Thursday, September 10, 2015

Peter's Epiphany

Generally speaking, in the church there are two kinds of commemorations--people or events. We remember people whose lives are a testament to holiness. Don't get me started on a theology of sainthood, but, in the style of the New Testament authors, I understand all Christians to be "saints" or, literally, "holy ones." Perhaps all people have a witness worth remembering, but some people seem to have the sort of witness that resonates across cultures and generations, and so we put a date on the calendar to remember them. The other sort of remembrance is an event--sometimes a post-biblical event like the Consecration of Samuel Seabury. (Note that we're not commemorating the first bishop of the Episcopal Church but the fact that he was consecrated as the first bishop. There's a big difference.) But most of our event-specific commemorations are taken directly from the biblical story: Christmas, Easter, Epiphany, the Visitation, the Transfiguration, etc..

This Sunday--like all Sundays--is a commemoration of the resurrection, which is, of course, a pretty big deal. In our church, there are rules over what other commemorations can take the place of a Sunday, and there aren't many of them (only six, if you exclude those that always fall on a Sunday or, in the case of Ascension Day, on a Thursday). So, when I say that this Sunday is just a Sunday, I don't mean that lightly. But we're not commemorating anything else...except, that in our gospel lesson, we read a story that has its own commemoration.

The Confession of St. Peter, which we will read about in Mark 8:27-38, has its own feast day (18 January, which happened to be a Sunday in 2015 but isn't reckoned as important enough to take the place of the regular Sunday observance and so was transferred to the first convenient open day in the week.). That is a really long way of saying that it's a really big deal. Think of all the gospel stories you like--healings, walking on water, stilling the storm, etc.. How many of them get their own day in the calendar? The aforementioned big ones do, but most of the ins and outs of the gospel don't merit a special commemoration. This moment--Peter's confession--is so remarkable...perhaps other-worldly...that we stop everything once a year and remember the story. (Plus the other times it comes up in the Sunday lectionary--around this time of year twice every three years.)

What's the point? The point is that this pivotal moment in the gospel (notice it comes right in the middle of Mark's 16 chapters) isn't just a moment of Christological realization. It's a heaven-sent miracle of clarity. Matthew's version of the story recalls Jesus saying to Peter, "Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but my father in heaven!" (Matthew 16:17). This kind of insight--this epiphanic moment--isn't the product of Peter's careful study but a lighting bolt from heaven. He didn't put all the pieces together. God put all of the pieces together and gave Peter an insight that even Peter himself didn't expect.

Don't forget about what happens next. Jesus orders the disciples to tell no one and then goes on to predict his passion, death, and resurrection. It is no accident that, in response to this image of messianic suffering that Peter steps in and rebukes Jesus for saying this. Think about that for a second. Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah and then takes him aside and rebukes him. Those two things cannot go together, but they happen just like that as a sign that Peter's heavenly epiphany still required some earthly synthesis.

What is our response to this gospel story? Have we been given a glimpse of who Jesus is yet still haven't understood what that glimpse really means? Do we call ourselves Christians but still need to learn what it means to be a follower of Jesus? I know a lot of people (including me) who have these sorts of Petrine moments--revelations that start something but still have a long way to go. On Sunday I'm preaching about this gap between insight and deep knowing because I hear Jesus' words "take up your cross and follow me" as an invitation to discovery. Like Peter, we must walk the road to truly know what it is that we have confessed.

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