Monday, October 12, 2009

On the Merits

Matt. 16:18-19 "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

This part of Matthew's Gospel has carried a lot over the years. It is the only place in the gospels that the word "church" is used. It is the justification for Peter being considered the first Pope in Roman Catholic tradition and, since Jesus says that Peter will receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven, it ensures that Peter plays a prominent role in anything mentioning entry to heaven--art, pearly gates jokes, you name it.

This passage also re-names Peter. His name has been Simon before this, which is a Hebrew name meaning "to hear or be heard." But Jesus names him Peter (Cephas in the Greek), which means "rock." The whole passage is really a rather massive promotion. A rash fisherman becomes the rock on which the church is founded, is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and receives some significant spiritual power. Why? Because when Jesus' asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter responds that Jesus is the Messiah.

This story is just over midway through Matthew's Gospel. Peter is a lot of things at this point, but he is, frankly, nothing like a rock that anybody would build anything on. In fact, just five verses later, Jesus rebukes Peter with the words, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Apparently Peter is still stone-like, but his purpose has fallen from church foundation to stumbling block in a mere five verses. And of course it won't be long before Peter is famously denying that he even knows the guy who just promised him the keys to heaven.

This passage has been ringing in my ears lately because of all the "he doesn't deserve it" flap around President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. I will grant the nay-sayers that no, he has not earned such a prestigious prize. But neither did Peter deserve his "rock" title, let alone the keys to the kingdom. I don't so much want to defend the decision of the Nobel committee as much as simply raise the question about why we Christians are so adamant that everyone earn everything.

There are certainly examples where Jesus responds to actual merit with reward. The whole final judgment scene in Matthew 25 is about rewarding those who have done actual good works. But there are also plenty of places where Jesus disregards merit completely--in fact, the entire theology of salvation in the Protestant tradition is grounded in the notion that we are receiving eternal life as an unmerited gift. We call that "grace." We sometimes work hard to try to make "having faith" into some kind of work that earns us that gift, but Protestants have gone to the mat for over a millennium now for the belief that we did not and cannot earn our salvation.

God changed Abram's name to Abraham, which means the "father of a multitude," before he had even a single child. Simon became "the rock" and was promised the keys to the kingdom right before his most famous and utter failure. And Romans 5:8 spells out the most outrageous gift of all: "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us."

My entire book, God With Skin On, is based on the premise that we only come to understand the love of God by experiencing it first in the flesh. For that reason, in this world where we even make people prove they are worthy of charity, I am glad that the prestigious Nobel committee unanimously decided to bestow a new name on a promise and a hope, rather than a proven entity. It reminds me that I do not have to earn God's love, but rather live out my gratitude for it.

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