2 Cor 11:21-12:9
Imagine, if you will, that you’re traveling around with a priest or bishop, and he decides to stop and take a rest. But that place where you stop isn’t just some ordinary place. You’re in front of a temple, a temple dedicated to a pagan fertility god. And, as part of that temple worship, there is sexual excess, both with prostitutes and animals.
THAT’S what’s happening in this gospel reading. Caesarea Philippi was the site of just such a temple, dedicated to the Greek god Pan.
And in this environment, Jesus asks who people think the Son of Man is, who they believed would be the promised deliverer. He wants them to think about how God would deliver them from the iniquity that they saw around them. Their answers indicate that they expected the deliverer to be one who would return from the dead. Well, they got that right!
And then, He turns it around. He asks Peter who HE was. And Peter knew. He knew that Jesus was the Son of the living God. In calling him “The Christ” - or Messiah, he was acknowledging Him as the Davidic King, he was acknowledging Him as the new Moses, the deliverer. Of course, Peter didn’t know the whole picture, not yet.
How did Jesus respond?
The first thing was to point out that Peter’s understanding wasn’t the result of his own reasoning. He didn’t come to the conclusion by merely working it out in his mind. God the Father had opened his eyes. It is often that way, isn’t it, when someone comes to understand that Jesus is the Christ? Often, reason can only take us just so far, and we need a little divine nudge.
The next thing Jesus did was rename him. In Isaiah, we read that the rock from which Israel was cut, the quarry from which the people was hewn, was Abraham. And our Lord repeats that same image, naming his friend Peter, and saying that He will build His Church on him. It’s not just Peter’s confession of faith, as some would have us believe, but on the Petrine office, the office of a universal pastor. It is that Office that holds the Keys of the Kingdom, the Office of the King’s Chief Steward. And, in those first few centuries, when the Romans wanted to destroy the Church, it was the holder of the Petrine Office, Peter’s successor, that they would try to kill.
The third thing our Lord does is give them an idea of the strength of the Church that He would build. In Caesarea Philippi, there is a cave, a cave in which the ancients believed that fertility gods spent their winters. They believed the cave to actually be a gateway to the underworld - the gates of hell. And Jesus is saying that the Church He would build on Peter would have the strength, the spiritual authority, to go into hell and destroy its power.
The last thing our Lord does is define the authority of that office. Peter, and his successors, hold the authority to bind and loose. Towards the end of the first century, the Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “The Pharisees, … became at length the real administrators of the state, at liberty to banish and recall, to loose and to bind whom they would. In short, the enjoyments of royal authority were theirs”. In other words, Peter was given the authority to speak with the King’s authority, with Christ’s authority. But notice Christ’s words - “that which you shall bind SHALL HAVE BEEN BOUND in heaven, and what you shall loose SHALL HAVE BEEN LOOSED in heaven”. It’s not just an authority which can be used at will..That authority can only be used to communicate what is ALREADY the case. That’s why the definition of Papal Infallibility states that it can only be used in a definition of faith or morals. As an aside, also remember, that this authority which was given individually to Peter was soon to be given to the Apostles as a whole. Papal Authority is balanced with the authority of church councils.
Today isn’t just about Peter, though, is it? In our epistle, Paul lays out his human credentials. But they’re not the type of credentials we might think of, certainly not ones that would impress the world.
Paul states, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”. As he wrote to the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. As God told him, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’”
And, isn’t that spirit of sacrifice and suffering what we see in our Lord? As Isaiah tells us, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed”.
In Peter and Paul, we see Christ reflected - in Peter the authority of Christ, in Paul the suffering which redeems us. Let us rejoice in both.