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This article was published in the January 2003 issue of The Journal.

Shutting Out or Welcoming In?

A homily on Peter, the rock, given by Fr Robert Murray SJ at the annual conference of the British Association of Interchurch Families, Swanwick, 25 August 2002. It leaves interchurch families with a question as they go to Rome: how can we best help the ‘holders of the keys’ to use them less for shutting people out and more for welcoming them in? 

I am very happy to stand here again to celebrate the Catholic Eucharist for you this Sunday morning. On previous occasions I have chosen passages for our readings which suggested to me thoughts relevant to your situations as members of interchurch families. As a rule, however, I think that on Sundays it is good for a preacher to keep to what has been laid down; this can save us from preachers who forever ride their hobby-horses, bypassing the tricky bits of God's word. But given this principle, I must confess to a little inward groan when I realised that the gospel for today is the passage in St Matthew which has long been interpreted in the Catholic Church to justify a theory of centralised authority that many Christians find unacceptable. However, I have decided that today it would be failing in my responsibility to you, members of interchurch families, to skirt this particular 'Rock' which looms up in front of us. 

But before I start the Mass, let me renew the statement that I have made each time, just as John Coventry used to do before me. I do hold to the Catholic principle that eucharistic communion and communion between churches belong together, express each other and build each other up. Consequently, in my place as a representative I may not, here and now, utter a general invitation to those not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church to receive Holy Communion. None the less, for my part, I believe that the degree of sacramental union which exists in every interchurch marriage makes it a deeper law for me not to turn away, but to welcome sincerely and warmly, all of you who believe that Jesus, who joined you in Christian marriage, is inviting you to approach this altar with faith and love. So I ask you to exercise your own spiritual discernment as mature Christians, remembering the two sacraments of Christian life which already unite you in Christ. Of course, any of you also remain free just to come for a blessing for yourselves and your children, if that is preferred, or even to remain in your places. But if you come, from my heart I would want such a blessing to express nothing less than a prayer that spiritually it may be for you a sharing in the fullness of communion.

Matthew 16:13-20
Peter the rock

What exactly happened between Jesus and Simon Peter at Caesarea Philippi? Why do I ask? Well, as soon as you compare the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke, you see the problem. Jesus has led his disciples to a quiet place apart, by the springs of the Jordan. He had tried to arrange this kind of retreat before, but five thousand or more people forced him to change his plan. But he did need to have quiet training sessions with this group which he had chosen, though the kind of messianic expectations which they held made them sadly unreceptive to his attempts to get them to understand what he knew was his vocation. So here they are together, and Luke, characteristically, tells us that Jesus spent some time in prayer before he put the question to the disciples. 'Who do people think the Son of Man is?' (By now they must have got used to this way of his to refer to himself, though they must have found it rather puzzling.) As for his question, they were ready enough to tell Jesus what other people were saying, but as soon as he asked them to speak for themselves, they all left it to Simon. Or was it just typical of Simon's brashness, that he jumped in first? Anyway, he answered, 'I believe you are the longed-for Messiah, the one anointed by God'. Mark says that Peter said 'the Christ'; Luke, 'the Christ of God'; only Matthew says that he added 'the Son of the Living God', and that Jesus answered, solemnly addressing him as Simon bar-Jonah, assuring him that he had spoken by divine revelation, and explaining what he meant by giving him that symbolic name Kepha, Petros, the rock on which he would build his Church. 

A puzzle
But how can we tell how much Peter could have understood by 'Messiah' and 'Son of God' at that stage? The question is sharpened if we bring in John's Gospel, which records confessions of faith in Jesus' special relationship to God much earlier, by Nathaniel at his first meeting with Jesus, 'You are the Son of God . . . , the King of Israel, (John 1:49) and by Peter himself after Jesus' sermon in Capernaum, when many were drifting away:
'. . . we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God' (John 6:69). There were so many current notions of Messiah, as an anointed saviour to be sent by God: a king of David's line, a heavenly high priest like Melchizedek, a new prophet like Moses. 'Son of God' was an ancient title of the Davidic kings (Psalms 2 and 110). If on this occasion Peter had really made a confession of faith so deep and so divinely inspired, how could Mark and Luke have left it out? And why did Jesus tell the disciples to keep it secret?

