Ben Macdui and Braeriach are the second and third-highest peaks in the UK, respectively. The distance between those two summits is just over a couple of miles as the crow flies. So, it is very tempting to any ambitious hillwalker to bag both in one go. What are two miles for a hardy tourist? When outdoors, I use a handheld GPS device, a bit like a sat-nav in your car. I can enter coordinates and the device shows me the distance between my position and the destination in a straight line as the crow flies. Which is useless because I cannot fly and, in the hills, a straight-line approach is practically impossible. The distance between Ben Macdui and Braeriach is just over a couple of miles as the crow flies. But they are separated by the Lairig Ghru – a deep and steep glen; the great rift between the two mountain ranges that makes a direct walk much harder than you would think based on the distance alone.
Today’s gospel reading tells us the story of one man given enormous authority by Jesus: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’ Wow! All the political dictators combined cannot even dream of such power! And yet, such authority is bestowed upon a poor fisherman from Galilee; a region considered semi-pagan by many of their fellow Jews living in Greater Jerusalem. Simon Peter, the man in question, surely was not worthy of such privilege, was he? Of course, he was not. We will see that next Sunday in the gospel reading; we also know he would denounce Jesus three times on the night of His detention… And yet, after Christ’s resurrection, the authority given to Peter is confirmed in the famous dialogue on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, when Jesus three times tells Peter to take care of His sheep. Between those two moments, Peter has learned how to wield the authority and that this power is a great burden of responsibility, not something to boost his ego. The new-testamental book of the Acts of the Apostles is a powerful testimony to Peter’s inspiring leadership.
Peter’s appointment was based on a profound tradition. In the Old Testament, many people had been appointed as al-habayith – a steward that wielded authority over his master’s household. The first one was Adam: ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over […] every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1:28). Joseph is made al-habayith by Pharaoh. The list is very long indeed; today’s first reading tells about ‘the master of the palace’ which is one of a few possible translations of the term al-habayith. So, when Jesus gives Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven as we heard in today’s gospel, those around them instantly know what it means and accept that. However, what is very characteristic of Peter is that he got this enormous authority, but he never exercised it in an authoritarian way. We will hear next Sunday how instantly he was rebuked by Jesus, and that was the hard way he learned to use his newly acquired authority to serve and to look after those entrusted to him. Primus inter pares, ‘first among equals’, became the default mode of work by the Apostles and their rightful successors, the bishops, with the Bishop of Rome as their leader.
Now we can come back to my story of the two peaks, Ben Macdui and Braeriach. While I have a direct connection with the heavens (in the form of GPS signal) and know my destination, I need a map to find the best way to cross the deep and steep glen between them. The teaching of the Church is the map we are given to be certain that our direct connection to the heavens is not misinterpreted. In some areas, that map – the teaching of the Church – is strict and narrow; in other areas, it offers a wide framework with plenty of room to negotiate our own route forward. As someone familiar with maps I know that they are the most useful when they are up to date. A few years back I was tasked with producing a map of parish boundaries in our diocese. I got a very thorough description produced in the mid-1980s. Very soon I hit the block – the city of Aberdeen had changed to such an extent since the description had been made that reference points couldn’t be identified. I found the old map mentioned in the description on a well-known internet auction service, bought it, and with the map in hand I ‘translated’ the boundaries to the reality of the 21st century City of Aberdeen. That is what the Church does all the time – unwaveringly faithful to the essence, ever-evolving to find adequate ways of carrying out its mission. The first Council of the Church, held in Jerusalem in the year 50 AD, introduced a dramatic change in the practice of the Church. We, the Christians of pagan inheritance in the 21st century Aberdeen, are beneficiaries of the brave decision made by the Council Fathers enlightened by the Holy Spirit. So, when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ let’s make it a profession of faith, not an empty phrase.