O God, you declare your almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity: mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace, that we, running the way of your commandments, may receive your gracious promises, and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
PETER’s acclamation of Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” and Jesus’s reply, which sets out a special vocation for Peter (Matthew 16.16-19), embody a powerful image that has been for the Christian Churches a defining picture of their own beginning. Before we turn to that, however, its place in the course of Matthew’s unfolding of Jesus’s ministry is there to be explored.
There has been another warning against the misleading teaching of the Pharisees, arising out of a conversation at cross purposes. The disciples discover that they have crossed the Sea of Galilee without bringing any bread with them (Matthew 16.1-12).
Jesus reminds them that everything they have seen him do points to the Kingdom of God, not to material concerns (Matthew 16.8-11). It is time to ask more serious questions, and once they are in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus wants to know who people think he is.
The disciples are not being non-committal: they simply answer Jesus’s enquiry. Local people are identifying Jesus as one of the great prophets come back as an active presence. Now, Jesus presses the matter further and asks his followers who they think he is (Matthew 16.13-15). Peter, who answers first, is not announcing a radically new insight. Brendan Byrne reminds us that the disciples have already recognised Jesus as the Son of God after seeing him walking on the water (Matthew 14.33), and that that he has referred to himself as the Son (Matthew 11.27) (Lifting the Burden Liturgical Press, 2004).
What makes Peter’s utterance distinctive, is its independence where there were safer choices. He could have offered a variation of the suggestions just presented, or he could simply have kept quiet.
Matthew’s Jesus attributes Peter’s knowledge not to “flesh and blood”, but to a revelation given him by his “Father in heaven” (Matthew 16.17-18). This is what makes him, against all the odds, the right person to be the founder of a community that will only make sense if it begins in recognising Jesus as the Messiah. The odds are significant. Immediately afterwards, as Jesus explains that he must go to Jerusalem to die, Peter protests violently (Matthew 16.21-23). Later, he will deny even knowing Jesus, in the High Priest’s courtyard (Matthew 26.69-75).
But this is a different order of knowing from the knowledge that flesh and blood cannot give. Peter’s grief reveals all the conflict and tortured calculation that sets the easy course of denying association with the man on trial, against the unshakeable and undeniable conviction that the man is the Messiah.
Dale Allison compares Peter’s part in salvation history with that of Abraham, a person of exemplary faith, from whom God inaugurates a new people. He, too, undergoes a change of name (Genesis 17), and he is recognised by Isaiah (in an unusual citation mentioning both Abraham and Sarah) as the “rock from which [God’s people] were hewn” (Isaiah 51.1-2).
Peter joins the ranks of the patriarchs as the patriarch of the church — that community called out of Israel in faithful response to the Messiah (“Matthew” in The Oxford Bible Commentary edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, OUP, 2001). It is important to recognise his position as a personal one, not merely a representative one; for this is how Jesus recognises and commissions him, handing over the “keys of the Kingdom” as an authority to teach when the Messiah is no longer with the community.
How the Churches receive this heritage continues to be central to ecumenical discussion. Brendan Byrne (whose commentary should be read in full) insists that what happens between Jesus and Peter is not merely a moment frozen in time, but a “foundational moment”, which must be continued in some form in the life of the Church if the Church is “flexibly, creatively and authoritatively” to “adapt Jesus’s interpretations of the Torah to the ever-changing conditions of human life”. That makes it imperative for the Churches to continue to discuss how such authority is to be embodied and expressed.
Paul writes to the Christians in Rome in the last part of his letter (chapters 12-15) about the responsibility that they can take for themselves. He urges them to live a life that defines them against a society that has not honoured God (Romans 1.18-32). The choice not to follow the world’s pattern, and to be led to a completely new way of life, calls upon the whole person. When the mind perceives things anew, the believer will be impelled to present the body as “a living sacrifice” of an acceptable kind (Romans 12.1-2).
The language is dramatic, but the consequences are practical. This community will flourish if each exercises God-given gifts in a way that contributes to the total flourishing of all.