Is this where Jesus made Peter the first Pope?
That’s what Roman Catholics used to say. But now, even in their official publications, they recognize that it’s way more complicated than that. (For example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: “Any biblical and historical scholar today would consider anachronistic the question whether Jesus constituted Peter the first pope, since this question derives from a later model of the papacy which it projects back into the New Testament.”) So let’s not get sidetracked on that question.
The New Testament does show that Peter occupied some sort of “first place“ among the disciples, especially in the Jerusalem community. And Jesus is certainly singling Peter out for special honors in this week’s reading. He gets the name, “rock,” for seeing beyond everyday categories, seeing more to Jesus’ life than just another prophet. It’s a God moment, says Jesus.
But Peter turns out to be a disappointingly wobbly rock. Just a few verses later he shows that he still can’t see beyond his own “gospel of success“ version of the Messiah. And Jesus has to rebuke him (Matthew 16:21-23). It’s a foretaste of his later, cowardly denials of Jesus (26:69-75). His cowardice continued long after his leadership began. Paul recounts how Peter was too chicken to be seen welcoming non-Jewish Christians in front of Jewish Christians (Galatians 2:11-14). Like the other disciples, he continues to demonstrate an uncanny ability to get things dreadfully wrong. Just as Jesus is not the conquering Messiah we might have wanted, Peter is not the immovable rock we might have wanted. Nor is the church he led.
Jesus confers on Peter what looks to be an amazing authority. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” That sounds pretty amazing! But it might be amazingly different from the way we usually hear this.
It sounds at first as if Jesus is saying that whatever Peter says or does will automatically be endorsed by God. But that can’t be what this means. As I’ve already pointed out, there’s quite a bit that Peter says and does that definitely does not get endorsed by God.
And besides, Peter is not the only one who has this “binding and loosing“ power. It apparently comes into play whenever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name (Matthew 18:18-20). So what happens when different gatherings reach conflicting conclusions? Do they all get God’s automatic endorsement? That would make God most untrustworthy.
I’m going to go out on a limb, and of course I could always be dead wrong (even when I don’t go out on a limb). But I see something more mind-bogglingly radical happening here. It turns on what Jesus says the second time he mentions binding and loosing. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).
For Matthew and every other New Testament writer, Jesus is the intersection of earth and heaven, as well as of past and present. And despite all its evident flaws from the very outset, so is his church, his risen body (1 Corinthians 12:27). In the togetherness of his followers, Jesus is bringing together heaven and earth. There’s no heaven “up there“ that isn’t also “down here,” and vice versa. And there’s no Jesus “there and then” who isn’t “here and now,” and vice versa. And of course the same goes for God. (Matthew often uses “heaven“ where other Gospel writers use “God,” maybe following the Jewish practice of not referring to God by name.)
So let’s go out on a limb with the idea that this is about the all-embracing presence of God working in and through everything we say and do, no matter how embracing or unembracing we turn out to be. What we say and do does indeed have heavenly consequences—it reframes the very terms in which God continues to work in and through us. But it doesn’t mean that God endorses it; it means that God continues to work with it. And not even the “gates of Hades” can prevent God from working all-embracingly in and through the earthy, limited terms we provide.
After all, isn’t that a basic theme of the whole Bible? Again and again, God puts the work of all-embracing reconciliation into the hands of chronically failing followers. But again and again, God finds new ways to continue that work in and through chronic failures. Thank God!
The whole history of Christianity continues that theme up to now. Indeed, the whole history of humanity continues that theme up to now. Just look at the chronic failures in our national life together, in our global life together. But again and again, God finds new ways to continue that all-embracing work in and through chronic failures. Or so our Gospel lesson tells us (I wager). Shall we live into that?