The Reverend Patricia Catalano
August 23, 2020
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, 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.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Matthew 16:13-20
Last Sunday, during Sermon Seminar, someone wondered how the New Testament was put together; why certain stories were chosen over others and who chose them. I was particularly struck by this conversation because, in turn, I had been thinking exactly the same thing, going even a bit further, wondering not only why certain stories, but why certain books were chosen, and why others didn’t make the cut. It is a topic of early Christian history that has fascinated me for years, and which involves early Church politics and inner fighting between factions with different views on how to interpret Jesus’ teachings. As has always been the case, history is written by the winners, by those who hold the power.
Today’s gospel, which is the well known story of Peter’s answer to Jesus’ query to the disciples regarding who they thought he was, challenges me at many levels. First of all, why would Jesus choose someone so flawed as Peter, someone who would deny him, who wouldn’t be there at the foot of the cross because he was scared for his life, who didn’t understand most of what Jesus said–why, I ask, would Jesus choose him as the rock upon which he would build his church?
One could say that he chose Peter despite his many shortcomings because Jesus could see that Peter was a man of great faith and had a deep insight about the nature of Jesus and his messianic condition: that of king of the Kingdom of God that Jesus was announcing. Matthew, in today’s gospel, as well as Mark, include this narrative. But there is another text that also features this story, although told in a very different way. The text in question is the Gospel of Thomas, which I quite serendipitously found when I was preparing for this sermon. It reads:
Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like.” Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a righteous angel.” Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.” Thomas said to him, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like.” Jesus said, “I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out.”
According to Elaine Pagels in The Gnostic Gospels, Peter and Matthew’s answers “represent an inferior level of understanding.” On the other hand, Pagels continues, “Thomas who recognizes that he cannot assign any specific role to Jesus, transcends, at this moment of recognition, the relation of student to master. He becomes himself like the “living Jesus,” who declares, ‘Whoever will drink from my mouth will become as I am, and I myself will become that person, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.” So Thomas had gotten it, just like Mary Magdalene had. They knew that Jesus was a teacher who had come to give them guidance, but what he wanted was for the pupils to take his teachings to heart and be able to go on without him. As Pagels explains, “The purpose of accepting authority is to learn to outgrow it. When one becomes mature, one no longer needs any external authority.”
This passage is more akin to my understanding of the kind of church that Jesus wanted to establish, one where the disciples gradually increased in knowledge, as they were taught by the teacher, until finally there came a point where they would be so identified with him that they could go on by themselves because they had become “twins” with their beloved master, just like Thomas had.
If the student was to become like the teacher, then Jesus might have chosen someone more qualified than Peter to be the rock upon which he would build his church. Thomas and Mary Magdalene, come to mind. However, for reasons of early church politics, it was Peter’s supremacy that made it into the canon of what would become the New Testament. Thus, Thomas and Mary’s experiences in the early church were erased.
The texts that we now refer to as the Gnostic Gospels were banished and burned. Were it not for the handful of leather-bound papyri that were hidden by some desert monks, we would have never learnt about them. But eventually we did. And even though these books will probably never be granted their rightful place in the canon of Christian Scriptures, it is important and enriching to our spiritual journey to remember that there are many things hidden from us: many histories and stories that have come to us incomplete, amputated, or that were just plain destroyed. It behooves us, therefore, to continue to question what we know and the sources upon which we base our knowledge.
I often wonder what the church would look like if Jesus had chosen Thomas or Mary Magdalene as the rock upon which he would build his church. One hopes that, while not flawless, it might have been a church more centered on the Kinship of God rather than on a Kingdom of God –not a place but a state of being, an inner exploration of what it means to be children of God and what loving thy neighbor really means.