Matthew, Mark and Luke all make this episode the turning-point at which Jesus began to try to get it into the disciples' heads that his way was not to be one of earthly power and glory, but that of the Suffering Servant, to be realised by a shameful death. Glorification would follow, but in a way they could not imagine. These three gospels all make it clear that the disciples simply could not take this message in, and none makes it clearer than Mark's, which according to early tradition contains Peter's own teaching; I suspect that it reflects Peter's humility after he had been broken and remade. But at this stage, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter reacted to Jesus' prediction of his suffering with breathtaking presumption. He might as well not have been listening; I imagine him feeling that Jesus, for all his wonderful qualities, was capable of lapsing into moments of depression in which the great Peter must cheer him up and assure him of his support. Jesus' response was devastating: 'Get behind me, you satan! Your ideas don't come from God; only from your human blindness'. In Mark's gospel this episode comes immediately after Peter's brief confession of faith. Can Jesus' congratulation of Peter as having spoken through divine illumination, which Matthew alone places just after that confession, really fit in there? 

A post-resurrection saying?
In asking this I do not (like many scholars today) question the authenticity of the words, but I do suggest that they belong somewhere else in the gospel tradition. The most probable context is after the resurrection. Luke tells how on that evening the disciples told the pair just returned from Emmaus 'The Lord is risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon' (Lk 24:34). Only John tells how the risen Jesus, again using the solemn address 'Simon bar Jonah', commissioned him to be Shepherd of his sheep in his stead, after he had made him utter a threefold confession of humble love, to heal his broken self-esteem (Jn 21:15-19). Mark's gospel is the only one which nowhere has a saying of Jesus commissioning Peter with a leading role. If Mark is Peter's gospel, this makes it all the more strange; it is not contrary to humility to record one's credentials. The manuscript evidence for the ending of Mark shows signs of mutilation and clumsy efforts at mending. Is it not likely that it originally contained words of Jesus restoring and re-confirming Peter? The Matthaean 'Thou art Peter' may be a 'floating' saying of Jesus (like many others which occur in different contexts in the gospels), and I believe it is probable that a lost ending of Mark underlies it. Be this as it may, what a wonderful character study the New Testament gives us of Simon Peter, this man of gigantic potential yet crippled by his self-image, who had to be broken and mended before he could fulfil what Jesus saw in him! With such patterns of discipleship and spiritual growth before us, how could it have come about that Christians in subsequent ages could so institutionalise the apostolic ministry, and forge the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven into the instruments of all-too-worldly power? Jesus spoke so plainly about such power:
You know that the rulers of the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you: but whoever would be great among you must be your servant . . . (Matthew 20:25-26). 

Not to exclude, but to welcome
And Peter, the broken, penitent and re-made Peter, recreated by the Holy Spirit, really learned that lesson. A vision taught him that he must 'use the keys' no longer to exclude, but to welcome, gentiles into the Church (Acts 10:9-16). And to some of those whom the apostles had appointed to serve in the Church, Peter wrote: 
I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow-elder . . . , tend the flock of God that is your charge, not just because you are obliged but willingly, not for shame but eagerly, not lording it over those in your charge but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:1-3).

Speaking as one who was led, fifty-five years ago, into the Roman communion, yet without losing my appreciation of the Congregationalism in which I was brought up, I feel acutely what we Catholics have to weep for, in the abuses of ecclesiastical power down the ages. But I rejoice in the expressions and acts of repentance, led by successive popes, which have multiplied so wonderfully since the second Vatican Council. Yet I am aware how many of you have been hurt by words and actions by holders of authority which was given to the apostles, as St Paul says, 'not for breaking down but for building up' (2 Corinthians 10:8; 13:10). By your prayer, and your witness to what your families are, beacons lighting the way to future reunion of all Christians, you can help the 'holders of the keys' to use them less for shutting people out and more for welcoming them in.