by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus said to them: “But who do you say 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 I say to you, you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”
Matthew 16, 13-20

Today’s gospel, like every other gospel reading, is designed to involve us as participants rather than spectators. The question Jesus put to his disciples – “But who do you say I am?” – is directed to every one of us. Whatever reply we make in words has to be confirmed by the way we act. What then are the implications for the way we live that follow from whatever proclamation we make to Jesus’ question? And if we dare to identify with Peter in his response, how do our words translate into action? To be authentic, any kind of profession of faith has to find expression in the way we go about our daily living.

While Peter’s response was welcomed and affirmed by Jesus, it very soon became clear that Peter himself did not understand the full significance of his words. In the very next section of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus predicted his own suffering and death, and Peter’s response was to take him aside and point out that what he was saying was nonsense: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16, 22). In the space of a couple of verses, Jesus goes from telling Peter that his proclamation has been inspired by God and that he will be the rock on which he will build his Church to reprimanding him as an obstacle in his way, as one who thinks “not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matthew 16, 28). In the blink of an eye, Peter had gone from the penthouse to the doghouse.

For dramatic effect, the Gospel writer has deliberately placed together two separate episodes in Peter’s life. One inspired moment of partial insight on Peter’s part prompted Jesus to affirm Peter on his potential for leadership. But, while Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah, he held to the popular belief that the Messiah would be a powerful liberator who would free Israel from foreign rule. He had not yet come to appreciate that the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus would be a way of living by which people would reflect the love and mercy of God in their relationships with one another, and that the Messiah who promoted such a way of living would be tortured and murdered for daring to challenge inflexible religious leaders, who could find no room in their lives to accommodate justice, compassion, tolerance and care of the poor. Peter proved to be a rock of support for Jesus by reinforcing Jesus’ unique sense of mission. Jesus expressed appreciation and respect for Peter by calling him blessed. He also added that all those who identified with his vision would need the support of people like Peter who could recognise, promote and affirm them in their gifts.

All those called to leadership in our contemporary Church would do well to take the lead from Peter and make affirmation and encouragement an integral part of their leadership style. We have all encountered leaders who can tie people up in knots and stifle their gifts. We have met others who know how to set free those whom they lead. It was precisely because Peter was not the kind of man who stifled the giftedness of others that Jesus could say to him: “What you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven; and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven” (Matthew 16, 19).

I think there’s something more we can take from today’s gospel. Jesus put a question to all of the disciples, but it was Peter alone who responded, and his response stood in stark contrast to the silence of his companions. Isn’t Jesus’ question one that calls for a personal response from all who claim to follow him? Surely it’s not enough to respond with the words of others! Are we not being invited to express our own commitment to Jesus and his Gospel in our own distinctive way? And if we dare to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ of God, what exactly is involved in making such a confession? Perhaps we have to acknowledge that Matthew was not only saying that Peter did not fully understand what awaited Jesus as Messiah, but also that he was never meant to understand what lay ahead for Jesus, and for anyone who would follow Jesus. If our faith in Jesus is genuine, we will commit to following in his footsteps, even into a future whose demands we do not know. The question that Jesus put to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi came at the mid-point of his ministry. It was not his first question to them, nor would it be his last. We hear his question part way through our own following of him. Our world is so messy and unpredictable that we can hardly guess what will happen next or what the following of Jesus will demand of us tomorrow. However, we do know that whatever eventuates, we will still be required to change, to be flexible, to grow; to take up some kind of cross, to somehow lose our lives in order to find them again – but we can be assured that we will find ourselves changed, renewed and better for the experience.