Certainly if Mary Magdalene and her side of the story as told in the Gnostic Gospels hadn’t been erased from the church history that came down to us, we would have had a more gender-balanced church—one not so lopsided and dominated by male supremacy from its inception. We know, because it was recorded in the canonical gospels, that Jesus had meaningful, life-changing encounters with women; so why would those who put the New Testament together choose to exclude significant books that presented another side of the Jesus movement, one where women and spiritual growth played an important role?
These musings are an ideal backdrop for a reflection on the upcoming commemoration of the Centennial of the Ratification of the 19th Amendment. Two dates are celebrated: August 18th marked the day that the amendment passed its final hurdle, which was obtaining the agreement of three-fourths of the states when Tennessee ratified it. August 25th will mark the day when the amendment officially became a part of the U.S. Constitution.
This day was the culmination of a decades-long struggle for women’s right to vote. The movement started in 1848 and ended in 1920: 72 years of struggle that oftentimes meant for many prison, torture, hunger strikes, and beatings. They organized the first-ever march in front of the White House to gain the President’s support for their cause. Many of the suffragists, including two of the early leading figures of the movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, didn’t live to see the fruit of their labors.
But the movement prevailed and it changed the country forever. It made things better for women or, more specifically, White women, who now empowered by the amendment were able to obtain things like increases in local public health budgets to fight and prevent infectious diseases, leading to a decrease in child mortality. More money was also allocated to education and social programs. And that was just the beginning.
Coline Jenkins, the great-great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Stanton donated to different institutions all over the country her extensive collection of papers and other mementos which, after much lobbying on her part, became the National Votes for Women Trail. Ms. Jenkins says,
“To me, this collection reflects the mass movement, the weapons and tools these women used in the world’s greatest bloodless revolution. Fifty-one percent of the population gained a legal right without a gun.”
However, not everything was ideal. Like any human endeavor, the movement toward women’s suffrage had its negative side too, the worst of which was that many White suffragists tried to push aside Black women and minimize their work toward enfranchisement because they didn’t want to lose the support of their Southern sympathizers. However, Black suffragists didn’t give up. There was Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a teacher, journalist, and suffragist who thought that voting rights were inseparable from civil rights. She refused to obey the segregation order given by Alice Paul during the Woman Procession in Washington in 1913 and joined the Illinois contingent as they were walking by, thus becoming the sole Black Woman in her state’s delegation. 8,000 women marched in the procession.
An article from the New York Times, “100 Years Later, These Activists Continue Their Ancestors’ Work,” which I highly recommend*, tells the stories of nine descendants of the abolitionists and suffragists who worked for the right of women to vote. They are all activists in their own right, and work for liberty and against oppression in different ways.
Out of their stories, the one that stayed with me was that of the great-great and great-great-great-grandnieces of Harriet Tubman, Joyce Jones and Michele Galvin: When Ms. Galvin was in the fourth grade, one history assignment was to make a collage of a famous person. When she asked her mom for ideas, she suggested Harriet Tubman. Since history books and encyclopedias didn’t provide the information she needed, young Michele Galvin decided instead to do her project on Sidney Poitier. This spurred her mom, Ms. Jones, into years of research, traveling and writing to bring to light all the information about the extraordinary Harriet Tubman, which had been egregiously omitted from history books and encyclopedias.
Looking back after 100 years, I ask, is life better today because of all the unstinting efforts of the many who struggled to give women in this country the right to vote? The answer is a resounding YES! Did this solve all women’s problems of lack of power and representation? NO it did not, especially not for Black women who had to wait until 1965 to finally be enfranchised. Voting suppression still continues to this day in many places for many Black people and other minorities of color. The struggle to right this wrong became, as we know, the life’s work of the great John Lewis.
Life is never going to be without strife. Whether in church or in the social sphere, great progress is made in some areas, but many things are left undone and work is always needed to redress the injustices that still persist after many generations. But we must forge ahead, uncovering the wrongs inflicted, bringing to light what was kept hidden by the powerful, continuing the “good trouble,” taking small steps or great strides to achieve an increasingly just world for all.
I hear the echo of Paul’s words to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
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