For many people these days, the words “power” and “authority” can be pretty ambiguous terms. They may call to mind instances of the abuse of authority, or examples of oppressive power. Lately, in the United States, certain forms of power and authority are being deeply challenged, with protests against police violence and calls to defund the police.
Yet in another sense, we also crave authority and leadership these days, as we face the ongoing spread of the coronavirus. We desire clear, informed guidance from the CDC, and for many, Dr. Anthony Fauci has emerged as a much-appreciated authority. And we might be grateful for governors who are using their power to issue mask ordinances. Power and authority are, indeed, a complicated topic for us.
Today’s first reading and gospel speak to us about power and authority—specifically Peter’s authority in the church and in the kingdom of heaven. In recent centuries, this gospel has become the scriptural text that is used to explain and justify the power of the papacy. Peter was made the rock of the church and was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and the pope is called the successor of Peter, so Peter’s authority becomes the pope’s authority. But why is Peter given this authority? And what can Matthew’s account of Peter teach us about authority in the church today?
Three of the four gospel readings this month feature an encounter between Jesus and Peter in Matthew’s Gospel. Two Sundays ago, in chapter fourteen, Peter saw Jesus walking on water and went out toward him, but doubted and began to sink. Jesus calls him “you of little faith.” Next week, in the passage that immediately follows today’s gospel, we’ll see Peter resisting the fate that awaits Jesus. Jesus admonishes him, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
In these passages that surround today’s gospel, Peter is clearly an imperfect disciple. His faith waivers; he misunderstands Jesus; he sometimes just doesn’t get it. We know that in our own time, the successor of Peter and other church leaders still get things wrong, and can be stumbling blocks to Jesus’ presence too.
But today, we see a different moment in Peter’s life. He gets something really important, really right here. He has a unique insight, and proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. On the basis of this faith, his act of correctly naming Jesus, Jesus makes him the rock and foundation of his church, and invests him with authority and power in the kingdom of heaven—symbolized by the keys and by binding and loosing. Peter is a flawed human being, but he grasps who Jesus really is—the one sent by the living God. And for Jesus, that is a good-enough foundation for the church.
I want to be clear about this point—Peter is declared the rock and foundation of the church not because of who he is, or because of any particular skills he has, or degrees he’s earned, and certainly not because he is a male. He is made the rock because he recognizes who Jesus truly is. That is the foundation of his authority.
This gospel, therefore, gives us room to recognize and celebrate other disciples, past and present, who are authorities in faith for us. They may not be in positions of authority—they may not be ordained, or employed as parish leaders—but they are individuals whose lives accurately attest to Jesus as the Christ, son of the living God.
One person who comes to mind as having this kind of authority is Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old man who was shoved to the ground and seriously injured by police in Buffalo, New York during a Black Lives Matter protest in June. You may recall images or videos of him that circulated through social media. News outlets later reported that Gugino is a devout Catholic, a dedicated activist for human rights, and is affiliated with the Catholic Worker Movement—a network well-known for its commitment to non-violence and hospitality for the poor. Gugino, along with many other Catholic and Christian protesters across the country, have been taking to the streets to embody their faith that Jesus, the Son of the living God, desires life for all people—especially black people.
This is the kind of lived authority, the kind of witness and testimony, that opens the doors to the kingdom of heaven. This is the authority that makes Christianity credible. It is the kind of authority that we so desperately need from our church leaders who are in positions of authority. But it is also the authority that we all can claim if we shape our lives and hearts like Jesus’ life and heart. It is an authority not based on our status as ordained or lay, our academic degrees, or our gender. It is an authority, in line with Peter’s, that is based on intimate, lived familiarity with the Gospel.
But like Peter, we all can doubt our faith and begin to sink. We can misunderstand Jesus. If we think only as humans do, and not as God does, we can also become stumbling blocks to Jesus’ transformation of the world.
Any exercise of human authority requires humble and constant attention to the Authority —God’s own self—the one who invites us to walk on water, to know Jesus as the Christ, to take up his cross, and to live lives that testify to our faith.
Elyse Raby is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Boston College. She is completing her dissertation on the church as the body of Christ in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholic theology and, in particular, how different understandings of embodiment shape our understandings of the church, its ministry, and its relationship to the world. She also researches in the areas of feminist theology and theological anthropology, especially on issues of gender and sexual diversity. She has written on priesthood and ministry in U.S. Catholic (April 2019), on intersex embodiment and a theology of creation in Theology and Sexuality (April 2018), and on Christian symbols and kyriarchal ideology in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s book Congress of Wo/Men: Religion, Gender, and Kyriarchal Power (2016). She also writes for Give Us This Day.
Elyse holds a Masters in Theological Studies from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and a Bachelors in Religious Studies from Fairfield University. Prior to graduate school, she volunteered with the Catholic non-profit Rostro de Christo in Guayaquil, Ecuador and worked at Fairfield University in the Center for Catholic Studies and Center for Faith and Public Life.
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