St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles, June 29th
Matthew 16: 13-19
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Messiah.
- The question Jesus asks the disciples: “Who do you say I am?” is a timeless question he asks each of us as well. We all know the theological answer, but are you making new spiritual connections to the reality of who Jesus is? How does this happen for you?
- Who in your eyes has authority from God? Why do you regard this person’s authority in this way?
- Do you have any authority? What is the source of your authority? What responsibility do you believe you have because you have this authority?
Matthew 16: 13-19
Margaret Nutting Ralph
The first part of today’s reading, in which Jesus asks his disciples, 5 Synoptic Gospels (see Mark 8:27-30 and Luke 9:18-21). However, the second part of the reading, in which Jesus says to Peter, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,” appears only in Matthew’s Gospel. By comparing these Synoptic accounts we can get a clear idea of Matthew’s particular interest and theme.
Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s accounts of this scene have much in common. In all three, after Jesus poses the question concerning his identity to the disciples, the disciples give the same answer, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” In all three, after Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” it is Peter who responds. However, Peter’s response is not identical in each Gospel. In Mark Peter responds, “You are the Christ,” but in Matthew, Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
This difference may seem inconsequential on first reading. However the two responses differ significantly. The difference is evident is evident once we understand what the word Christ meant to Peter and his fellow Jews before the resurrection.
During the time of Jesus’ public ministry the word Christ did not imply divinity to those who were awaiting a Christ, a messiah. Both Christ and messiah meant an anointed one. Because of God’s covenant promises to the chosen people, the Jews expected God to send them a messiah, an anointed one, whenever they were suffering from political oppression. Over the centuries God had been faithful to that promise, sending Moses to free them from the Egyptians, David to free them from the Philistines, and Cyrus to free them from the Babylonians. Now they needed someone to free them from the Romans. When Peter says, “You are the Christ,” he is expressing his belief that Jesus is that expected person.
However, Matthew pictures Peter saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The claim that Jesus is God’s son is a claim of Jesus’ divinity. Matthew pictures Peter having a postresurrection understanding during Jesus’ public ministry. Matthew then draws attention to the depth of Peter’s insight by including a passage that does not appear in the other Gospels. Jesus says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Jesus then delegates unique authority to Peter. Jesus says, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” Why does Matthew’s account differ so radically from the other accounts?
Matthew is writing his Gospel about AD 80. Jesus is no longer living on earth. So the question that Matthew’s audience has about Jesus is also a question that they have about Jesus’ disciples. From whom did they receive their authority? Is it from God? In today’s story Matthew makes it very clear that Peter, who after the resurrection had a unique role of leadership in the early church, received the authority to do what he did from Jesus, and Jesus received his authority from God, his Father.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus gives Peter the power to bind and loose. “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” What does this mean? Scripture scholars suggest a variety of possibilities. Does it mean the power to forgive or refuse to forgive sin? This seems unlikely since, a little later in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter will be admonished to be always willing to forgive sin (see Matt 18:22).
Does the power to bind and loose mean the power to perform exorcisms? This is a possibility. The same power is given to the other disciples later in the Gospel (see Matt 18:18). A person who is exorcised is loosed from the power of evil. Does it mean the power to legislate? One way the church exercises its teaching function is to legislate, to name those behaviors that lead to life, and to make rules that forbid the opposite behaviors. Perhaps the power to bind and loose means to excommunicate as a way of encouraging repentance. All of these meanings of “to bind and loose” are possibilities. In all cases Peter and the church are to exercise authority just as Jesus did: as a means of revealing God’s love.
Church Unity in Diversity
Christianity is a religion grounded in history. It is based not just on ideas or visions but on the person of Jesus Christ, whom we believe to be God appearing in human history. The Catholic Church also claims a unique historical grounding in the apostles Peter and Paul, who are linked directly to Jesus by call and conversion to proclaim his message to the world. The city of Rome makes a further unique claim to special leadership by asserting that both Peter and Paul were martyred there. Peter, identified by Jesus as the rock on whom the church was founded (Matt 16:18), is held to be the first in a long line of popes Roman Catholics say are the true vicars of Christ on earth. What the church claims historically it celebrates liturgically in today’s Solemnity of Peter and Paul, Apostles.
It is an impressive history, even if it requires many interpretive lenses to justify these claims or downplay the fact that all history is writ- ten to affirm the institutions that emerged from the crises, confusion and competition of the centuries to lock their particular narratives in stone and ceremony. The real proof of authenticity is an institution’s fidelity to its founding principles. The church is authentic when it looks and acts like Jesus, who sided with the poor and outcast, taught and lived God’s limitless mercy, laid down his life for love.
Peter and Paul, Apostles, are remarkable models who both failed deeply: Peter denied his Lord to save his own life; Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus. Most institutions would have been tempted to edit their bios to make them seem more heroic. But it is their conversions that affirmed the power of God’s grace that enabled them to preach mercy and reconciliation as the heart of the good news. The church is authentic, attractive and effective when it is a refuge for failures and sinners. Peter and Paul lead the way in this regard.
The scriptures show they had strong disagreements about the direction the church should take. Peter devoted his energies to serving the mostly Jewish Christian communities, while Paul went out to evangelize gentiles. They clashed over whether gentiles had to observe the Mosaic Law to be full Christians. Paul confronted Peter for waffling about the freedom gentile converts had in Christ. The first church council in Jerusalem resolved this issue to allow the community to expand beyond its original Jewish identity. Again, the witness of their struggle and the need for the Holy Spirit teaches an important les- son to our contemporary church. Change is necessary. Even saints can disagree. Consensus is possible under the Spirit’s guidance. Unity in diversity, not uniformity or the suppression of dissent, is built into the history of the church.
Paul’s house churches — convened by charismatic leaders, including women — remain part of church history alongside the emergence of a male hierarchical priesthood. Tradition means handing on essentials, not holding on to cherished past forms even when they are no longer effective. The spread of the Gospel has always involved adaptation, enculturation and dialogue between diverse interests, between East and West, across sectarian and religious lines.
Celebrating the memory of Peter and Paul, Apostles, helps us remember how much courage was required by early church leaders to achieve what we now enjoy. We honor them by imitating that same spirit today.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle A, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2007 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc