Scripture is never simple. Even before we begin to read, we must know who is speaking, and why, and to whom, and with what agenda. To make matters even harder; the events and teaching we read about took place about 2,000 years ago in a language, culture and context different from our own. Despite this, we return to the scriptures again and again to understand what God wants of us. We need to know what God’s love is asking of us here and now in our own culture, language and circumstances. We may know what our response is today but there may be something new for us tomorrow.
Both the first reading and the gospel speak about a key. There is a sense of power and authority when we have a key to a car or a home or a business or a church. With authority comes a responsibility to use the key wisely. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to Peter, “you are Rock and on this rock I will build my church.” With that, Jesus handed over the keys. Why would God choose Peter, a hard-working fisherman, to be the boss? Like any of us, Peter may have loved food, wine and sleep a little too much. He answered the questions in Cesarea Philippi correctly, but he gave the wrong answers three times before the cock crowed. Peter’s job resume didn’t look all that great. Yet, Jesus chose this regular guy to be the leader. His role was to be the visible representative of Christ. He has the final word on any issue relating to the Church. The keys Jesus said he would give Peter symbolize this authority. The keys Jesus gave Peter were not buried with him and that position of authority did not end when Peter died. It was passed on to his successors. This is implied in the gospel Matthew wrote, for Peter had been dead for at least 24 or 30 years when Matthew wrote this passage. Matthew made a big issue of this incident, not to tell us about some personal favor Jesus bestowed on Peter, but because the leadership position of Peter would remain as part of the structure of Christ’s community of believers.
Comparing Matthew 16 with the same scene in Mark 8, we note that the dialogue between Peter and Jesus in Matthew does not appear in Mark, which is thought to be the source text for Matthew. Both Gospels have the dramatic scene in which Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Both show Peter professing that Jesus is the Messiah. But Mark says nothing about a special selection of Peter as leader. So why did Matthew add this?
One theory is that Mark, written 20 years earlier, reflects a time in the early church when the question of authority was still being debated. But by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, Peter’s faction had won out, and because Peter was associated with “the Jewish wing of Christianity,” this appealed to Matthew’s predominantly Jewish Christian community.
More importantly, though, for Matthew this new ekklesia—literally “the called-out gathering”—is not simply a movement that arises after the resurrection to promote Jesus’ teachings. Matthew wants the emerging local Christian community to understand itself as formed by the earthly Jesus to continue his work. It is Jesus’ identity and authority that Matthew is primarily focused on in this reading, not Peter’s. The keys of authority come not from personal perfection but from responding to God’s initiative and revelation.
Peter knew the answer to the question “Who do you say that I am”? Do we know the answer? Is Jesus worth our time on Sunday or during the week? Is he someone that we can trust? Does he love us and forgive us and want only the best for us? Is he someone who has authority to tell us how to live, what we should do, what we may not do? Is he someone we look forward to spending eternity with? Do you know Jesus personally? How do we get to know someone? We spend time with them. How much time do you spend talking to Jesus? We call this prayer. Don’t be afraid to spend time talking to God. If you do not know Jesus personally then take the time to do so. When you know Jesus your heart is at peace and full of joy.