Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees Jesus tells his apostles just prior to this gospel of Peter’s profession of faith in Christ. The leaven of Peter will be given by Christ and his teaching is true and utterly reliable only in as much as he is faithful to Christ. Two weeks ago we saw Peter jumping into the waters of death, walking above them until he looked at himself and sank, only to be saved by Christ. Peter then and now is spokesman and leader of the Twelve. He stands out for the ardor of his love and for his wavering faith.
The Protestant tendency is to spiritualize this passage and the ‘rock’ and ‘keys’ refer only to the faith of Peter. As we see in the first reading in the Jewish tradition the keys have a real disciplinary, doctrinal and juridical role. If these terms are spiritualized to describe all Christians it becomes just rhetoric. Something much more profound and beautiful is taking place here.
The Orthodox Catholics say that Peter has primacy of honor but the primacy belongs to all Twelve. First among equals, they say. What I hope will become abundantly clear is that we see the Church is a purely divine creation. We should not be surprised to see elements that don’t fit into a worldly paradigm.
How important is this question to the apostles and also to us: Who do people say that I am? The nice, holy answers we heard are all over the place, and show the confusion among the people. Jesus is not conducting a test but is like a lover who wants to know what his closest followers understand his deepest reality to be. Only Peter gives the absolute truth and speaks for all of the Twelve. The literal translation is like this: you are The Messiah, The Son of The God, The Living One. He uses the definite article (the) four times to make it super clear what he is saying. No wonder why Jesus can say whoever sees me sees the Father. Peter speaks the deepest truths about Christ.
And Christ responds with a Beatitude: Blessed are you for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you. This is a grace from the Father, not from you or any hearsay you picked up along the way. As John says in is letter, (1 John: 5:1), Everyone who believes that Christ is begotten by God and everyone who loves the Father loves the One begotten from him, and shares in his sonship. Peter’s confession of faith shows his own involvement in the life of God.
This confession is not through any merit of his own; it is a free gift, and nothing else. The unity between Peter’s confession and the power of Christ given to him is like a marriage: what God has joined no man can separate. The parable about the man who builds his house on rock, not on sand, also has ecclesial dimensions. Christ is the invisible stone; Peter is the visible one, without this Rock the edifice falls apart. The Church exists today and preaches the truth because of this Rock, that others lack.
What happened that day was not by chance or accident. Christ had the specific intention to build a community of followers built on this rock, despite what many Scripture scholars say. Ekklesia is used only three times in the Bible and always in Matthew. It is translated as church, assembly, community, qahal in Hebrew and means ‘a calling out.’ Christ is the architect, the builder and the initiator of this event. We see constantly in the gospels how he is ‘calling out’ his apostles by sending them into a storm, by telling them to pick up their cross and follow him, by telling them to hate mother, father, sister and their very life. The Church always needs to be a place ‘away from the (mentality of the) world.’ When it becomes too worldly we have the problems that we see today.
Peter’s ineptitude can only enhance our sense of wonder. It makes no sense unless Christ is the one behind it all. Thou are Rock and on this Rock I will build my Church, my community. He speaks of ‘my Church’ as he would speak of ‘my wife.’ His flaws make his confession of faith all the more stunning. Peter is asked by Christ three times after the resurrection if he loves him and when he answers affirmatively he is told feed my sheep. Peter can only feed the flock if he loves them and speaks the truth to them. His mistakes and humiliations only make it more clear that Christ acts in him.
Pope Paul VI kissed the feet of the Patriarch of Constantinople and begged his forgiveness for the great crimes committed against them by the Latin “crusaders” when they occupied this city in the 1200s. Some years later we saw Pope John Paul II insert a paper with a prayer into the Wailing Wall asking for forgiveness of the crimes that Christians committed against the Jews. And in Athens risking humiliation in front of the Greek Orthodox hierarchy, he sought reconciliation and the chance to pray at least one Our Father in union with them. These are signs of Peter feeding the flock with the bread of forgiveness and untiring love that he learned at the side of his beloved Lord.