Even Catholic Scripture scholars agree that the biblical role of Peter isn’t to be the first pope; it’s to be a witness to Jesus’ resurrection.
Accustomed to hearing Jesus’ well-known words to Peter against the background of the hierarchical church structure which we’ve created through the centuries, it’s difficult to put ourselves in the place of Matthew’s original readers: Jewish/Christians who had a frame of mind about Jesus and his church different from that which most of us Gentile/Christians have.
The majority of commentators on Matthew’s gospel are convinced the evangelist and his community were still expecting Jesus’ Parousia in their lifetime. So they’d have little reason to expect “their Jesus” to set up a structure that would guarantee their existence for thousands of years down the road. Along with most of Jesus’ earliest followers, they were much more interested in the here and now than in the distant future.
But even more important, as I mentioned above, they were Jews; Israelites who hadn’t given up their religion when they bought into the reforms Jesus preached. None of them believed this Capernaum carpenter had created a new religion. He simply had created a new way of looking at and living the Jewish religion they already professed.
Unlike most of their fellow Jews who, at the most regarded Jesus to be just another prophet, they, following the lead of Peter, believed him to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This unique belief in the presence of the living God among them was the “rock” on which their Christian community was built, the guarantee that the “gates of the nether world” would never wipe them out. They would always be able to overcome any evil that would confront them.
But that faith would also enable Peter (and later in chapter 18, the whole community) to know what to “bind and loose.” Just like their Jewish proto-rabbis, those who believed in the presence of the risen Jesus could definitively determine which of the 613 Laws of Moses applied to them and which didn’t. Their faith was the key which opened the “kingdom of heaven” for them.
In Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven normally doesn’t refer to the place we’re planning to inhabit after our physical deaths. The phrase parallels Mark’s “kingdom of God.” (As a good Jew, Matthew tries to avoid using the word God.) It’s the gospel Jesus’ way of talking about God working effectively in our lives right here and now. The necessity to surface that presence is at the heart of Jesus’ preaching. But after his own death and resurrection, his followers also employed it to describe their faith in the risen Jesus working effectively in their daily lives. It’s that faith which enabled them to look at everyone and everything from a different perspective, the rock which gave stability to their lives.
Instead of setting up the papacy, Matthew’s Jesus is setting up a way of living one’s faith.
Luke agrees with Matthew. Those who preach the risen Jesus will be saved from annihilation by the risen Jesus. Today’s Acts narrative about Peter being delivered from Herod’s clutches is classic. Nothing or no one, not even the forces of evil, will ever stop God’s word from being proclaimed.
Following along the same trail, the disciple of Paul who composed his second Letter to Timothy saw in his mentor’s life and martyrdom a practical example of his deep rooted Christian faith. “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”
Wouldn’t it be great if someone could say similar words about us during our funeral than to simply mention, “He (or she) was a good Roman Catholic?”