I am grateful for the opportunity to preach in this beautiful chapel this evening.
Today’s is a famous, even perhaps an infamous Gospel. Certainly it’s one that has aroused much controversy. I hasten to add that I did not choose it at random. It is the reading in our and others’ lectionaries for this Sunday. In it Peter makes a magnificent profession of faith in Jesus and our Lord in turn tells Simon Peter he will be the rock on which he will build his Church. He gives him the keys of the kingdom of heaven, making him what the major-domo, as it were, like Shebna and Eliakim in the reading from Isaiah. He gives him, as he will later give all the apostles, the power of binding and loosing, a rabbinical expression denoting authority to lay down the conditions of admission or exclusion from the community. On this there is little exegetical disagreement. Where controversy begins is with the Catholic belief that this authority has been transmitted to the Bishop of Rome as successor of Peter. Our fellow-Christians – Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant – would question this, even vehemently reject it. Happily we live at a time when on all sides many are striving to overcome this disagreement.
But let me set this aside for a moment and first pick up some other elements of this Gospel.
It is set in the region of Caesarea Philippi. That is, well in the north of Palestine, in largely pagan territory, near the sources of the River Jordan, in the area of what is now the Golan Heights. So Christ is away from his usual environment, focussing on the formation of his disciples. He questions them. ‘Who do people say that the Son of man is?’ Jesus asks. And after the disciples’ answer, more pointedly, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And Peter replies: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
‘Who do people say that I am?’ ‘Who do you say that I am?’ How much one could dwell on this movement from reportage to profession of faith! It is the difference between an article in a Dictionary of World Religions and the singing of the Creed, between a sociological investigation and a ringing personal affirmation. And just as Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries read him some as ‘John the Baptist, some as Elijah, and others as Jeremiah or one of the prophets’, so perhaps many today would reackon Jesus of Nazareth a great religious figure like Moses or Buddha or Confucius or Zoroaster or Muhammed. Or perhaps some would align him with more recent iconic figures of liberation like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. And all would fall short. ‘But you, he then asks, who do you say that I am?’ It’s a moment of transition, of commitment. And Peter is equal to it: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
‘You are more than a prophet, more than one of those special figures, religious geniuses, history throws up. You are beyond the usual categories. You are the Christ, the Anointed One, the bearer of the Holy Spirit. You are the Son of the living God (the Father).’ See how the whole Trinity is implicit here. To understand we always need a context, a field of reference. And for Jesus, historical figure though he really is, born of Mary and crucified under Pontius Pilate, history or other human beings are not the ultimate context. It’s the Trinity which is. ‘You are the Son of the living God, God with us, the very presence of God. You are in this world but not of it. You are from above. And therefore you’re the Christ, the fulfilment of human history, of human longing, the only one who assuages the deep human pain of our estrangement.
What Peter professes here, please God, is what we profess. The faith of our baptism, the faith of the Church and the creeds, the faith of the saints and so many humble good plain ordinary human beings throughout the centuries. It’s the faith of our hearts and minds. And it’s something new. It’s something that only becomes possible with the advent of Jesus. And it has something in common with that advent. Its ultimate source is not within the merely human, human though the act of faith always is. ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, because it is not flesh and blood that has revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ Your confession comes from above, from the Father, from enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, just as I do. Of course we learn of the faith from others, parents, teachers, the Catechism and Scripture and the Liturgy etc. But the agreement we yield to what we hear, our assent, is a gift of God. It’s not from flesh and blood or psyche or culture.
So something new has come to birth in this conversation. A new relationship, a new communion and a new community. Hence a second phrase and moment I’d like to underline: ‘I will build my Church.’
O, how loaded, how emotionally charged, negatively and positively that word is! But this is its first use in the Gospel. If only we could hear it for the first time! It means assembly, gathering, congregation. It means the opposite of that scattering dispersal which follows on Cain’s murder of Abel and the story of the Tower of Babel. In the Old Testament it denotes the gathering of Israel at the foot of Mt Sinai at the time the covenant was made through Moses. Since the advent of the Messiah, it means those gathered around him. The Church, as St Augustine would so often say, is the congregatio fidelium, the gathering, the uniting, of all who believe, who profess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Flowing from the newness of Christ, then, the mystery of God incarnate, are these two new things: that new personal relationship with God we call faith and this new community he calls ‘my Church’. One more personal, individual, the other social, corporate. One the inside, the other the outside of what is really one single new thing. It’s as if from this Gospel onwards, Christian faith becomes a possibility in each human life, is added to the inventory of the many many things, small and great, which can lay claim to the human heart and shape a life. And simultaneously, concurrently, the Church is launched like a great ship on the wild sea of history. It’s as if the foundation stone of this great cosmic house which is the Church is laid, this house of which each generation will be a fresh course of stones until the building is complete and the heavenly Jerusalem revealed.
