The Confession of Peter
18 January 2015
Almighty Father, who didst inspire Simon Peter, first among the apostles, to confess Jesus as Messiah and Son of the living God: Keep thy Church steadfast upon the rock of this faith, that in unity and peace we may proclaim the one truth and follow the one Lord, our Savior Jesus Christ; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
1 Peter 5:1-4
Sometimes I just can’t help myself. There are some scriptural passages that I automatically and immediately associate with a specific work of art. In this case today’s Gospel telling the story of St. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ and Christ’s response telling him that he will be given the keys to heaven conjures up Pietro Perugino’s 1482 fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Here we have the iconic image of this event and the one that best illustrates the way we have generally come to understand what is going on in the encounter.
The apostles are lined up to the left and right of Jesus handing off a set of keys to a kneeling Peter. Here at the very centre of the papal court and the Roman Church we see Jesus himself giving all authority to bind and loose in heaven and on earth to his earthly successor, Peter, also identified by tradition as the first bishop of Rome, as the first pope. Jesus gave to Peter and his successors the authority to lead the church. Peurgino’s fresco, painted for Pope Sixtus IV, was part of a cycle of paintings to reaffirm the lesson of today’s Gospel, to reaffirm the primacy of the papacy and express the ideology that Jesus handed off to his successors his own powers as priest, lawgiver, and judge over God’s people.
To my mind, however, to literally take this passage as the founding of the institutional church is to miss the point. Yes, our catholic tradition that we uphold and make live here at Saint Ignatius is itself a direct successor of that Western Roman Catholicism that found the centre of its polity and organisation in that Roman episcopal tradition. Nevertheless, today’s Gospel, and the confession of Saint Peter that we celebrate today, is more than anything about honouring the identification of Jesus as Messiah and acknowledging its importance, especially that it this changes everything.
It is acknowledging what I have said over and over again, that Jesus is not simply a prophet and a healer, but the very incarnation of God, of Love, expressed into time and space. Even more than this, he is not the expected Davidic Messiah, but the unexpected vulnerable Messiah who enters into our humanity. It changes everything that this Messiah, this anointed one, is the one who entered the world as each of us does and who will be subjected to the entire human experience, the one who will suffer and die, and will also show us that death is not the last word. He is the Messiah who will put death in its place.
In this moment, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, but most likely he does not yet see the whole picture. In Mark’s version of Peter’s confession(s), Peter has a hard time accepting that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, who will die and be raised again on the third day. We, however, see the whole picture, we know the whole story. We know that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is that Christ.
So perhaps, as opposed to the tradition that has Peter being set apart as the one who gets it, perhaps it is not just Peter who is blessed so personally and individually for his confession. Perhaps each of us who can make this confession is the rock upon which the church is built. Perhaps we who see the whole picture, who know that Jesus is that Messiah, the one who was made a marked man at the baptism we celebrated last week when God announced that Jesus was his “beloved son” and linked Jesus to the tradition of the suffering servant, perhaps we are the ones who are handed the keys to heaven. We are the ones who in our baptism, in our unbreakable relationship to God in Christ, who have been given the keys to heaven, given all we need to inherit eternal life, inherit a place with God for ever, be held by God in Love for ever.
We have been given the keys to heaven and have been told that what we do here matters. We have been told that what we bind on earth is bound in heaven and what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. We have been told that how we live our lives has consequences for our futures and the future of the world. We have been given the keys and been told we have a choice on how we are to live and that those choices matter in space and over tine. We have been given the keys, given the ability to put the key in the lock and open the door to a future, a future we can inhabit in this moment, in which we are united in a close, intimate relationship with God, with Love.
Today we commemorate something so much more important than the idea that Jesus chose Peter of all the disciples to be the one to lead the church. We commemorate the confession that Peter made before Jesus when the latter asked his disciples who they thought he was. We commemorate Peter’s affirmation that Jesus is the Christ and Jesus’ response to hand him the keys to heaven with the admonition that what happens here has consequences on a cosmic scale. This affirmation is something not limited to Peter and that moment. It is a confession that we make when we affirm the faith of the Church when we sing the Creed, it is a confession we make when we come forward to share in Jesus’ body and blood and partake of the Eucharistic meal, it is a confession we make when we go forth from this place united with Christ determined to do the work we have been given to do full of the knowledge that what we do in our lives makes a difference. Let us, then, share in Peter’s confession and live our lives from this moment knowing the importance of all we do.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
17 January 2015
© 2015 Andrew Charles Blume