We Still Look to Peter

(Deacon Derek Lappe, August 22, 1999)

"You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church"

These words encircle the dome inside St. Peters basilica in Rome. A reminder of what is a very real fact beneath that church, the mother church of Christendom. Underneath, in the maze of the excavations of the cemetery upon which St. Peter's stands, is a tomb with very ancient graffiti dating back to the second-half of the first century. Inside that tomb are the bones of St. Peter, the Rock upon which Christ has chosen to build his church. And directly above that tomb now is the high altar and Bernini's huge bronze baldacchino. In fact if you pay close enough attention you will notice that the altar is so directly above the tomb as to not be in alignment with the new (16th cent.) dome. It is at this altar where John Paul II, the successor of St. Peter, says Mass.

"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Peter proclaims Jesus the Son of God, and because of his faith Jesus tells him, "You are Peter (Petrus) and upon this rock (petram) I will build my church." It must have been quite an honor for Jesus to give this gift to Peter, for him to take up this special role in the Church, so important that Peter throughout history has been known as the "Prince of the Apostles". How is it that Peter came to such an exalted role? He came from fairly humble origins, a fisherman in the Sea of Galilee, one of the first whom Jesus called to follow him. Peter is always named first in the lists of the apostles, he was privileged to witness the transfiguration, the agony in the Garden, he walked on water, if only for a little while. All four of the evangelists seem to give us a picture of a Peter who is brash and headstrong. He is always quick to speak up, but generally he seems to say the wrong thing.

In today's reading from Matthew however Peter gets one right. Jesus asks "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" This question that Jesus asks the disciples somewhere in Northern Israel on a dusty deserted road, is the question which has resounded through the ages. The Apostles answer with some of the various titles that people are using for Jesus. None of which are right. Then Jesus turns probably fixing his gaze on Peter and asks: "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter gets it right, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Peter, not on his own, "for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you," but inspired by the Holy Spirit proclaims the truth about Jesus, 'my heavenly Father has revealed this to you.' Peter is given primacy over the Church because of his confession of faith. "And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church," Peter is the source of unity of the church, the sure foundation of Christ's church, the unshakable rock, and visible head. "And the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." He is to be the holder of the keys, that is the steward of the Kingdom of God on earth. "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." That is to say, following Jewish usage of this phrase, Peter is to interpret the law, pronounce things forbidden (bound) or permitted (loosed). In accordance with this then, he is to teach and guide the flock entrusted to him. This role which is promised to Peter in Cesarea Phillipi is then conferred on him after the Resurrection when the risen Lord tells him three times to "Feed my lambs!…Feed my lambs!…Feed my sheep!" This feeding, in biblical terms, when applied to humans means nothing else but to rule and govern. Then we see immediately throughout the Acts of the Apostles how Peter does take up this role of leading the early church in proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus. By leading in the election of Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot, he is the first to proclaim on the Feast of the Pentecost of message of the Crucified and Risen Messiah.

Peter's proclaiming of the Resurrection takes him then to Rome, where in the year 64 he is martyred in the Circus of Nero, just beside where the present St. Peter's Basilica now stands. His glorious martyrdom was not the end of the petrine ministry set up by Jesus however. The church has understood from the very beginning that Peter's role did not end with Peter, and this for two reasons. The first is that immediately after the death of Peter, Linus was appointed to lead the church as bishop (episcopus of Rome). Second is the fact that Peter was commissioned to preserve the unity and solidarity of the Church, he is to, as St. Luke tells us in his Gospel, "strengthen his brothers." This is a task which must be carried out through all time through the successors of Peter, the bishops of Rome. Now we know that all of the successors of Peter have not been so very faithful at carrying out this task of proclaiming the truth in their lives. And yet we see in the Gospels that Jesus chose the man Peter with all his foibles and faults to lead the apostles, he didn't pick an angel or even someone like the beloved disciple John. But, rather, Jesus knowing the humanity of Peter gave him this exalted work of service in the Church, a work which is now carried out by John Paul II. Who celebrates Mass just a few meters above the tomb of Peter.

Remember the question which began the discussion between Jesus and the apostles? "Who do you say that I am?" To us it seems a fairly simple and easy question. Jesus is God! But it hasn't always been that easy of a question for people to answer. In fact for the five centuries there was a lot of argument about this question. There was a lot of confusion over how it is that we understand who Jesus is. Some people said that he wasn't always God, and that He became God, some said he was not really God at all, some said that he wasn't really human. There were all sorts of different opinions about who Jesus really was. As Peter had made that first proclamation of faith for the early church, in the early church it was his work to defend the faith. As when, for example at the Council of Chalecedon the council fathers received the teaching letter of Pope Leo I, and declared "Peter has spoken through Leo!"

The Church still looks to Peter for guidance, in his successors the popes. Let us speak of our present Holy Father in particular. In a time of great confusion theologically he has written a great number of beautiful encyclicals which teach and proclaim our faith in Jesus Christ, feeding his sheep with the solid food of truth. In a world which is morally adrift and hostile to the Christ's message of love, he has not failed to continue to shepherd his flock to feed his sheep with the truth about how we are to live in Christ, how we are to live the life of grace. He, like a good shepherd, remains ever vigilant against attacks on his flock, the attack of subjectivism, which denies the possibility of truth, the attack of moral relativism which denies the possibility that it is possible to say that some things are wrong, and some right. This is his task in shepherding his flock, and he, in imitation of Peter, in imitation of Jesus Christ gives his life to complete that task.

(Given at Holy Family Seattle)


Picture of Deacon Derek


From Archives (for Twenty-first Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2008: Three Unavoidable Questions
2005: The Two Keys
2002: Jesus Establishes a Sacred Order
1999: I Will Build My Church

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

From Archives (Homilies on St. Peter and St. Paul):

Year of St. Paul
What Peter Meant to Paul
Rabbi, Messiah, Cephas
The Two Keys
Jesus Establishes a Sacred Order
I Will Build My Church