which you were dug.” Like Peter, we become “rock-like” when we recognise that true glory and power are to be found in the sacrificial life and love of Christ; for Christ is the rock from whom we have been hewn, and into whose death we are baptised. Our lives, like Peter’s, will be strong only when they are “forged in the crucible of the cross”.

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