There is another phrase in today’s Gospel: ‘the gates of hell’. It means the power of evil, of destruction. Faith and the Church don’t enter a neutral arena. They enter a battlefield. The ship will be battered by waves. The house will be buffeted by winds and rising water. The heart will be a place where the choice is between life and death. And Jesus says these gates of hell will not prevail.
Our Lord knew this. And of all extraordinary things to do, he put Peter as the rock of the house, as the captain of the ship, Peter that blend of bravado and weakness. Jesus makes this man the guardian of the faith and the centre, the holding-point of the Church.
I don’t want here to argue the Catholic thesis that the bishops of Rome are, in a special way, the successors of Peter and have inherited all that is transmissible in the mission originally given to him in Caesarea Philippi, again at the Last Supper and again after the Resurrection by the Lake of Galilee.. I don’t want to indulge in laments over scandalous Popes or a spasm of triumphalism over the holy and outstanding ones.
I’d rather come to a conclusion with a broader perspective.
There’s a question that exercises me much: how as we begin this 3rd Christian millennium is Christianity to be kept afloat> How is it not to succumb to the gates of hell, to the power of the tides and the waves? How will faith, that gift entrusted to our confused heads and wavering wills, that flame continue to burn? ‘But when the Son of man comes, will he find any faith on earth?’ How will the Church not unravel and scatter and lose all coherence?
How will Christianity then both survive and thrive?
I think the liturgy, common worship, is central here. I think that liturgies which welcome, engage and uplift have a human and divine power. I think liturgy is a place and a time where the good and the true flower into beauty, and so can drawn human beings, unite and entrance them. Liturgy is where faith becomes imaginable and the Church visible. Such is one path of survival and thriving.
Another, I think, and you will have to forgive me here, is monasteries and their equivalents: what one might call communities dedicated to total Christianity. They will only rarely attain it, but in my experience of such communities they have a singular radiance and power of attraction. Like liturgy, they offer imaginative alternatives to people, and not only to fully paid-up believers. They create another kind of environment where faith and friendship can flourish, away from Hopkins’ sharp and sided hail, out of the swing of the sea. ‘Thin places’ they’re sometimes called, or sanctuaries.
And in the context of today’s Gospel, I would mention a third provider of Christian buoyancy. It is the Petrine office as it has been exercised in our own life-times. Despite all the scandals of history, despite the constant small-arms fire directed at it, despite a certain penchant for institutional malfunctioning, I think the Papacy has done and is doing much to uphold Christianity in the world. Have not the Peter’s successor taken on something of the role of the conscience of humanity, suffering the fate inevitably that conscience often suffers? And this not only in matters of faith in the strict sense, but in those of the natural law, of social justice, sexual life, family life, political life? I’m not saying this to score a denominational goal, as it were. I mean to be saying something that seems to me objectively verifiable: for example, on the grand scale, in the interest in an event like John Paul II’s funeral or in the response to the election of Pope Francis. On the small scale, in personal touches too many to mention. ‘You are the Christ the Son of the living God,’ said St Peter. And Easter Sunday after Easter Sunday, to the City and to the world, Urbi et Orbi, the Pope emerges on the balcony and says, perhaps in many languages, ‘Christ is risen.’ Surely it is good that that Petrine voice still rings out.
Let me end by quoting a contemporary Cistercian monk commenting on today’s Gospel:
“Christ well knew the need, inherent in a historical and incarnate Church, for a chief shepherd who is at once strong and humble, obedient and magisterial, loving and firm, a relentless servant and an uncompromising teacher, intently listening to the world’s needs and utterly faithful to the tradition handed to him. Such an understanding of the Petrine mandate within the totality of revelation has the potential of being a leaven of unity and communion, rather than of division and mutual recrimination, among Christians” (E. Leiva-Merikakis).
May it be so, Amen!
Delivered at Haddo House Chapel, Sunday 24 August
Reading: Matthew 16:13-20 (as Lectionary for 21st Sunday)