In today’s gospel, we find Jesus in Caesarea Philippi, a territory predominantly inhabited by pagans and a home to many ancient religions. In this place littered with temples of Syrian and Graeco-Roman gods, Jesus asked his apostles, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?… Who do you say that I am?” This was a dramatic moment when against the backdrop of a diverse display of world religions, Jesus wanted to know if those closest to him knew who he really was.
The apostles gave varied answers as to who people said Jesus was: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. “But you, who do you say that I am?” Jesus pressed them. This was the more important question for on their answer depended the security of Jesus’ plan for them and for his mission. No one spoke up until Peter declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Peter professed that Jesus was the Christ (the Anointed One, the Messiah), greater than any of the prophets, and himself the fulfilment of all prophecies; the Son of the living God, greater than Baal or Pan or the deified Caesar or any other gods adored by the people in that region.
In response, Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Only once did Jesus call a disciple blessed. Peter was given the particular citation because what he confessed was not product of human foreknowledge or personal insight, but of divine revelation. What Peter confessed was the Father’s recognition of his own Son.
“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.”
Peter is the “rock” on whom Jesus founded his Church, not because of his personal qualities of strength and reliability (we are well aware of Peter’s unstable and impetuous character), but because of the insight given him by the Father. The Church stands on the inspired confession of Peter. To recognize that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God is the core of our faith.
No power, not even that of hell, can prevail against the Church because of its divine origin, the Father’s revelation to Peter, and because of its founder, Jesus himself, who declared, “On this rock, I will build my Church.”
To enable the Church to fulfill her mission, Jesus equipped Peter with his own teaching power and authority. He gave him the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The first reading tells how God introduced Eliakim to his powerful task as master of the royal household by placing the key of the House of David on his shoulder. The key opens and closes the door to the palace, and so he who holds the key holds access to the king.
More than the pass through the pearly gates of heaven, the keys of the kingdom symbolize the teaching authority of Peter. Christ founded the Church in order to continue his saving mission on earth. So, Jesus gave the Church the power to teach with authority and the guarantee that whatever she teaches pertaining to faith and morals is free from error and infallibly leads to salvation. In this sense, the keys of Peter definitely open for us the kingdom of heaven.
One author describes our gospel today as the gospel of gifts. Peter recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, not by his own initiative but by divine revelation. Inspired by such revelation, Peter professed his faith in Jesus. In turn, Jesus established his Church and chose Peter as its rock foundation. Revelation, faith, Church and leadership – grace upon grace – all descended on Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked, “But you, who do you say that I am?”
Today, Jesus asks us the same question. We can give him as many answers as we have heard from others. But what is important for him is what we say who he is. Who he really is, not our personal perception of him or a projection of our expectations of him. Our right answer can only come from the Father, as with Peter’s. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Mt 11:27)*