‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.’ One of the twelve closest disciples of Jesus gets this announcement in response to his confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God. It’s a short sentence, but full of meaning and significance.
Firstly, Jesus addresses the man in question not by his given name Simon, but by a new one: Peter. In the Bible, a name isn’t just a label to make calling people more accurate and personal than ‘Hey, you there!’. In the Bible a name has a deeper meaning, often describing a specific call or mission bestowed upon its bearer. We can see that very often in the Old Testament. ‘Adam named his wife Eve because she would become the mother of all the living.’ (Genesis 3:20) Occasionally the name was changed to reflect a new call, mission or chapter in life. Abram and Sarai, a childless couple in the book of Genesis, have their names changed by God at one point to reflect God’s promise to make a great nation out of them; Abram becomes Abraham, which means ‘Father of many’ and Sarai becomes Sarah, ‘Mother of nations’. There are many examples of similar practices, so when Jesus changed Simon’s name everyone knew something important was happening. It’s even more obvious when we recall the wider context of this moment. Jesus asked his disciples what people had said about his identity, followed by a question of their own opinions. Simon is the one that confesses ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus responds by calling him by his own name Simon – which means ‘listening, obedient’: ‘Simon […] it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ In other words, it’s not your natural knowledge, but you learnt that by listening to God. Then follows the change of the name: ‘You are Peter,’ which means the rock, ‘and on this rock I will build my Church.’ Peter is given a new role and a new mission in response to his listening to God and obediently following what he has heard.
This mission did not expire with Peter’s death. It’s been passed to his successors – we call them popes – as visible representatives of Jesus. Over the millennia, the popes have been exercising the authority given to Peter: ‘Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’ Sometimes, particularly in our modern, highly individualistic attitude towards any authority, people might consider this kind of power overly authoritarian and so old-fashioned that it’s not relevant anymore. This kind of thinking is based on a completely erroneous assumption that the pope exercises his authority on a whimsical basis. Such an assumption is fed by occasional abuses of some popes’ earthly powers in the Middle Ages, massively overblown by anti-Catholic propaganda after the Reformation. In fact, the Church, as represented by the Pope, is called first to listen to God and then to convey God’s message to the world. There’s a somewhat long but very interesting passage in the 2nd Letter of St Peter: ‘we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all, you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.’ (2 Peter 1:16-21)
The sheer volume and complexity of the Bible allow it to produce virtually infinite interpretations, based on ignorance, lack of knowledge and understanding of the Bible’s historical, cultural, and geographical aspects, and a plethora of others. I read about a Christian sect in the US that adopted rifles as a legitimate part of worship, based on their interpretation of the Bible; it would be funny if it weren’t scary. The Church, represented by the Pope, was given the authority to provide the scriptural, spiritual and liturgical framework within which each one of us can and should develop his or her own personal bond with God the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. The church retains and continues her mission described by the meaning of those two names: Simon (the listening and obedient one) and Peter (the Rock).