The feast day of SS Peter and Paul is one of the most important in the calendar of the Church. The tradition of the Church tells us that both men were executed in Rome during the reign of the Emperor Nero; both were buried and honoured there. The early Church Fathers found the verses from Matthew which are the subject of this Sunday’s Gospel reading on which to comment extensively.
St John Chrysostom (349-407) points out, in his homily on the Gospel, that the Lord takes the disciples outside the borders of Judea into the territory of the Gentiles where ‘being free from all alarm, they might speak with boldness all that was in their mind.’ Epiphanius the Latin (late fifth, early sixth century), takes up this theme in his ownInterpretation of the Gospels. It was here, in the lands of the Gentiles, that the Father revealed to Peter what flesh and blood had revealed to no man. This foreshadows the fact that it would be the Gentiles who, through faith, would come to acknowledge Christ as the Son of God, where so many of his own people in Judea, would not recognise that. Theodore of Heraclea (d. 355), whose works survive only in small fragments, of which the commentary on this passage is part, notes the didactic purpose in what Jesus does. He asks the question in order to discover what opinions about him were current among the Jews. His use of the term ‘Son of Man’, highlights the fact that Jesus is unchangeably man without ceasing to be God. Chrysostom takes this further, showing how Jesus leads his followers into a dialogue which will draw them into a ‘more sublime notion’ of who he really is. The dialogue comes after Jesus had performed many miracles and given many proofs of his divinity and his union with the Father, but even these had not lifted the veil of incomprehension from the eyes of his disciples. Only the Divine will could lift that veil, and here we see this truth. Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428), one of the founders of the exegetical school in Antioch, writes that at this stage his disciples were not all clear who he was, with some thinking he might be John the Baptist risen (as Herod did) or Elijah returned, or even Jeremiah.
St Cyril of Alexandria (c.376 – 444 -whose feast day we celebrated yesterday, 27 June) points out that Peter did not say ‘you are a Christ’ or ‘a son of God’, for many are they who have, by Grace, become these things by adoption; but there is only one who is by nature the Son of God. Peter indicates that Jesus is the one with power over life and death and in whom all authority lies.
Jesus says that Peter’s confession is the rock, and that on this rock he will build his church. This, according to Theodore of Mopsuestia, means that Jesus builds his church on this same confession of faith. For this reason, Jesus changes the name of the Apostle from Simon to ‘Peter’, which in the Aramaic means ‘rock’, to signify his authority. To him and the church are given the keys to the kingdom. He who is a member of the church has access to the kingdom; he who is not, does not.
Christ, Epiphanius, writes, is the rock which is never worn away of can be destroyed. Peter gladly receives his new name to signify the established and unshaken faith of the Church. The devil will forever seek to undermine the church, but he will fail because it is based on unshakable foundations.
Pope St Leo the Great (440-461) notes that in saying that the Father has revealed to Peter the truth of his identity, Jesus goes on to to invest Peter with authority. Of course Jesus is the cornerstone and the rock, but he now says to Peter: “you also are rock because you are made firm with my strength. What properly belongs to me, you share with my by participation”. This confession will not be restrained even by the very gates of hell, for it is a declaration of life. It lifts up to heaven those who confess it, and those who deny it sink into hell. The right to bind and loose is given to all the Apostles, but it is entrusted in a unique way to the one whose name is changed to signify he is the rock chosen by Jesus.