The Keys of the Kingdom, for an Imperfect Peter

keys of peter"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (17.19)

This Sunday (August 23) is the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. Our Gospel is a rather famous passage from Matthew 16.  Simon – soon to be Peter – makes a famous confession on faith – “You are the Messiah,the Son of the living God” — to which Jesus responds by awarding Peter the keys of the kingdom and establishing him as the Rock (petros) on which the Church is to be built. For Roman Catholics, this has traditionally been a key passage in the establishment of the papacy, beginning with Peter and passed down for millennia. But at least from the Reformation on, many scholars and reformers have insisted that Matthew 16 by no means establishes anything remotely like the Roman Catholic Church. Read about all this here, for instance.

But we are not papal historians. So what does the passage tell us, that might help us on this Sunday in August 2020? Let us try to sort it out. The Gospel comes in three scenes, all highlighting Peter: faith, authority, and (actually for next Sunday) denial. We can take them up one by one. Two of three follow exactly the account in Mark 8. The first is Jesus’ question, and the answer by Simon/Peter:

"Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is?' And they said, 'Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.' He said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.'" (Matthew 16.13-16)

Peter answers the hard question with insight and conviction. (We may naturally think here too of the climactic scene in John 6, where too Peter takes the lead: “So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’” [John 6.67-69])

But if the first scene in Matthew 16 makes Peter look good, the immediate sequel in Mark, which Matthew makes his third scene (as we skip for a moment the in-between part), is quite the opposite:

"From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

But Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." (21-23)

Peter as SatanThe faithful Peter = the satan who tempts Jesus; same man, different moment, the best now falls short. Jesus himself is perhaps struggling toward a realization that he must die in Jerusalem, but Peter is wishing for a happy ending and tempting Jesus to go for what is easier. This Jesus cannot tolerate.

It is crucial, I think, that we have both the first scene and this scene: the good and the clueless, the leader and the one who botches things. It is not surprising that Peter would be shocked by Jesus’ dire prediction, After all, we find it relatively easy at least to think of a suffering Messiah, since we have been hearing this for 2000 years of so.

But in any case, this is the kind of guy Peter is. Think of the Gospel we heard two weeks ago, where Peter is the one who starts to drown, but only because he is the one who dared to take impossible steps in faith. And this same Peter is the (only) one who dares to follow Jesus when he was arrested, right into the courtyard of the high priest. Great bravery and loyalty, but then he denies Jesus three times:

"Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end... After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, 'Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.' Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, 'I do not know the man!' At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: 'Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.' And he went out and wept bitterly. (26.57-58, 73-75)

Peter weepsThe others hid themselves. Peter takes a risk, betrays his lord, weeps bitterly, but even then seems not to run away: he has the better part, does he not, to have loved, fallen, and repented? (Think of Alfred Lord Tennyson's memorial poem for his friend Arthur Hallam: "Better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.")

Finally, we have the intervening scene not found in Mark but inserted by Matthew between the two we have just considered. This is the one I cited at the start, the one that became intimately linked to debates over the identity and lineage of Church leadership. Again here is the text:

"And Jesus answered him, 'Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.'” (17.19)

Were Matthew simply promoting Peter’s cause — long live the Pope! — he might have stopped with this scene and omitted the “Get behind me, Satan!” scene. But Matthew, like Mark, wants us to see the imperfections as well as the virtues of Peter. The keys of the kingdom — given to a man who sorely disappoints Jesus moments later.

the Keys of the KingdomThe meaning of the drama, for any disciple and for the Church as a whole, lies in the three scenes together: the profession of faith; the receiving of a new name and receiving of the keys of the kingdom; and Peter’s embarrassing lapse.

Matthew surely did not envision the Roman Church as it came to be in the centuries to come, and hopefully had no expectations or delusions about perfect Church leaders. Insofar as Peter serves as a model for any woman or man who is a leader in the Church, it is the mix we find in Matthew 16 that hits the mark: insight into who Jesus is, and utter loyalty to him; plus, manifest, obvious limitations, failures to trust entirely in God, the temptation to improve on God’s model of suffering leadership; plus, the work of actually being a servant-leader, holding the keys that can open (and yes, close) the doors of the kingdom.

We are very mindful today of the sins of the Church and the sins of her leaders as well as us members. The Church has to become better, do more good and less harm. For this, we don’t need leaders who are perfect or pretend to be so. We don’t need leaders who merely lock doors and keep the keys to themselves, who try to lock people out — or lock us in. We are better off with honestly, openly imperfect people, who fall and get up again.

And let us too try to be more like Peter, ready to speak the truth of who Jesus is (even if we also make him fit our stereotype of savior), walk on the waters (even if we sink soon enough), and stay with Jesus in his times of trial (even if we also deny him more than once) — and by humiliation and humility learn better to be the kind of Catholics who in our faith and loving service show how imperfect people can be real disciples of Christ, women and men of faith, of service, ready to get up again every time we fall. But it's not easy. Indeed, the chapter is not over, and Matthew will have a little more to say — next Sunday.