Matthew 16: 13-20
The US Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which granted women full and equal voting rights on this very day in 1920.
As a result of its passage, today we celebrate “Women’s Equality Day.”
It took women 113 years of struggle, putting their lives on the line, to get this amendment passed.
Yet their fight is not over. There are limits being placed on women everywhere where changes needed in childcare policies, reproductive rights, education and employment, and vocational opportunities remain.
It is clear in our day and age, that women still have a long way to go in securing their equality among men.
What does this have to do with our Gospel story today?
First off, it’s always good to realize what is happening on the ground. It’s important to gather information in order to be properly informed. It’s important to know about what Jesus actually taught. You know, in the beginning times when things started to really happen.
We know that Jesus spoke in Aramaic and Hebrew. We know that the original Gospel stories were written in Aramaic and Hebrew. We know that the first translation of these stories were in Greek. And, as with all translations, what is meant in one language, is not always translated properly to another. Instead of being objectively translated, these stories were most often interpreted by editors who inserted their understanding of who Jesus was, and what Jesus said, along with what the faith community at the time believed. Remember, the understanding of faith was an evolving matter (and is so, even today). Each age had differing thoughts and insights. As time continued on, we find that the whole body of work was translated again from the Greek into Latin. Another era, another opportunity for interpretation of the text, another mindset for understanding what they believed. And so, it continued. Many different translations, many centuries of interpreters that distanced the original language from the current thought.
So, let’s clarify some terms.
In Greek, “Peter” is “Petros” and “rock” is “petra.”
Peter’s Aramaic name was “Kephas” that is also the Aramaic word for “rock.”
Whatever else it is, “rock” is a word of tremendous praise, and by no means strange or unusual to Jewish thought. No Jew who knew the Old Testament could ever use the word without their thoughts turning to God, who alone was the true rock of their defense and salvation. Remember. Abraham was the rock (petra) on which the nation and purpose of God were founded.
The word “church” in Greek is “ekklesia,” which we most often experience in New Testament translations. However, the word that Jesus almost certainly used was the Aramaic “quahal” which is the word the Old Testament used for the congregation of Israel, or, more precisely, the gathering of the People of God.
When Peter responded to Jesus that he was the Messiah, the Firstborn of the Living God, Jesus affirmed Peter’s faith by calling Peter the “beginning of a new Israel,” the new people of God, the new group of religious peers, equally associated with one another, who believed in what Jesus taught.
Peter was the first person to publicly proclaim his faith in Jesus. And it certainly was not a coincidence that the authors of this story have Jesus asking his question of Peter in a place that housed the legends of the gods of Greece, the temples of the ancient Syrian worship, and the great Caesarea Philippi temple built to the godhead of Caesar that projected the might and divinity of Rome. This location was where all gathered to remember the old ingrained ideas and practices, and the looming arm of Roman rule. But it also contained the source of new life, the source of the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized and began his public ministry.
It is noteworthy that it was not a church in the human sense that began with Peter. What began with Peter was the fellowship of all believers in Jesus—who were equally associated with one another. This new phase, new journey of faith, was not identified with any church and not limited to any church, but embraced all who believed in Jesus’ teachings and ministry. On bedrock like this, Jesus said, I will build my community!
God is the rock, Jesus is the first cornerstone, the force holding everyone together. All the other believing disciples added their pebbles of faith upon his, Peter being the first to come forward.
And so, this applies to all Christians-- they are the living stones built into the fabric of the faith community. The faith community didn’t depend on Peter, as it depended on Jesus and God. This new phase of community began with Peter’s declaration of faith. And because Peter declared his faith, Jesus ensured him that nothing will stand in his way, not even the jaws of death, for God will be their stronghold against everything.
Jesus also gave to Peter a special responsibility of opening the door to the kinship of all believers. And so, on Pentecost, Peter did just that. The story goes that over 3,000 people were welcomed into the fold. He also opened the door to the Gentile world through welcoming the Gentile centurion, Cornelius, who through Peter’s witness, was ratified by the Council of Jerusalem. And by Peter’s example, we, too, are charged with opening the door of the Kin-dom of God’s world to others so that they, too, become part of this equal fellowship of believers.
Jesus gave Peter the power to bind and to loose. What does that mean? To loose and to bind were very common Jewish phrases. They were used especially by the teachers and Rabbi’s when making decisions. To bind something was to declare it forbidden; to loose was to declare it allowed. For the Jews, these were regular phrases for making decision in regard to the law. But Jesus did not follow some of those laws. He said they did not reflect the Spirit of the Living God in and among the people. So what Jesus is saying to Peter is: you will be the first guide of this infant faith community. And in the early chapters of the Book of Acts, we see that in Jerusalem that is precisely what Peter did. The privilege of the keys meant that much like the illusion of Eliakim in our Old Testament reading today, Peter would be the steward of this community, opening the door for all to enter into the Kin-dom of God’s presence.
So, to paraphrase this Gospel passage, we can say:
Peter, your name means rock, and your destiny is to be a rock. You are the first person to recognize me for who I am, and therefore, you are the first stone in the structure of the community of those who are mine. Against that relationship the embattled powers of evil will not prevail nor hold me captive. And in the days to come, you must be the steward who will unlock the doors of the Kin-dom so that Jew and Gentile are welcomed in; and you will guide and direct the work of this infant and growing faith community.
Peter had made the great discovery; and Peter was given the great privilege and the great responsibility. It is a discovery which everyone of us must make for ourselves, and, when we have made it, the same privilege and the same responsibility are laid upon us.
And here is where we get to the part about what Women’s Equality Day has to do with this Gospel.
We cannot let false interpretations and imperfect declarations affect the truth of Jesus’ message.
In the Roman Catholic Women Priest movement, we put our lives on the line in renewing the basic message of Jesus that ‘all are equal in the eyes of God.’ The hierarchical structures, oppressive patriarchal language, institutional bureaucracy, and misogyny have no place in the group of believers who declare their faith in Jesus, and associate with one another with equal respect inspired by a common vision.
We stand on the shoulders of women who gave their all in pursuing the truth of who they were and how they should be treated. And I stand before you as a prophetic witness in our Church today, proclaiming that Women’s Equality Everyday must set up tent and dwell in the midst of the People of God as we continue the journey proclaiming the truth of Jesus’ message that all are equal in the eyes of God, and all are given the privilege of proclaiming that truth and being Christ for one another. We all act equally in persona Christi.
Always remember that Christianity never consists in knowing about Jesus; it always consists in knowing Jesus. Jesus demands a personal decision. He did not ask only Peter, he asks every person: “YOU—what do YOU think of me?” It is our individual answer that will determine our journey forward.