Twenty-one years ago, Father Raymond Brown spoke to priests about the Gospels. Though the workshop covered many topics, most of us today remember just one sentence from his presentation: "The historical Jesus never intended to found a church as we know it."

Though he assured us that Scripture scholars had long ago reached that conclusion, we'd never heard it expressed just that way before. The words unsettled some of our most cherished assumptions.

Father Brown's statement disturbs those who believe the historical Jesus set up the Roman Catholic Church exactly as we know it, creating its structure and fashioning its offices. Among other things, it forces us to look at Sunday's three readings from a different perspective " the perspective of the early Christian communities for whom they were originally written.

Leadership

It compels us, for instance, to stop regarding our Gospel passage (Mt 16:13-19) as a proof text for the modern papacy and to begin interpreting it as Matthew's community interpreted it. Hearing these words through the ears of the Church to which it was first directed, we come to understand that Jesus' earliest followers were more interesting in the Christian attributes which Peter demonstrated than in any office he filled. They expected all their leaders to imitate such qualities, whatever office they held.

Second- and third-generation Christians valued Peter's faith more than anything else. The Gospel explaining his name change " from Simon to Rock " emphasizes the role he filled for them. He was their rock of faith. No matter his bumbling, exuberant personality, Peter is the one who strengthens the faith of Jesus' original disciples.

As we know from Luke, John and I Corinthians, Peter was the first of the Lord's disciples to grasp the meaning of the empty tomb. By his strong belief in the risen Jesus, Peter supplies future Christians with the rock on which they'll build their own faith in Jesus " the rock of faith which will determine what must be loosed and what must be bound in their communities.

We actually see Peter exercising some of his deep faith in the first reading (Acts 12:1-11). Put into a hopeless situation by King Herod, Peter believes enough in God's care to follow an angel's directives, and he reaches freedom. Though the experience seems "a mirage," it's his belief in Jesus which helps him do what the angel commands. "Now I know for certain," he eventually proclaims, "that the Lord has sent his angel to rescue me from Herod's clutches and from all that the Jews hoped for."

Paul also was a person whom the early Church tried to imitate. Like Peter, he was a terrific example of conversion and faith. But, as we see in the second reading (II Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18), Christians also tried to copy the Apostle's perseverance.

Good fight

Scholars unanimously believe someone other than Paul wrote the letters to Titus and Timothy which bear his name. Not only does the vocabulary of these letters differ from those letters which we're certain Paul composed, but these three epistles address situations in the community which only seem to have developed 20 to 30 years after Paul's martyrdom. Paul was important enough by the end of the first century that his disciples composed letters in his name, stressing characteristics of the apostle which the various communities who received the letters needed to develop.

Here the author quotes Paul as saying, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Once Christians realized Jesus wasn't coming back in the Parousia as quickly as they'd anticipated, perseverance developed into an all-important virtue. They needed to hear the words, "From now on, a merited crown awaits me; on that Day the Lord, just judge that He is, will award it to me " and not only to me but to all who have looked for His appearing with eager longing."

Perhaps the most important contribution modern biblical scholarship has given the Church has been its insistence that we turn proof texts into imitation texts. That's almost as significant (and similar) an achievement as turning swords into plowshares.

(06-26-97)