Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus Christ is himself a divine revelation. As the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel proclaims so beautifully, Jesus is “the true light” who through the Incarnation “was coming into the world.” And, as it continues, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” The mystery of the Incarnation is that while the Son of God comes to us in the flesh -- as a flesh and blood human being -- we do not identify Jesus as the Son of God based on his humanity alone. While the revelation is that of a human being, Jesus of Nazareth, we cannot comprehend that revelation simply by considering him as a human being. Who Jesus is is not something that’s available to human perception alone.
So, in today’s Gospel, when Jesus asks the disciples who people say that the Son of Man is, there are a host of possible candidates mentioned and none of them are exactly correct: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” And note that these aren’t necessarily bad guesses! Jesus certainly is a prophet and the people were definitely onto something by ranking him among the greatest of them, as perhaps even the personification of Elijah or Jeremiah. There are any number of possible identities that we can ascribe to Jesus based only on our human judgment, and some might actually get at least close to who Jesus really is. But alas, so close, yet so far.
“But who do you say that I am?” Note how the subtle change in the question makes all the difference. It’s one thing to be asked for a survey poll of who “the people” say that Jesus is; if you’re one of the disciples, you’re not being directly or individually addressed. You’re merely being asked to report on what the majority happens to think; and what you think is for the moment neither here nor there. But when Jesus switches the question, it’s a total game-changer. You’re no longer being asked to simply describe the public opinion; now your own testimony is being called forth. I’m reading between the lines here a bit, but it’s interesting that Jesus is directing these two questions to all of the disciples. To the first question, the text says that they respond, as in the disciples plural. Which makes sense, as it’s the much easier question to answer. But significantly, when Jesus asks his follow-up question, again addressing all of the disciples, only Peter answers. Perhaps the other disciples became more cautious about answering this second question, but it is Peter, with his characteristic boldness, who finally answers for himself: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Just as there is a massive difference between the question that Christ asks about who the people say he is vs. who the disciples themselves say he is, there is also a massive difference between the two kinds of answers. And it’s not just that the people’s ideas happen to be wrong while Peter’s is right. Rather, it’s that Peter is able to witness to the truth of who Jesus is because that truth has been given to him by God. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” Jesus says, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Without this revelation, the implication is that Peter would probably have guessed another possible identity along with the rest of the people. The point is that it’s not necessarily that Peter has some kind of special insight of his own by which he testifies to who Jesus is. It isn’t any power or perception that Peter has in himself at all. What distinguishes Peter’s answer from those of the people is the revelation that comes not from flesh and blood but directly from the Father in heaven.
I’m going to dive into the parallels between Christ’s reference to the “flesh and blood” that were unable to reveal the identity of Jesus to Peter and that line from St. John’s Gospel that I mentioned at the beginning -- about how the children of God are born “not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” Only God can give us the power to become children of God; it is not a power that we can access from within ourselves. Likewise, only God can give us the power to recognize God in the person of Jesus Christ, which is why Peter only recognizes Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” because God has revealed it to him. But as John’s Gospel implies, to perceive a revelation from God fundamentally and irrevocably changes the one to whom God reveals himself. Or, to put Matthew and John together, we discover that to receive a revelation from God and not from flesh and blood is to be born not of flesh and blood but of God. Who we are is inextricably bound up with our ability to perceive who Christ is: the children of God are those who recognize Jesus as the Son of God. Simply put, God brings us by grace into an intimate relationship with him as his adopted children in order that we -- as his children and therefore as “joint heirs” with Christ -- can share in the revelation of the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
After blessing Peter for the revelation that he has received, Jesus continues:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Peter is no longer just another ordinary human being. He is certainly at least that, but having received the revelation of the Son of God, he has received the power of God as well. And so he with the other apostles can now be a sure foundation on which Christ can build his church -- a church that will forever withstand the assaults of Hades. The Church is therefore not just another ordinary human institution; it is at least that, just as Peter is at least a human being, but as the Body of Christ, the Church is comprised of the children of God and thus is full of the power of God. And with power comes authority, and so Peter and the apostles -- the icons of the episcopate -- are given the keys of the kingdom. Whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. These “keys” have long been interpreted in relation to the sacraments of the Church, because it is in and through the sacraments that the power of God is given and received. For instance, it is through the sacrament of baptism that a person is born again as a child of God; it’s through the sacrament of penance that a Christian’s sins are absolved after confessing them to a priest; and ultimately, of course, it’s through the Eucharist that we partake of the very Body and Blood of Christ. The sacraments bind heaven and earth together.
Perhaps you detect the pattern here by now: Peter and the other apostles are not merely ordinary human beings, because they have received the power and authority of Christ; the Church is not merely an ordinary human institution, because it is made up of the those who have been born of God; and likewise, the sacraments are not merely human rituals, because is in the sacraments that “the efficacy of [Christ’s] Passion abides.” And all of this ultimately converges in the simple claim that Christ says to Peter today: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Through the ministry of the apostles, we too have received this revelation; we too recognize Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God as those who have been born not of flesh and blood but of God. And thus we too are blessed. Amen.