What’s in a name? These days, perhaps not much more than a dash of fantasy fiction. Who knows whether little Theon or Daenerys will share or rue their parents’ fascination for a Game of Thrones? Yet, in the ancient world names said much more about the realities of power. The city of Caesarea Philippi asserted in its name both the rule of its founder, Philip the Tetrarch, and the overarching sovereignty of the Roman emperors. As befitted such a place, a temple to Augustus stood above the city on the slopes of Mount Hermon near springs which gave rise to the river Jordan. Against such a background we see the inspired audacity of Peter in today’s Gospel when he names Jesus as the Christ. Jesus is the anointed one chosen by God to establish His rule in Israel. It is a conspiratorial as well as a profoundly religious act of naming. It is an act of rebellion, though it does not initiate a political insurrection in any straight-forward sense, nor is it a call to arms.
‘You are the Christ…the Son of the living God.’ In that further avowal there is certainly a rejection of imperial cult, where religion sanctioned the political order, but Peter also points to the intimate relationship between Father and Son, the reality we now express in the doctrine of the Trinity. The Messiah is not just another of the prophets, nor simply the greatest of the prophets. He is God incarnate. He shall rule with justice, for He is the very form of justice.
Of course, Jesus' titles do not tell us how he is to free Israel, how he will restore God’s rule in the promised land. Only the gradual unfolding of the Gospel can do this, as it draws us further into the mystery of the Christ’s life, death and resurrection. But in the second part of today's Gospel we already glimpse something of how Christ acts to free us, as Jesus in turn names Simon as Peter, the rock on whom His church is to be built.
‘Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah’. This is the only beatitude in the Gospel which Jesus names the recipient of His blessing. But as befits the all-creative Word of God, this blessing brings about a new reality indicated by Simon’s new name of Peter, the ‘rock’. The so-called kings of this world build a pagan city and temples on the rocky slopes of Mount Hermon, but Jesus builds a church, a new people, on the rock of his apostle. It’s an extraordinary contrast, between one type of power, one type of building, and a very different power manifest in a very different foundation.
The first thing we hear about this Church is that not even the gates of Hades can hold firm against it. Jesus as the Christ must struggle with the very forces of death, be killed before rising to new life. His Church is caught up in that same struggle, will know persecution, suffering and death. She suffers now terribly in Iraq and Syria; but the Church, too, will overcome death to share in the risen life of Jesus. And Peter has the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
When we hear of these keys, we probably think first of the pearly gates from Revelation, the city gates of the New Jerusalem. And that’s not wrong. As John’s Gospel teaches, Jesus is the door of the sheepfold, the way into His Father’s life and kingdom. If Peter is entrusted with the keys of heaven, it is because the Church has as its fundamental mission to bring people into the knowledge and love of Christ as their redeemer. It does this by revealing the Christ’s love for them.
Yet, we might also think about the keys held by Shebna and Eliakim in our first reading from Isaiah. These are not keys to any city gate, but keys to the house of David, a royal palace. They grant access to a throne room where the king may be petitioned, and to a treasury from which that king can reward his subjects, to the royal granaries from which his people will be fed. So, the keys of Peter grant access to the throne of God in prayer, to the treasury of grace, to the granaries of the bread of heaven. Peter’s task of leadership within the Church is to ensure that we all may have access to the grace we need now in this life and at the hour of our death, so that our Church as a whole may be the instrument which Jesus here fashions. Peter’s gift of naming who Jesus really is, of articulating the Church’s Faith will pass especially into the Petrine office of the later popes, but such authority is always at the service of this fundamental task of enabling prayer and communicating something of the infinite grace of God that will feed us and give us everlasting life.