Saint Peter’s Chair – Readings

Commentary on 1 Peter 5:1-4; Psalm 22; Matthew 16:13-19

The Gospel from St Matthew records a dramatic moment in the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. They are at Caesarea Philippi, an area which significantly was home to both Jews and Gentiles, and Jesus begins by asking them what they heard people saying about him. They gave various answers, such as that he might be John the Baptist (returned from the dead after his beheading by Herod), or Elijah (who was expected to return to earth to herald the imminent coming of the Messiah), or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. Jesus then asks them:

But who do you say that I am?

It is Simon who speaks up:

You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

It was a very special moment for all of them. Up to this, the man whom they had simply called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Teacher’ was now acknowledged as no less than the Messiah, the Christ, the one anointed as the Saviour-King of Israel.

In reply, Jesus tells Simon that what he has said are not simply his own words but are a revelation of God to him:

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.

There then comes the solemn mandate and promise. Simon is now given a new name:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

There is a play on the words ‘Peter’ and ‘rock’. The word for ‘rock’ in Greek is petra and Peter is Petros. There is an irony in the name because it carries more than one meaning. For Peter is called to be the firm foundation of the new community, but before that happens, he shows himself to be a stumbling block trying to frustrate the mission of his Master; he shows himself to be one of the weakest of the disciples.

Nevertheless, Jesus gives him his mission:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven [of God], and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven [i.e. by God], and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, it is his community under the unifying leadership of Peter which will have the mandate to continue the work and mission of Jesus. They will be, literally, the voice of Jesus.

In the First Reading (which is from the First Letter of Peter – although almost certainly not written by him), we have advice on how Church authority is to be exercised. Peter speaks to community leaders as a fellow “elder”, and as one who was a personal witness of the sufferings of Jesus – hence looking forward to share in his risen glory. He tells them to take care of their flocks as good shepherds, drawing them, but not forcing them, and not pursuing their own personal gain, but with enthusiasm for their well-being:

Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock.

These words are applicable to every position of leadership in the Church be it pope, bishop, priest or lay leader. Then:

…when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.

So, the overall message of today’s feast is of generous and eager cooperation of all members of the Christian community in building up the Body of Christ as a sacrament of the Kingdom throughout the world.

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