Friday, September 6, 2013

Sifted Like Wheat (follow-up)

Original post from Evangelical Outpost.

It is fortunate–oh, so fortunate–that it was not Job, that paragon of patience and faith, that Jesus claimed he would build his church on.
And that’s not the non-sequitur it first appears to be, because Job and Peter actually have quite a lot in common.
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,  but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Some context: For weeks now, even months, Jesus has prophesied that he will find his doom in Jerusalem. Now, on the heels of the strangest Passover dinner ever, Jesus sets his affairs in order, giving his disciples what is clearly meant to be his last few words with them. And in the middle of it, sensing Peter’s denial and fear, he drops this bombshell: Satan has personally petitioned the Father for particular access to the persons of Simon and the rest of the disciples (the first “you” is plural). Jesus then singles out Simon again by addressing him with the singular “you”, saying he will pray for Simon in particular, and that Simon in particular will turn away regardless.
Satan’s purpose in gaining access to the disciples is to “sift them like wheat.” This is a much more graphic and threatening image than first appears, because to sift wheat, you first beat it to separate it into its component parts, then you toss the resulting mess into the air (likely with a winnowing fork) to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat is stored and treasured, and the chaff? Thrown into the fire to be burned.
Satan has asked for explicit permission to sift the disciples: to beat them into pieces, to reduce them to their very essence, and toss them up into the air to see what among them was wheat and what among them was chaff, fit only to be blown away by the wind and burned. It is unfortunate that Peter was too busy denying Jesus’ prediction of failure to give any thought to what preceded it. If he had considered Jesus’ initial remark, it is probable that he would have had one thought in his mind: “Son of a camel, I’m being Job’ed...”
And indeed, the situation Jesus hastily sketches out in the Upper Room of Jerusalem bears an eerie similarity to the situation fleshed out in one of the oldest of OT scriptures. Satan takes a personal interest in a particular servant of God, and he makes it his mission to utterly destroy that servant. He personally petitions God for the authority to do so. And, having obtained permission to test the servant of the Most High, Satan goes to town on him.
Why Peter? For the same reason Satan chose Job: both had been singled out as God’s servants. God implicitly challenged Satan, boasting of Job’s uprightness and righteous fear of the Lord, highlighting Satan’s failure to dent said righteousness. And Satan can’t have been ignorant of Christ’s proclamation concerning Peter, especially considering that Jesus again made it personal by specifying that the Church built on Peterwould tear down the very Gates of Hell.
Of course, it doesn’t seem as though any of this entered Peter’s mind. He was too frightened and confused, and too obsessed with looking like he wasn’t frightened and confused, for him to really consider Jesus’ words. There is at this point only the immediate gut reaction, the ill-considered boast that Peter would die before turning away from Christ.
With Peter, even more so than with Job, we see highlighted in vibrant color the frail humanity of the tools God chooses to use. The steadfastness of Job is legendary, just this side of super-human: Peter snaps like a twig. The tension of the last several weeks, and the last several days in particular, comes to head in a night that begins with an upsetting of the ceremony that, for all intents and purposes, founded the Jewish people, and ends in Roman soldiers and temple police arresting the man Peter had devoted his life to.  He breaks, and he breaks hard. He is sifted, and (for the moment, at least) he is found to be mostly chaff.
And this is the rock that Christ builds his church on? This quivering mess of a man, who cannot stay awake while watching over his master, who speaks before thinking, who denies so much as knowing the man who had brought him out of darkness… this man, in fact, who breaks in exactly the same way as Christians throughout the world do on any day of the week?
And that is why it is fortunate that Jesus’ Church is built on Peter, and not on Job. We may remember Job during our greatest trials, but it is Peter who we unwittingly emulate in our day-to-day lives. It is Peter’s faithlessness that causes us to sink, and Peter’s cowardice and foolishness that brings us to shame… and it is Peter’s genuine love and passion for Jesus that brings us to our feet again.

Now: on to the follow-up!

The post received a comment soon after the blog went live, expressing appreciation for the points contained within, but also disagreeing with the (fairly important) claim that Christ built his Church on Peter. The commenter claimed, instead, that the "rock" Jesus is building his church on isn't referring to Peter at all; rather, it is referring to the profession of faith that Peter had just... professed. The belief that "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" is supposed to be the rock.

I've heard this belief expressed before, particularly by a freaking awesome commentator named RCH Lenski. His love of treating the Gospels as actual histories, and his consequent focus on reconciling and harmonizing seemingly-discordant texts, made him invaluable in writing my book on Peter (currently trying to publish that, by the way, so if you know anyone...). However, his skill and brilliance elsewhere makes his lapse in Matthew 16 particularly unfortunate, especially since it it forces him to make the outlandish claim that Jesus' two usages of the word "rock"--Once to rename Simon Peter, and once to identify that which he would build his church on--bear only an accidental relationship.

Such a claim makes absolutely no sense within the passage itself. Jesus clearly goes to lengths specifically to establish this word-play. He appears to name Simon "Rock" for the sole purpose of making it a pun. Lenski's claim makes his renaming of Simon into nothing more than a nonsensical and confusing non-sequitor.

There is also the small matter of John 21 establishing Peter as a primary figure of the church, as well as Ephesians 2 establishing "the apostles and prophets" as a foundation for the church. All in all, there are really no grounds for making that claim....unless, of course, you really dislike Catholics and see it as a specifically Catholic doctrine.

Was Peter the first Pope? I don't think so. But he was, quite obviously, a huge chunk of the foundation of the Church and, therefore, is almost certainly the Rock that Christ claimed to have built his Church on.

Which is amazing news for us.

Because it means that God can use even the most human of us to build his eternal Church.

It means that God's strength is made perfect not just in "weakness" as an abstraction, but in our own weakness.

And it means that although we all start out as Simons, God can turn us into Peters: The unnatural product of sin and decay can become the supernatural product of grace.

Just a little afterthought:

Simon means "to hear" or "he has heard." It is doubtlessly significant that he receives his new name by hearing what the Father is telling him (Matthew 16), in a very real sense receiving his new name as he fulfills his old one.

With this in mind, there is a fascinating linkage between this passage and one in Revelation 2, where we are told that the saints who "hear what the Spirit says to the churches" will be given a new name, written on a white stone. In that sense Simon Peter becomes the symbol for all believers, and potentially for all of humanity. Listen to the Holy Spirit and receive a new name, a secret name, that describes who we really are--that is, who God created us as individuals to be.

Interested in Peter? Check out my book, Simon, Who Is Called Peter! It combines the readability of First-Person narration with biblical accountability in the form of copious footnotes, allowing you to see the world of the New Testament through the eyes of Jesus' most notorious disciple. 

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