Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 138:1-3, 6, 8
One commentator on this week’s readings desired to call this Sunday, “Power Sunday,” for he sees in the readings a primary proclamation of God sharing “His authority… with the Pope and the other Church leaders for the material and spiritual welfare of God’s children.” The importance of the gospel reading, he continues, is seen in Jesus establishing a “Magisterium” in his Church, for with the keys comes the authority to rule, to “bind and loose.” But Jesus could never have envisioned or desired a “Magisterium” as we have come to know it, and there is no authority spoken of in the gospels whose sole purpose is to rule or lord it over people. The authority so often spoken about in the gospels is an authority confirmed at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration. It’s an authority born of the relationship that Jesus had with the Father, an authority empowered from above to gather people of good will together who would be united by their faith in Christ Jesus, and united by their desire to live as Jesus had taught them to live.
The Caesarea Philippi story in today’s gospel passage is clearly an important story for the early church, something demonstrated by its inclusion in all three Synoptic gospels. In all three gospel accounts the story is connected to the predictions of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection, and to the doctrine of the cross. The story is as much about discipleship as it is about Jesus, and while the confession of Peter uncovers a great deal about the personality of the first of apostles, it also says a great deal about all those who profess their faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord.
One can understand Jesus’ curiosity about what people were saying about him, and one can understand the answers provided by the apostles: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. When the pointed question was directed at them, “Who do you say that I am?”, one can almost hear the disciples stuttering and stammering, for they were most likely not prepared for this degree of self-revelation. They had been traveling with Jesus for some time now. They heard him preach and teach, touch and heal, but just maybe they had not had time to reflect on who Jesus was for them personally. It is with characteristic impetuosity that Peter blurts out in response to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” [It will become clear next Sunday just how little Peter really understood about what that meant.]
Jesus truly had confidence in Peter. He could see beyond the bluster and read Peter’s heart and recognize his faith, and Peter’s faith would be enough for Jesus to use in building a church. While Peter’s faith would clearly still need time to grow and mature, work no doubt to be done by the Holy Spirit, his faith was strong enough for Jesus to declare that his church would be safe from the attacks of the netherworld. When Jesus presented Peter with the “keys of the kingdom,” they were not meant to be keys used to secure a fortress, but rather keys that could be used to open doors that had been closed by the religious elites of the day. Those doors gave access to God’s kingdom to Gentiles, tax collectors, and sinners. The keys shared with Peter were meant to loosen the bonds of the Mosaic Law, and lighten the burdens of life. Those keys are less about unbridled authority, and more about being instruments that enable all people to live as children of one God.
We need to be able to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” We will only be able to answer to the extent that we have truly traveled with the Lord. We are meant to be men and women whose faith is as strong as Peter’s faith, a faith which had its origins in countless genuine encounters with Jesus. As Pope Francis tells us, “in journeying with Jesus we learn who he is.” Like the disciples, we must allow Jesus to be our companion in life, accompanying us in our ups and downs, in the quiet and the chaotic, in our victories and in our failures. It is through these encounters that “we draw close to Jesus and come to know him more deeply.” It is because of the immeasurable “riches, and wisdom, and knowledge of God,” that we are enabled to become authentic disciples of Jesus. The authority given to Peter is an authority given to the Church, given to us, and it should compel us to continue the work of our Lord and Savior, loosening the bonds that unfairly bind and opening the doors that might prevent others from entering into the Kingdom of God.