What is Peter’s role in the formation of the Church?
The account in Chapter 16 of Matthew begins with Jesus and the Apostles’ arrival at Caesarea Philippi, a city that was twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee. In this setting, Jesus asks the Apostles who people thought he was. They replied that some thought Jesus was John the Baptist, others that he was Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. They wondered if Jesus was one of the great prophets come back from the dead.
Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter alone replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Jesus praised Peter’s reply, noting that he had not arrived at such an insight through his own human abilities. Peter had received a revelation from God and had spoken from his faith. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (v. 17).
Jesus then proceeded to make Peter the rock on which he would build the Church. Beneath the backdrop of a temple built on a rock and devoted to the idolatrous worship of an emperor, Peter, whose name means “rock,” is chosen to lead God’s Church. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (v. 18). Jesus went further and promised to give Peter the “keys to the Kingdom of Heaven,” that is, authority to shepherd the Church. Jesus also promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. These words are a reminder that, while disorder and chaos might threaten the Church, they will never prevail over the Church because of Christ’s protection. This scene ends with Christ’s prediction of his suffering and death.
John 21:15-17 recounts a resurrection scene. The risen Jesus spoke to a repentant Peter, who is filled with sorrow because of his triple denial of Christ, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter replied, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” Jesus repeated the question two more times, and Peter strongly professed his love. Each time Jesus commissioned him to feed his lambs and sheep, that is, the members of the Church.
This scene complements the one in Matthew. There, Jesus called Peter to be the rock of the Church. Here, Christ summoned Peter to be a shepherd who loves Jesus and the Church’s people.
Peter was one of the Twelve Apostles, all chosen by Jesus to be the foundation of his Church. At the head of the Twelve, Jesus placed Peter. From Jesus, the Twelve received the mandate to preach the Gospel to all nations. Peter ultimately made his way to Rome, where he died as a martyr. In establishing the Twelve Apostles with Peter at their head, Jesus gave the Church the basic structure of its leadership.
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