Isaiah 22, 15, 19-23 + Psalm 138 + Romans 11, 33-36 + Matthew 16, 13-20
We have moved now further into Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is still at Capernaum, but in the verse following the end of today’s reading we get the first passion announcement. So the movement from Galilee to crucifixion in Jerusalem has begun. In this part of the Gospel now there is no public instruction, and only one healing story. The focus is now on the training of the Twelve, but we must not read or study these verses like spectators who are eavesdropping on this training session. We must count ourselves among the twelve and let the Word train us as well. The concern of Jesus is for the future of his “movement” between his death and the final resurrection of the dead.
The response of Peter does not come from hearsay or local speculation. Notice that it is the others who report what is being said among the people. When Peter speaks up it is his faith and his belief in Jesus that is proclaimed, and Jesus affirms that this faith is a gift from God. God has disclosed to Peter the identity of Jesus Christ the Messiah. Peter did not take a guess or a survey. That revelation or that gift of faith Peter has received sets him apart from others. It establishes him as the one who will lead and witness for the growing community of believers. When Peter and John arrive at the empty tomb, John steps aside to let Peter enter first. When the Spirit stirs their faith to life on Pentecost, it is Peter who speaks first to the people of Jerusalem. At the beginning of his faith, Paul goes only to Peter for instruction and formation. At the moment Peter speaks these words, Jesus knows the will of the Father for the future of his followers.
A commission is given to Peter first, and then a little later in Chapter 18 it will be shared with everyone in the community, but first it is given to Peter. We have no clear understanding about what the this new name meant in the original context and the mind of Jesus; but for Matthew it marks Peter not just as one stone among many, as though he were just one of the apostles, or one of the prophets who are collectively the foundation of the church, but it marks Peter as the church’s unique and unrepeatable foundation. It is to say, we will need no other.
The keys of the kingdom of heaven refers to the right to admit or exclude. In the Book of Revelation (3, 7) and Isaiah (22, 22) it is the Messiah who has this role, but in Matthew, the Messiah passes on the responsibility to Peter. Yet something about us always concentrates on the negative side of that responsibility as though there was something to protect from invaders, the hostile, or thieves. We are a “lock-up” people who seem to think that having keys means you use them to lock things. However, for Matthew and the followers of Jesus yet to come, these keys are for opening. It is the positive side that ought to receive as much thought and attention as the negative. The preaching of Peter will open the doors to life, open minds and hearts to the Good News. I suspect that Matthew is reminding conservative Jewish Christians that Peter had the right to admit Gentiles to the Messiah’s friendship and assembly. Given the times in which these words, “bind” and “loose” were used, sin and forgiveness was not the first thing that would have come to mind, in spite of the what we think of first. The terms actually come from the practice of exorcism in which Satan or a specific demon was “bound” and the victim was “loosed.” What is proposed to Peter and the church he leads is that we must be about the business of setting people free not binding them up. When you recall how Jesus felt about the Pharisees who bound up heavy loads and oppressed people with their laws, you can begin to get a sense of what he expects of us.
The mission of the Church commissioned with Peter is opening and loosening. Our mission is to open minds and hearts to Christ, to unlock closed minds and lift up the burdens that oppress and unbind those who are bowed down by sadness or poverty or ignorance. We must unlock and set free those who are locked into the ideologies of consumerism and individualism. We must open ways to draw them in, include those who feel marginalized, ignored, or shunned.
Caesarea Philippi sits on a high stone embankment where all this took place. At this time it is a Roman powerhouse of authority and probable corruption. The only people who would hang around there were those drawn to such business. It is not by chance that Jesus introduces this part of his formation in the shadows of that kind of power. He comes and commissions a new kind of power with this binding and loosing. In that rocky hill (get the word play about rock) there are caves to this day, and they were called “The Gates of Hades”. Many were buried in those caves – they meant “death” to those living around there. Gates, you know, lock and close sometimes to protect and sometimes to imprison. Gates separate people and make winners and losers; in groups and out groups. With these images before us today, we have plenty to think about. We have gates to open both in ourselves and in this world as a church. We have people locked down who need to be set free.
It has always seemed to me that what Jesus was passing on to Peter was not so much power to bind, as it was power to loose. At the same time he passes on to Peter the power to teach, and gave him the wisdom and the words with which to teach and heal and set free. It is still our mission and it is still God’s will for us as God’s Church.