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YOU ARE PETER, AND ON THIS ROCK I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Monday, the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, February 22, 2016
1 Peter 5:1-4, Psalm 22, Matthew 16:13-19


Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted.

 

"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:18-19).


This is the passage in Scripture where Jesus tells Simon Peter that he will build his Church upon him. Jesus changes Simon's name to Peter, meaning rock, and then tells him that on this rock (Peter, meaning rock) he will build his Church. "I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18). Peter is to be the rock foundation and head of Christ's Church.


Then Jesus says, "The powers of death shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18); that is, the Church will outlive his apostles, including Peter. Yet it will be built upon Peter as its head. It is here implied that after Peter dies, he will have successors, for the Church, which will continue to have the structure that Jesus is now giving it with Peter as its head and the rock foundation on which it is built, will survive the death of Peter and the apostles and still retain this structure. To do so Peter must have successors.


Jesus then spells out the powers that Peter will have as the head and rock foundation of his Church. Jesus says, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16:19). Peter will have and hold the keys to the kingdom of God, since the Church will be the earthly, visible agent of the kingdom of God in the world. The kingdom of God, inaugurated in the world by Jesus, will continue in the world after his death and resurrection. After Jesus physically leaves the earth, Peter will be his vicar, his vice-regent, the visible, earthly head of his Church, that is, of his followers on earth, and hence the holder of the keys of the kingdom of God in this world. So Jesus tells Peter, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16:19).


We note that the "kingdom of heaven," means the same thing as the "kingdom of God." It is simply a Jewish way of avoiding, out of respect, using the name of God; so instead of saying "God," Jesus says, "heaven." St. Matthew is especially sensitive to this, and where Mark and Luke report Jesus as saying, "kingdom of God," Matthew usually writes, "kingdom of heaven." Jesus himself probably used both expressions, as Matthew also does.


Now the kingdom of God is bigger than the visible Church, but Peter, as the head of the Church is nonetheless given the keys to the kingdom of God, since as head of the Church, he is the earthly head and chief agent of the kingdom of God in this world.


Then Jesus tells Peter, "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19). Jesus also gives this power of binding and loosing to all his apostles (Matthew 18:18), but he first gives it individually to Peter, indicating thereby his supremacy in leadership among the other apostles.


The power of binding and loosing is a rabbinic term for decision-making and excommunication. Peter, and his successors, is hereby given the authority to make important decisions necessary to guide the Church. Since the Church is a religious community, the most important matters that Peter and his successors will decide are matters of faith and morality. Peter and his successors are hereby given the authority to decide what is orthodox, and what is heretical; what is moral, and what is immoral. So Jesus says to Peter, "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:19). In this way Christ's Church will be protected and safeguarded, and the faithful will know what to believe and how to live.

 


II

 

But this is not the whole story. Today's first reading, written by St. Peter himself, goes on to tell us how Church leaders, such as himself, are to lead. They are to be gentle, not domineering. They are not to be heavy-handed. He says, "Tend the flock of God that is in your charge ... not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2-3). Peter and his successors are to be the kind of leader that Peter himself describes here. They are to teach by the good example of their own faithful way of life and gently guide their flock in the way of truth.


Peter and his successors are also to be humble leaders, as Peter says today, "Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble'" (1 Peter 5:5). Peter and his successors must recognize that they are not the only ones who possesses the truth of the gospel, for all believers have the Scriptures and reflect on them, and Peter's successors must also learn more by reading what various theologians, including important Protestant theologians, are writing today about the gospel and the Christian faith and God's plan of salvation.


In fact, the best and most helpful insights will often, and even usually, come from other theologians, especially from some of the great Protestant theologians. So to rule his flock well, Peter's successor must be open to all of this, and together with his theological advisors, take all these useful reflections, insights, and key theological breakthroughs into consideration when preaching and teaching and writing himself. This is how Peter and his successors are to shepherd their flock, as Peter himself tells us in today's first Scripture reading.


Jesus himself taught us as much, when he said to his apostles, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45).


Peter is not to lord it over his flock. He is the greatest leader of all, and so he must be the servant and slave of all. If he is to be the first among us, he is to be the slave of all, just as Jesus came not to be served but to serve. Peter's successors are to learn from all and enrich their teaching from the insights of important theologians, Protestant as well as Catholic.


Yet there will come times when Peter must clearly indicate the path of the truth, and distinguish it from the way of error, as Peter's recent successors have done in the key disputed moral issues of our day: abortion, same-sex marriage, and artificial birth control. In these key disputed areas, the recent successors of Peter have taken courageous stances for the truth and for authentic Christian teaching against the false and anti-Christian teachings of the world.

 

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