I have to admit that my last Sunday’s sermon wasn’t complete, although I actually hinted at its continuation today. For once, it wasn’t due to my deeply rooted laziness that the sermon wasn’t complete, but because the story in the gospel reading is divided into two parts, read on two consecutive Sundays. Let’s briefly recall where we left a week ago.
Jesus gave Simon Peter a profound promise: ‘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.’ This passage is commonly and rightly considered as the moment when Jesus bestowed special authority on Peter and – as we believe in the Catholic Church – his successors, the popes. I concluded last Sunday by saying that this authority is exercised by the teaching of the Church.
Today’s gospel reading is the direct continuation of that event: ‘Jesus began to make clear to his disciples that he was […] to be put to death and to be raised on the third day.’ When Peter protests against such a gloomy prospect: ‘This must not happen to you!’ he hears in return an extremely harsh rebuke: ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s.’ From hero to zero in four verses! What a great argument for those who do not accept the authority of the Church or its teaching! Or is it?
It’s a tiny bit more complicated, with the emphasis on the word ‘tiny.’ We have to read and interpret the Bible in its entirety to do it properly; otherwise, we can ‘prove’ anything based on a small fragment read out of its wider context. Firstly, let’s listen carefully to what Jesus said to Peter: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’ Jesus used the future tense; it’s a promise that will be fulfilled, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s like signing up for a university course; you will become a certified architect after you have completed the course. Like a uni fresher, Peter got carried away by the promise and made a silly mistake. Jesus’ harsh reprimand put Peter in the right place: at the beginning of his journey.
Secondly, why did Peter oppose Jesus’ announcement of his torture and death (he clearly missed the bit ‘to be raised up on the third day’)? The clue is in Peter’s profession of faith as we heard it last Sunday: ‘You are the Christ’ which is the Greek word for the Messiah. Israel under the Roman occupation was a febrile place, with occasional violent flare-ups against the Romans. The Jews expected the coming of the Messiah in the likeness of the heroes of the past, like King David or Juda Maccabeus; a great political and military leader to shake off the shackles of the foreign power and to establish an independent and powerful Jewish state. If Jesus was the Messiah – as Peter professed and Jesus himself confirmed it – His death would obviously be the end of the independence dream. Now we see that Peter’s words ‘Heaven preserve you, Lord. This must not happen to you’ expressed his fears of the future, deep anxiety of possibly shattered dreams. How close this experience can be to us, facing uncertainties and anxieties of our daily life.
Jesus’ rebuke was a wake-up call: ‘Get behind me, Satan! The way you think is not God’s way but man’s.’ That certainly got everyone’s attention! Having got the disciples awakened from daydreaming and focused, Jesus outlined His vision of the messianic mission and invited the disciples to be part of it: ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ This was lesson one; more would follow. Peter and his companions had to be formed by Jesus to take up the authority in, and the responsibility for, the Church.
There were a few crucial moments in this schooling; sadly, we don’t have enough time to talk about each as extensively as they deserve. So, I will just touch on them: the Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17) when Peter, James and John hear the voice from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ Then, at the Last Supper Jesus told Peter: ‘I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers.’ (Luke 22:32). That’s a bit of a strange announcement… Peter in return declared his readiness to be jailed and to die with Jesus only to hear back Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s triple denial. On the night of Jesus’ imprisonment, Peter sat his final exam; as predicted, he denied under oath knowing Jesus. Did Peter fail this exam then? No; he passed with flying colours! This was Peter’s first-hand experience of God’s mercy and forgiveness in the face of his own weakness. It was the defining moment for Peter’s ministry. On the day of His resurrection Jesus confirmed his initial promise ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ when He met His disciples and gave them the authority to forgive sins; the power reserved to God (John 20:19-23). Then, on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, Jesus confirmed Peter’s authority and made him responsible for the community of the faithful. This time it was expressed in the present tense, in the imperative mood: ‘Feed my sheep’ (John 21:15-17). Peter exercised his authority for the first time when a successor to Judas Iscariot was selected (Acts 1:15-26). On the day of Pentecost, Peter gave his inaugural speech in front of the crowd. In his speech he essentially repeated the words he had heard from Jesus in today’s gospel: ‘he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.’ Peter concluded his speech by proclamation: ‘let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah.’ (Acts 2:36)
We see Peter’s journey from his day-dreamt vision of the Messiah to that of Jesus. It wasn’t an easy journey; effectively Peter has been stripped of his small-minded ideas and matured to affirm Jesus’ vision. We are called to obedience to the Church’s teaching not because it’s always easy, but because it’s the right thing to do.