21st Sunday, Year A – Homily
The story of St Peter gives heart to anyone called by Christ to any sort or role within his Church.
He has clear leadership qualities, but like all of us he has faults and failings.
But if Jesus wants his Church to grow and flourish it is to fallible, flawed characters like Peter - like you and I - that he must turn.
In today’s Gospel Peter speaks for all of us he declares to Jesus:
‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
Jesus has asked his disciples (and us) to make a decision about him, what do we believe? who we understand Him to be?
And at first he phrases the question in an unusual way, in the third person.
So, not ‘Who do people say I am?’ but ‘who do people say the Son of Man is?’
That title which Jesus gives himself is one which crops up several times in the Old Testament, especially in the book of the prophet Ezekiel and in the book of Daniel.
Sometimes this phrase is used to suggest weakness, or human fallibility. At other times it denotes strength.
It could be that Jesus uses it to signify his weak, incarnational human side - the side of him which he allowed to be seen during his earthly ministry.
But it is unlikely that Jesus was referring to the human side of his nature by using this title, since it was not his humanity which people had trouble believing in but his divinity!
Ezekiel, like Jesus, was appointed as a prophet to Israel, at thirty years old, by a river.
Like Jesus, Ezekiel was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
At his commissioning of His prophet God said to Ezekiel:
‘Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day . . . And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.’
After Ezekiel came Daniel, who had a vision of ‘one like a Son of Man’, who received a kingdom and was seen coming on clouds of glory, as Jesus said he would.
Whatever Jesus’ intention in using this title to refer, somewhat obliquely, to himself, the responses which his disciples offer in answer to his first question: ‘John the Baptist, … Elijah, … Jeremiah … one of the prophets’ are not what Jesus wants to hear.
But then He words his question more directly:
‘But YOU,’ he said, ‘Who do YOU say I am?’
Now it is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is asking about himself.
And he is asking this question not about what ‘people’ say of Him, but now he is asking the disciples directly who they believe Him to be.
And Peter, for once gets it spectacularly right.
As we shall hear next Sunday, Peter’s moment of glory is very short-lived.
But for now he goes to the top of the class.
Jesus congratulates him, and bestows upon him both a new nickname: Petrus, or Peter, meaning ‘rock’ and declares him to be the foundation stone upon which he will build his Church.
The Church has pointed to this significant episode in Jesus’ ministry to show that the primacy of Peter, his role as leader of the apostles and of the early church, the authority on which the papacy was based, was not a later construct of the Church but came from the mind and the will of Jesus himself.
Peter is given a metaphorical set of keys.
Keys are a sign of authority and responsibility.
They can weigh heavy upon the one appointed to hold them.
The particular keys given to Peter by the Lord were the ‘keys of the kingdom of heaven.’
There is a striking parallel here between the Gospel reading and the first reading from Isaiah.
Isaiah writes of the removal from office of ‘Shebna, the master of the palace.’
Amongst the signs of office given to Shebna’s replacement, Eliakim, is a key: ‘the key of the house of David’.
Keys open and close, give or deny access.
‘Should he open, no one shall close,
should he close, no one shall open’ Isaiah writes.
Likewise Jesus says to Peter:
‘Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’
In other words, if you bind a man’s sins to him, or set him free of them, your decision shall hold good in heaven.
They keys you are given can set a man free from the burden of his sins, or they can forever bind them to him. The choice is yours to make.
A huge responsibility indeed, one which your clergy today have inherited through that authority first bestowed on Peter by Jesus, and one which we do not hold lightly.
The relationship between Peter and the Lord throughout the Gospels tells us a lot about how to be a disciple of Jesus.
When Peter first encounters the Lord at the lakeside, he says to him; ‘Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man.’
It is important that we recognise the vast gulf between ourselves and Jesus, which only his mercy and grace can bridge.
Jesus did not leave Peter, instead he saw potential in him and called follow him and become ‘a fisher of men.’
We all need someone to believe in us if we are to fulfil our potential.
Jesus both believed in Peter and made demands of him, he challenged him and in this way helped him to grow as a person and as future leader.
He made Peter a sharer in his work.
He asked him to declare his loyalty when others were leaving Jesus, and Peter responded, saying:
‘Lord, to whom shall we go? … you have the words of eternal life.’
When, in today’s Gospel, Peter made his declaration of faith, Jesus rewarded him and promised him further responsibilities.
At other times Jesus admonished and corrected Peter, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter drew his sword to defend Jesus.
He criticised Peter when he fell asleep whilst Jesus prayed before his Passion and rebuked him when he wouldn’t allow Jesus to wash his feet.
And when Peter three times denied knowing him, Jesus understood the difference between weakness and malice, forgave him and instructed him: ‘feed my sheep.’
What runs throughout the story of Jesus’ relationship with Peter, as with all of us, is love.
Peter knew, above all, that Jesus loved him.
He may not have understood that love but he believed in it, and it gave him the strength to keep picking himself up and carrying on.
It helped him to grow from a humble fisherman to a fisher-of-men, the leader of Christ’s Church on earth; Peter learned to rely not on his own foolish pride but on Jesus strength, which we know is strongest when we are at our weakest.
Peter’s story is the story of every Christian disciple; for like him sometimes we are weak, at other times strong, sometimes faithful, at others faithless.
We know we are unworthy of him, and we don’t quite understand why he persists with us.
But we believe with all our hearts in that bond of love which exists between us.
This is both Peter’s story and our story.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.