St. Peter protects authentic Christian faith

Father John A. Kiley

All four Gospel accounts record the celebrated confession of St. Peter in Jesus Christ as Messiah. As the Gospel account of St. Luke is read this Sunday, note that Jesus’ original question about his identity is addressed to all the disciples.

“…he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’” This is a generic question about talk taking place in the community. Various opinions are offered. “They said in reply, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen’.” The dialogue here is still on the chit-chat level. Jesus asks about the buzz and his friends obligingly reply. But then Jesus gets very specific, raising the conversation above neighborhood gossip, challenging the disciples to expose their own inner thoughts. “Then he said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” Characteristically, Simon Peter answers on behalf of all: “Peter said in reply, ‘The Christ of God.’”

St. Matthew and St. Mark in their Gospel accounts follow the exact same dialogue. The original, generic question is addressed to all with the same assorted suggestions in response. Similarly the personal inquiry about Jesus’ inner identity is spoken to all. Again, along with St. Luke, St. Matthew and St. Mark record Simon Peter as the unique replier: (St. Matthew) “Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’” (St. Mark) “Peter said to him in reply, ‘You are the Messiah.’” St. Luke and St. Mark then use this confession of St. Peter as an opportunity to introduce to the fledgling apostolic community the prospect of Jesus’ betrayal, passion and death. A much deeper appreciation of Jesus’ true identity as the prophesied Suffering Servant is in the process of emerging. On the other hand, St. Matthew majestically develops the confession of St. Peter into the glorification of Simon Peter himself. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” St. Matthew chooses this profound moment to invest St. Peter with all the prerogatives that Christ will bestow upon this premier apostle later during his public life.

St. John for his part transfers the confession of St. Peter from the roadside chat that the synoptic favor to the renowned sermon on the Bread of Life that comprises his gospel’s chapter six. A number of Jesus’ original followers found his instruction on the Eucharist quite challenging: “Then many of his disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’...As a result of this, many disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” Jesus issued a challenge and, for many, the challenge was too severe.

They abandoned the ministry. Probably frustrated, Jesus solemnly addresses the apostles: “Jesus then said to the Twelve, ‘Do you also want to leave?’” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” Resoundingly and emphatically, it is once again St. Peter who speaks on behalf of the Twelve. St. Peter’s is the voice of the apostolic community. St. Peter articulates the incipient faith of the infant church. St. Peter’s leadership role is beginning to mature. A later theology of papal primacy is clearly beginning to take shape even in the early stages of Christ’s public life.

The Gospel accounts of St. Luke, St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. John all concur that St. Peter held a unique place in the establishment of the early Christian community. It is rare that all four Gospel accounts relate the same incident. For example, only one miracle, the multiplication of the loaves, is reported by all four Gospels. The fact that each Gospel account relates the confession of St. Peter with pointed recollection and significance should not be underestimated. The seed of the church office which later generations of believers would know as the papacy, the office of pope, the Holy Father, was planted during the public life of Christ. The role of chief shepherd is not merely an organizational tactic later created for the smooth running of a multi-national institute.

True, the papal office has indeed acquired much organizational trappings over the centuries. But the ancient office of Peter primarily propagates and protects the authentic Christian faith.