The gospel for last Sunday (Matt. 16:13-20) offered new understanding of the identity of Jesus. The story occurs outside a temple built to honor Caesar Augustus (the first of the Caesars of the Roman Empire).
The earliest hearers, or readers, of this story would have known of a plaque on the gate that says “Divi filius,” which translates “son of the divine.” Caesars thought themselves divinely installed as leaders of the empire.
It’s here that Jesus asks his followers, “Who do the people say I am?” The word on the street: Maybe John the Baptist. Maybe Elijah or one of the other prophets? OK. But who do you say I am? Impulsive Simon is the one to speak up: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” The true Divi filius. And not just a true son of God, but a “Messiah.” An “anointed one.”
Just as Hebrew military and political rulers were anointed with oil, so is Jesus, Simon claims. But Jesus hasn’t come to rule armies or governments. He has come to rule in human hearts with a divine message of love.
Jesus declares that his leadership is not established in conquest, but in surrender and sacrifice. His kingdom is not of this world but of the human spirit. Simon’s confession of his Christhood establishes him as a rock (Greek, Petras or Peter) upon which Christ will build his church. This is Simon’s new name.
And be it known that Simon Peter had his own shortcomings, mostly his impulsive tendency to blurt without thinking.
His zeal for the dominion of Jesus’ kingdom gets in the way of fully understanding what this kingdom is all about.
This Sunday’s scripture (Matt. 16:21-28), takes the understanding of the word “kingdom” to a whole new level. Once you understand true divine kingship, you can’t go back to old ways of seeing things. Everything you thought you knew about kings is totally upended.
Example: As Jesus now describes the impending events leading to his death, Simon (now Peter), as a true second-in-command, declares his loyalty to the earthly Jesus: “God forbid. This will never happen.” And Jesus, who just minutes before had declared Peter the founding rock of his kingdom, now says to him, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a hindrance to me, for you are not on God’s side.”
The battle for the human spirit makes earthly wars look like small borders
The battles may look small (feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, fostering or adopting the orphan), but the victories are deeply impactful, and as they multiply, they win the world over to the side of love everlasting.