Sunday Spotlight: A Gospel for Slow Learners
Just who is this Jesus? By the time of this gospel he has gained far too much buzz to be ignored. Is he a trickster, a blaspheming charlatan, a sacrilegious upstart? The Pharisees think so. Is he a good man, a prophet, a healer, an agent of God? His followers think so. And one of them is beginning to believe he is something infinitely more than that. The disciples still can’t quite pigeon-hole Jesus. And it’s a bit unnerving. For a people raised to never even utter the name of God, the something more that Jesus might be is literally unthinkable. And so they don’t think it.
But for sixteen chapters of Matthew, Jesus has been bringing them along. They are slow learners, but not because they are intellectually challenged. They are slow learners because the answer to the identity of Jesus cannot be learned. It must be revealed. And so Jesus opens this gospel with a Socratic Q&A to draw them out.
His initial approach is round about, asking the disciples who do people say he is. They launch into a barrage of name-that-holy-man. But Jesus cuts them off, asking directly who they say he is. And Peter is right there with the answer: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Bingo! Peter got it right the first time… not because he read it somewhere, not because he learned it… but because God revealed it to him.
Jesus is telling us that we can learn about faith. We can make ourselves open to faith. But we cannot learn faith. We cannot acquire it. It is a gift from God. It is integral to the grace we receive when we take on Jesus at baptism. Our faith can grow or it can wither. It can be a robust virtue or a neglected relic. God has done his part and stands ever ready to do more. Everything we want from this life… everything we hope for in the next… begins with faith. It is the entry point to the trinity of virtues… faith, hope and charity. It makes the others possible. It is a beautiful gift to exercise, to nurture and to grow… until we can give it back to God when we stand before him.
Peter’s embrace of God’s revelation makes our church possible. He has taken the lead in proclaiming Christ and Jesus replies by giving him leadership in building the church. The word church is used only twice in the gospels, and never in an institutional or architectural context. “Church” means those who are called and respond to God’s call. As Jesus explains later in Mt 18:20: If two or three people come together in my name, I am there with them.
In response to Peter’s correct answer, Jesus tells him to go to the head of the class. Christ confers on Peter leadership of those who are called. It is, in effect, Peter’s ordination. He is to be a keeper and minister of the revealed truth. He is to be an “apostle”… one who is sent to bring the word to the people, a channel of God’s grace, a servant of the servants of God. Jesus was the ultimate servant/leader. And anticipating his coming sacrifice, he confers that role on Peter to pass down to every other priest and minister who would follow in his path to serve and lead his church.
Anyone who preaches the gospel can find great comfort in Christ’s reply to Peter: You are blessed… because no person taught you that. My Father in heaven showed you who I am. And so it is with all of us. Only amazing grace will lead us home. No biblical scholar ever learned his way into heaven. No stem-winding orator ever preached a soul to salvation. It is solely the grace of God that illuminates and attracts. We are at best, like Peter, flawed vessels of the Word. And that’s OK. Peter made himself open. He worked at it. He stayed close to Christ. He followed Jesus even when he didn’t know where that would lead. And so should we. God’s grace will do the rest. Slow learners can become quick saints.