Sunday of week 21 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

IN TODAY’S GOSPEL WE RECALL a high point in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples. It represents a quantum leap in their understanding of who he really is. It took them quite a while to come to this point. And even here, as subsequent events in the rest of the Gospel clearly indicate, they still did not fully understand the implications of what they had just begun to realise. We will see a clear indication of this in next Sunday’s Gospel reading.

In a way, of course, today’s passage really is an expression of the faith of the early Church rather than just that of the disciples at the time of the event described. Mark, in particular, likes to emphasise the poor understanding of the disciples with regard to the identity and teaching of Jesus. The first person in his Gospel to recognise Jesus fully was a pagan soldier at the foot of the Cross (Mark 15:39). At that moment, Jesus’ disciples, his chosen followers, were nowhere to be seen.

Who do you say…?

The passage today begins with Jesus asking his disciples who people think he is. Jesus calls himself “Son of Man” here, thus identifying himself with the Messianic figure in Daniel 7:13.  (“Behold with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man… to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him… His kingdom … shall not be destroyed.”)

In reply the disciples give various answers:

– the prophet John the Baptist, executed recently by Herod and, in the person of Jesus, thought by some to have come back to life (cf. Luke 9:7);

– the prophet Elijah, who went to heaven in a fiery chariot and was expected to return soon to earth as a sign of the imminent coming of the Messiah;

– the prophet Jeremiah, who through his own experience of rejection and suffering, announced the rejection and suffering of the Messiah. (Only Matthew among the Synoptics mentions Jeremiah.)

What is clear is that while Jesus is seen by the people as a prophet, a spokesperson for God, he is no more than that.

Then Jesus asks his disciples directly who they think he is. Peter, assuming his recognised leadership role in the group, replies: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is indeed a dramatic moment in their relationship with Jesus. For they have now acknowledged that their rabbi, their teacher and guide, is no less than the long-awaited Messiah, the anointed king of Israel. (In the Greek, Messiah is translated as Christos, which means the ‘Anointed One’.) It is a major breakthrough for them but, as the rest of the Gospel will show, they still have a long way to go in understanding fully just what messiahship will mean for Jesus – and for them.

A happy man

Nevertheless, aware of their limited grasp of what they are saying, Jesus praises Peter. “Simon, son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.” Only faith could have led Peter to say what he did. It needed faith to recognise the Saviour-King in the dusty human figure standing before him, so different surely from the images that most Jews would have had of their long-expected, all-conquering and nation-liberating leader. Only with God’s enlightenment could they see God’s presence in this carpenter from Galilee, their friend and teacher. Peter must have glowed with pride and this will partly explain his bitter disappointment and shock in the passage immediately following (cf. next Sunday’s readings).

Despite this moment of insight, Peter and the rest have a long way to go in fully knowing Jesus.  We might say at this point that we are in exactly the same position. Perhaps for a long time we have recognised in Jesus the Son of God and our Lord but we, too, have a long way to go in fully understanding and in accepting the full implications of being his followers.

Peter the Rock

There now follows a passage which will be the foundation for the authority given to the disciples and to Peter in particular in the post-Resurrection community. In response to Peter’s declaration of faith, Jesus now says, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” In the English translation, the play on words here is lost. In the Greek, ‘Peter’ is Petros (Petros) and ‘rock’ is petra (petra) while, in the Aramaic language which Jesus and his disciples normally spoke, both words would be represented by kepa. Hence, Peter is called Cephas in some New Testament letters, cf. for example, Galatians 2:11.

Peter is the rock, the foundation of the community which will carry the name and the authority of Jesus to the whole world.  On him, together with his Apostolic companions as the faithful communicators of Jesus’ life and message, will be built the Church, the ekklesia (ekklhsia), the assembly of God’s people. (In all of the four gospels, this word ekklesia appears only twice, here and in Matthew 18:17, “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church [ekklesia]…” The term does not appear in Mark, Luke or John).

A promise for the future

Then there is the promise of endurance against all assaults of evil. A promise that has been remarkably kept through 20 centuries down to our own day. It is a testimony to the firmness of a foundation whose strength basically comes from Truth and Love. As long as these divinely originating qualities are in the Church, and any part of it, there is nothing to fear.

Peter is then given a special stewardship and responsibility for the community. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” We have spoken often in these weeks about the Kingdom. The Church is not itself the Kingdom but it does have the “keys”, in the sense of both authority and access, to the building of that Kingdom.

“Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven [i.e. by God himself]…” (We can notice here again the use of the passive verb so that the name of God need not be explicitly mentioned to a Jewish audience very sensitive about the use of God’s name.) God’s own authority passes through Jesus to the community he will leave behind. Whatever they decide corporately under the leadership of Peter and the Apostles will be acknowledged by God. They can do this because they will later be given the Spirit as Teacher and Protector and, through the same Spirit, Jesus will be with them forever. They will be the Body of Christ and when they speak as a body, Christ speaks.

A special kind of leadership

The leadership of Peter and his successors is not one of coercion and political power but of example and service. As long as faith, hope, and love are strong in the community, it will survive and flourish. It is not just a matter of unquestioning obedience to the decrees of an institution, issued from some far-off headquarters.

Today we see in the pope the successor of Peter. He shares the same charism or gift of leadership, a leadership of service. Traditionally the popes have called themselves Servus servorum Dei, the ‘servant of the servants of God’. The pope is not a dictator with absolute powers, as he is sometimes depicted. He is limited by the faith of the whole Church. He is not the originator of that faith; he does not decide what we should believe. Rather, he communicates to the Church at large what it already believes.  He is the focal point of unity of that one faith, the unity in the Spirit. The pope is the servant of that one community united in one faith.

Point of unity

In a Church where there are now so many conflicting theologies and spiritualities, there has never been a greater need for a focal point not of uniformity but of Christian unity. “There is one body and one Spirit… there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, there is one God and Father of all, who is Lord of all, works through all and is in all…” (Ephesians 4:4-6) This is something which many of our Anglican and Lutheran brothers and sisters have become strongly aware of. It is something whose importance is so well realised by our Catholic brothers and sisters in China, scattered and cut off from each other as they are.

The pope is our point of reference, whom we must always take into account, as we search for new understandings of what it means to be a disciple of Christ in a constantly changing world.  He is the shepherd that keeps us in fellowship with Christians everywhere but who must not stifle the creativity of the Spirit in living out the Gospel in such a huge variety of contexts. For we are simultaneously one Church and many churches. For us here in our own church, our concern will be to remain in close union with fellow-disciples everywhere while at the same time living a Christian life in a way that most effectively will bring the spirit of the Kingdom among us in these challenging times.

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