Peter’s painful struggle to accept “the strangeness of the other” is very much our struggle today.1 These last two weeks following the war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia and the reports of atrocities, I have been torn inside by conflicting loyalties and overwhelmed by sadness, indignation, powerlessness, and guilt. This is just one hot spot on our planet were people who share the same piece of land resort to bloodshed and violence because they cannot reconcile and accept “the strangeness of the other.”
I think that the passage in Matthew 16 selected for this week’s study is right on target.
Peter was unquestionably divinely empowered and centrally placed by God to fulfill a unique mission. How did he perceive himself? What did he himself understand by Christ’s cryptic words in Matthew 16:18? Is there a way to find out? Peter’s own bold and unequivocal description (in Acts 4) of the true foundation of the New Community is very helpful for our search of the real meaning of Christ’s words in the passage under consideration. “He is the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.” Salvation,” Peter insists, “is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:1112). This exclusive truth-claim, as Peter has already experienced, paradoxically announces a new era and a new regime of universal inclusiveness, which reaches far beyond the fledgling Jewish-Christian and ex-pagan communities of the Roman Empire of first century A.D.
Christ has offered Peter at once to preserve and to transcend his identity and his vocation in a liberating and reconciling personal relationship of divine and human persons. The new vision is radically different from the Marxist-Leninist vision of the new industrial man, who enthusiastically assumes his role as a bolt or a screw in the giant industrial Machine. It is a relationship between the person of the incarnate Christ and the human persons of flesh and blood. That is why in the vivid metaphor of 1 Peter 2 Christ is “the living, Stone” and believers in Christ are “like living stones” “being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:45).
Leaving the old Catholic-Protestant controversy aside, one is refreshingly surprised that Origen, the third-century early Christian writer (equally respected by the Western and the Eastern churches) believed that Christ’s words to Peter were addressed not only to the apostle himself, but to every follower of Christ who demonstrates the same faith in him. (See his commentary On Matthew, XII, 9).
While some commentators point out a “somewhat disconcerting inconsistency” in the way Matthew paints Peter in his Gospel, it would be more appropriate to say that Matthew provides a relentlessly truthful account of Peter’s spiritual journey. This portrayal of Peter’s tempestuous character gives hope to us. He is the “man of little faith” and he is “blessed”; he is cursed as “Satan” and a “stumbling block”; and he is called “the rock.” I so much see myself in his shameful denials and triumphalistic affirmations, in his boldness and timidity.
Reflecting on Acts 5:15 and 10:25, I ask myself what “shadows” do I cast? What unconscious influences do I exert? C. Wadsworth was perhaps correct in claiming that “our voluntary efforts are only occasional and interrupted, while our unconscious energy is everywhere operative and constant.” Thus, “our constant and silent energy is most expressive of our real character.” Yet, as Rick Warren has observed, at any given moment, “we can be as close to God as we choose to be.” Peter’s greatness and strength was in his realization of his “brokenness” and utter dependence on Christ (Acts 3:12). This is Peter’s enduring legacy. I rarely ask myself the following question: In those brief moments, when I am used by God and people tend to praise me, whom do I give the credit?
Migliore speaks of the revelation of God as “always a disturbing, even shocking event.” Peter’s vision and his visit to Cornelius described in Acts 10:943 is a record of just such events. In the words of William J. Abraham, “Once one acknowledges the revelation, then everything may have to be rethought and redescribed in the light of what has been discovered.” “I now realize,” admits Peter, “how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
Am I ready for new and creative models of outreach that others are successfully adopting? It is so refreshing to read the story of the first Christian church in Acts. There was much less uniformity and much more diversity than we would expect. The passage in 11:1926 is about embracing the diversity of outreach strategies. Antioch on the Orontes, a principal location of the Jewish diaspora is now turning into a center of new converts to Christianity who were predominantly from the Greek populace and had no Jewish roots. This Syrian Antioch was the first city where the disciples of Christ, as some commentators claim, were probably sarcastically first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). Experiencing prejudice from without, they were encouraged and enabled by God’s Spirit to overcome prejudice from within. F. F. Bruce in his commentary on Acts 11:23 observes: “What made Barnabas glad was the evidence of the free favor of God, unlimited by racial or religious frontiers, extended to all men without distinction” (236).
In my own spiritual journey, I have learned that the force of example cannot be overestimated. As a boy in communist schools and later in the Soviet military camp, I was greatly inspired by the bold stand that my grandfather and father took for God in Stalin’s labor camps. In Galatians 2:1114, Paul helps Peter realize that the fear of man destroys the character and confuses those around you who lack spiritual maturity and look up to you for direction. Paul openly rebukes Peter and urges to bring his practice into accordance with Peter’s own theory. Peter was also powerfully impacted by Paul’s commitment to become all things to all men to save some (1 Cor. 9:1923).
In the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian and pastor, became a part of the active conspiracy against Hitler and a double agent of the counterintelligence agency of the Nazi government. In 1939, he abruptly ended his short trip to the United States and returned home. In his letter of explanation to Reinhold Niebuhr, who arranged his visit and found funding for it, Bonhoeffer wrote:
I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make that choice in security. (Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom, 504)
What is Peter’s real legacyand the legacy of all of Christ’s true disciples throughout the centuries? What is Christianity in action? Is it emulation of Christ’s solidarity with those who are despised and rejected: the poor, the outcasts, and the oppressed? Is it acceptance of the “strangeness of the other,” as Lewis Smedes and Miroslav Volf have testified to us?
1. I have borrowed the latter part of the title “The Cross, the Self, and the Other” from Miroslav Volf’s challenging book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996).
Mikhail M. Kulakov Jr. is associate professor of political studies and philosophy at Columbia Union College, Takoma Park, Maryland.