Friday, June 29, 2007

The confession of Peter

Pope Benedict XVI sits during a solemn mass to celebrate the feast of Saints Peter and Paul in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican June 29, 2007. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (VATICAN)

~from Pope Benedict's Homily at the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul (translated by Papa Ratzinger Forum)

Today's feast gives us the opportunity to meditate once more on the confession of Peter, a decisive moment in the journey of the disciples with Jesus. The synoptic Gospels say it took place near Caesarea Philippi (cfr Mt 16,13-20; Mk 8,27-30; Lk 9,18-22). John has preserved for us another significant confession of Peter, after the miracle of the loaves and Jesus's discourse at the synagogue in Capharnaum (cfr Jn 6,66-70).

Matthew, in the text which was read a short while ago, recalls that Jesus attributes to Peter the name Kephas, which means 'rock'. Jesus affirms he wishes to build his church 'on this rock', and in this context, confers on Peter the power of the keys (cfr Mt 16,17-19).

From these accounts it emerges clearly that Peter's confession is inseparable from the pastoral mission for Jesus's flock that was entrusted.

According to all the evangelists, Simon's confession comes at a decisive moment in the life of Jesus, when, after preaching in Galilee, he heads resolutely towards Jerusalem to bring his saving mission to fulfillment, through his death on the Cross and the Resurrection.

The disciples are involved in this decision: Jesus invites them to make a choice which will distinguish them from the crowd, to become the community of believers in him, his 'family,' the start of the Church.

In fact, there are two ways of 'seeing' and 'knowing' Christ: one, that of the crowd's, is more superficial; the other - that of the disciples - is more penetrating and authentic.

With the double question, "Who do people say I am? - Who do you think I am?", Jesus invites the disciples to be aware of this
difference in perspective.

The people thought Jesus was a prophet. That is not false, but it is not enough. One has to go in depth, to recognize the singularity of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, his 'newness.' Even today, it is so: many approach Jesus, so to speak, from the outside.

Great scholars acknowledge his spiritual and moral stature and his influence on the history of mankind, comparing him to Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and other wise and great historic personalities. But they do not arrive at acknowledging his uniqueness.

One recalls what Jesus told Phillip at the Last Supper: "I have been with you so long and still you do not know me, Phillip?" (Jn 14,9).

Jesus is often considered as one of the great religious founders, from whom one can take something in order to make up one's own belief. Just as then, even today, 'people' have different opinions about Jesus. And just as then, Jesus also asks us, his disciples today: "And you, who do you think that I am?"

We want Peter's answer to be ours. According to the Gospel of Mark, he said, "You are the Christ" (8,29); in Luke, the statement is "The Christ of God" (9,20); in Matthew, "You are the Christ, Son of the living God" (16,16); finally, in John, "You are the Holy One from God" (6.69). They are all valid responses, even for us.

Let us dwell in particular on Matthew's text from today's liturgy. According to some scholars, the formulation presumes a post-Easter context, and is linked directly to an apparition of the resurrected Jesus to Peter - an apparition analogous to what Paul saw on the road to Damascus.

Actually, the mission conferred by the Lord on Peter is rooted in the personal relationship that the historic Jesus had with the fisherman Simon, from his very first meeting with him, when he tells him, "You are will be called Kephas (which means Peter)" (Jn 1,42). This is emphasized by the evangelist John, a fisherman himself, who, with his brother James, was an associate of the brothers Simon and Andrew.

The Jesus who, after the Resurrection, summoned Saul of Tarsus is the same who - still immersed in history - after his Baptism on the Jordan, approached the four fisherman brothers, at that time disciples of the Baptist (cfr Jn 1,35-42). He sought them out on the banks of the Lake of Galilee, and called them to follow him in order to be 'fishers of men' (cfr Mk 1, 16-20).

Later, he entrusted a particular mission to Peter, recognizing in him a special gift of faith from the heavenly Father. All this obviously was later illumined by the Easter experience, but remains always firmly anchored in the historical events that preceded Easter.

The parallelism between Peter and Paul is suggestive, but it cannot diminish the significance of Simon's historic journey with his Lord and Master, who from the beginning attributed to him the characteristic of the 'rock' on which he would build his new community, the Church.

In the synoptic gospels, Peter's confession is always followed by Jesus's announcement of his coming Passion. An announcement which Peter protests, because he has not yet understood. And yet it was a fundamental element which, therefore, Jesus insistently affirmed.

In fact, the titles attributed to him by Peter - you are 'the Christ', 'the Christ of God', 'the son of the living God'- can be understood authentically only in the light of the mystery of his death and resurrection.

The inverse is also true: the event of the Cross reveals its full sense only if 'this man' who suffered and who died on the Cross, was 'truly the son of God', to use the words of the centurion in front of the Cross (cfr Mk 15.39).

These texts say clearly that the entirety of Christian faith is in Peter's confession, illuminated by the teaching of Jesus about his 'way' to glory, that is, on his absolutely singular being as the Messiah and Son of God.

A narrow 'way', 'scandalous' for the disciples of every age, who inevitably think as human beings do, not as God does (cfr Mt 16,23). Even today, as in Jesus's time, it is not enough to have the right confession of faith. It is always necessary to learn anew from the Lord how he is the Savior and the way along which we should follow him.

In fact, we should acknowledge that even for the believer, the Cross is always difficult to accept. Instinct makes us avoid it, and the tempter leads us to believe that it would be wiser to concern ourselves with saving our own selves rather than lose one's own life because of faithfulness in love.

What was difficult to accept for the men Jesus was addressing? What is still difficult to accept even for many men today? It is difficult to accept that he claimed to be not just a prophet but the Son of God and claimed for himself the authority of God.

Listening to him preach, watching him cure the sick, evangelize the humble and the poor, forgive sinners, the disciples slowly came to understand that he was the Messiah in the highest sense of the term - which means to say, not just a man sent by God, but God himself who had become man.

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