The Gospel passage today at Mass has to be set free: it is kind of imprisoned. Just like a stone sculptor might say that the sculptured figure has to be set free from the stone, so the passage has to be set free to let it live, to let it breathe, to speaks to us. The only problem is that it is ourselves who have imprisoned it, we are the ones that have entombed it, we are the ones who have encased the words, clad it round so that it cannot breathe. We have given it a Catholic slant, a Roman twist, a papal feel to it. The text must be cut loose to let it breathe.
We have come to see this passage as exclusively referring to the role of Peter and Popes and Bishops of Rome thereafter, because in Matthew’s version, this is Luke’s, Peter’s profession of faith, his answer to the question to who Jesus is – is followed by this - you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.
Here’s where it becomes locked in, covered over, it cannot breathe. The text is about much more.
We allow ourselves to swallow the pill. Papal throne, papal slippers, papal commands, papal armies, papal kingdoms. You can’t help thinking that this is not what Our Lord meant by the words, he seems to mean the exact opposite – you have seen how the Kings and those in authority like to Lord it over others, this is not to happen among you. The greatest among you must act as if he were the youngest and the one who leads as the one who serves. Who is the greatest, the one at table or the one who serves. Yet here I am among you as one who serves.
Its easy to condemn history and what other people do from our vantage point. But it is hard to think that the Lord wished the simple fisherman to become a prince amongst men, even wearing a crown like other princes of the earth, sitting on an earthly throne. Spiritual power is power like any other, it can intoxicate, it can become a tool to subjugate, it can become a high blown, vaulted authority. This is not to happen among you, the greatest must acts as the youngest, the one who leads must act as the one who serves. Who is the greatest the one at table or the one who serves, her am I among you as one who serves.
So, set aside an interpretation of the text as a claim to authority. Set aside an interpretation of Peter’s leadership which the Apostles clearly see from these words. Set aside all the claims of the Roman pontiffs from this passage for a moment.
The text set free is this: it is a conversation between Jesus and Peter about who Jesus is. A prophet, a holy man, a wise sage, a leader to follow a rabbi of Israel. He is none of these things, according to Peter, he is the very living God in earth. What an incredible statement this. Is it an insight on Peter’s part? A bold statement that sets him apart? Its so out of place for the man who often gets things wrong rather than says things right.
Make no mistake in his time this would have been unthinkable for Peter to say. To say the words he would have been stoned on the spot. Those crowds which could be easily whipped up at the slightest hint of blasphemy, as we still see in middle eastern countries, would have come down on him like an avalanche. Good as he was Jesus could not be the living God among them. There is only one God and he is in the heavens.
My theory is this. That the words that Peter says belong to after Easter. The Apostles have little or no comprehension of what is happening, other than they are riding a wave of the Lord’s popularity, they are along for the ride. It is in the cold reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus that they realise who they are dealing with, who they have been walking with and who they have been listening to and who this strange person was in their midst. These words have been grafted to a discussion that Jesus may have had with his apostles. They are the faith of the post Easter community. A community that sees things clearly and whose spokesman is Peter, a fisherman who wasn’t always noted for getting things right. They have come to believe that he is the living Son of God.
Set free from any papal arrogance or any claim to superhuman authority the text speaks to every generation. The words are a challenge. They set a benchmark. The words of Jesus are very poignant – who do the people say that I am?
Even today people think him to be all sorts of people: a good man, a 1st Century teacher, a founder of a religion, someone who left us rules to live a good life. For many they couldn’t and could never make that step, they could never say what Peter says, could never believe what he believes….the living God come to visit us here on earth. The living God come down from heaven to be among us. The living God become man among us. It is a step too far.
But Peter represents men and woman who have made that step. Have recognised in his words and his deeds God among us. Have come to know that he is the Word that has become flesh. That in Bethlehem and at Nazareth and `Jerusalem and the towns of Israel he has walked among us. He has sat at our table; he has spoken to people like us. He has walked on our earth, he has been under our skies.
Who do people say that I am? Peter in his role as leader of the Apostles, leader of the early Christians, heads of the Church here on earth (that we have come to know as the Bishops of Rome), for the many people who will come after says He Peter says the words, speaks the faith, you are the son of the living God.
Once those words are spoken, once they are said out aloud there is no way back for Peter, the apostles, the Christians down through the ages and no way for us. He is the living God among us and even some of us will take up the cross and some of us will die on that cross for his name.