There is a rather interesting interplay between the events recorded in John 1:40-51 and Matthew 16:13-23, regarding the role given to Simon Peter (Cephas) in the life and ministry of the Church. In the events recorded in John's Gospel, Simon is told during his first encounter with Jesus, "You will be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter). This declaration is made in the future tense, indicating that Simon's change of name and position will be definitively established at a later date in Christ's ministry. It is worth noting, however, that this section of John's Gospel also points out how Jesus, upon meeting Nathaniel, declared, "Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him."
Then, after mentioning to Nathaniel an event that occurred earlier under a fig tree, Jesus is told by Nathaniel, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel!" Two things are intriguing in this passage. Firstly, Nathaniel is declared by Jesus to be a true Israelite, who is free of guile. He is truly pure of heart, and thus the one who seems to be most capable of being eventually appointed as the righteous leader of Christ's disciples.
Secondly, he makes a profession of faith in Jesus similar to the that would be made by Simon Peter as recorded in Matt 16:16. He declares Jesus to be the Son of God and the King of Israel. Yet his integrity of character and clarity of both perception and proclamation do not lead him to being given the highest place of leadership among Christ's disciples. For a very profound and mysterious reason, that position has already been reserved by Our Lord for Simon Peter.
In Matthew's Gospel, it is recorded that in the midst of Christ's public ministry, Simon, after having proclaimed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, is given the name, Peter, and designated as the Rock on which Christ will build His Church. The fact that this is truly a personal commission, and not merely a general statement to all the disciples is quite clear in the text. Jesus refers to Peter by using the second person singular, "you" - "You are Peter....".
He does not say, "All of you" [second person plural] are Peter". Nor does He say "it"[i.e., the faith, whereby Peter made his profession] is Peter". He further confirms the unique position of Peter by declaring, "I will give you [second person singular] the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you [second person singular] bind on earth, will be bound in heaven; and whatever you [second person singular] loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven."
What immediately follows this commissioning, though, is rather intriguing. Jesus begins to reveal the fact that He is to suffer rejection, humiliation and death. Peter, trying to encourage Him not to be so negative, states that such a fate could never befall such a righteous rabbi. But Jesus shocks him with a severe reprimand, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are an obstacle to Me. You are thinking not as God does, but as men do."
A key to properly appreciating this sudden shift in Christ's statements and demeanor is found in the last sentence - "You are thinking not as God does, but as men do." It helps to bring into focus a dimension of Peter's personality that is essential for his ministry as the rock, on which Christ will build His Church. He is humble enough to be willing not only to suffer embarrassing reprimands, but also to embrace sincere repentance. Over and over again, Peter shows a willingness to suffer the humiliation of having his weakness and ignorance exposed in order to grow in docility to the integrity of life offered to humanity by Jesus. This attitude was summed up beautifully in his words, recorded in John 6:68-69. In view of the hard teaching given by Jesus in His Bread of Life discourse, many of Christ's disciples were scandalized and abandoned Him. As He witnessed this, He turned to the Twelve and said, "Do you want to leave?". Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, responded, "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that You are the Holy One of God."
What we see in all this is that basic training for authentic discipleship requires an ongoing openness to accept the awkwardness of being reprimanded by Truth and then embrace the disciplines of sincere repentance in obedience to that Truth.Thus it is that Peter is the rock on which Christ will build His Church not by the arrogance of power or by the possession of some secret esoteric knowledge. He is the rock in view of his humble,reverent repentance in docility to the whole Truth of God. He thus feeds Christ's flock by leading that flock on the path of humble ongoing repentance.
It is no wonder that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, guided by such a pastor. For the gates of hell can never prevail against a repenting heart.
Rev. Fr. Thomas Collins is a Catholic priest in the service of the people of Virginia.