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12th Sunday of Trinity

18 August 2023

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

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“CAESAREA PHILIPPI” is Christian shorthand for the moment when humanity recognised Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. That visionary moment, though, is not straightforward. But we can ask Paul to help us make sense of it.

In Romans 12.2, Paul refers to God’s “perfect” will. He does not mean that God’s will is “perfect” in the sense of “flawless” (though doubtless it is). He means that it is “integrous” — that it has a wholeness about it; a sense of purpose fulfilled, of will completed.

I have not invented “integrous”. The Oxford English Dictionary records a single, 17th-century example of it; an adjective to go with the familiar noun “integrity”. But Christian theology and devotion could both find space for a word so redolent of the Christian ideal, as we shall see.

As a preliminary to discerning God’s will, Paul urges us not to be conformed but transformed; and this transformation is a process as well as an event. Nowadays, when someone becomes a Christian, we refer to “initiation” (from the Latin, initium, meaning “beginning”). This beginning gets the lifelong process of transformation moving. Our inner reality may change to having an integrous quality “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15.52). But, for our outer selves — those beings of flesh and blood which are flowers of the field one moment, and fuel for the oven the next — a lifetime is not enough to achieve integrity, and all of us end our earthly lives still on the journey.

So we must not be deterred by the language of perfection. It is not there to remind us how unworthy we are of God’s grace (charis) and gifts (charismata; Romans 12.6). It is there to show that there is meaning and direction in our lives.

When Simon declares what he believes about Jesus, he does so because Jesus specifically asks him to. He does not recognise him as Messiah because he has perfect vision. His perception springs from weakness, not from strength. The sequence of events is vital to the Gospel’s message here, but no single Sunday could include the whole.

The order runs: (1) Simon’s declaration; (2) the renamed Peter becomes keeper of the keys to the Kingdom; (3) Peter’s rebuke (when Jesus reveals the coming Passion); (4) Peter as witness to the transfiguration. We could summarise these steps as (1) vision; (2) honour; (3) error; (4) incomprehension.

God has a providential purpose. This is clear from the simple fact that Jesus has foreknowledge of the future, never mind Paul’s more complex ideas in Romans about perfection and integrity and goodness. Jesus is not guessing at Simon’s becoming the key-holder and the rock: he knows it, with all the divine clarity which comes from the Holy Three being outside of human time. For, to God, everything is present and nothing is future or past.

Peter may be a rock, and a key-holder, but he is “only” a human being. Even with visions there come mistakes. The events which follow immediately after Caesarea Philippi witness to this non-linear (being polite), vacillating (being honest) quality about human striving for perfection.

I understand integrity to mean “wholeness”; so “integrous” means “possessing the quality of wholeness”. Using logic, a philosopher might agree that Jesus can properly be called “integrous”. A theologian might need to finesse this for the unity of the two natures — divine and human — in Christ. Both would find it hard to call Peter integrous, for vision has not perfected him: he remains flawed. In terms of strict logic, one cannot be a little bit integrous. Perfection can only be 100 per cent.

The gospel is not logical. It proceeds not by sequences of propositional reasoning but by chapters in a story. And every good story needs a plot, and elements of recognition, and changes of circumstance, and clashes of good with good, or evil with evil; all amid the stirring up of emotions of pity, fear, and love.

Narrative truth is natural truth, in which Peter’s imperfections are not off-putting but reassuring. We may not be able to call him “perfect”, but we can call him “integrous” — because he is growing in knowledge of his fractured nature, and wrestling with it to the end of his days. No wonder the words “Love covers a multitude of sins” are to be found in the first letter attributed to Peter (4.8).

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