"Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter" by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, Cappella Sistina, Vatican.
Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41
Ps 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13
Years ago, not long after entering the Church, I called into
a local radio program hosted by two Fundamentalist Protestants. They had
been discussing Catholicism and making some claims that were more than a
bit dubious in nature. In the course of our conversation (which was
thankfully), the topic arose of a great apostasy in the early Church.
story made short, they insisted the Church had “apostatized” within
yearsperhaps just months!of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension.
One reason for this belief (which I knew well from my
Fundamentalist upbringing) was the assumption that the first Christians soon began
embracing structures and doctrines that were “Romanish” in nature. Rather than
deal with the historical record, these two sincere, intelligent men deemed it
better to skip ahead to the present-day, seeking to restore the Church they
thought Jesus really meant to establish.
They made it clear they would not follow a pope.
That incident came to mind as I considered today’s readings.
The readings during Easterwhich include passages from Acts of the Apostles in
place of the Old Testament readingsmake numerous connections between the authority,
mission, and power of the Risen Lord and the position and actions of the
Apostles. There is a clear and consistent connection between the person of
Jesus Christ and the people who took up “the Way” (Acts 9:22) and who were
eventually called “Christians” (Acts 11:26). And this connection included
structure and authority.
“Well, of course,” you might say, “everyone knows that.” But
this basic and fundamental fact is routinely denied, especially by those who
try to uproot Jesus from his historical moorings and detach him from the
establishment of Church structure and use of ecclesial authority. A common line
of attack is to pit Jesus against “organized religion,” which is almost always
code for the Catholic Church and her Magisterium.
Today’s readings depict something different, however, from
this rather anarchic interpretation. The Gospel reading is especially
instructive. It describes a key encounter between the risen Christ and the
apostles, focusing on the head apostle, Peter. Days earlier, the rash fisherman
had denied Jesus three times while huddled in the cold near a charcoal fire
(Jn. 18:18-27). Now he came from his boat to a charcoal fire started by his
Master, who invited he and his companions to eat.
The Good Shepherd then asked Peter a single question three
times: “Do you love me?”
In responding to Peter’s affirmative replies, Jesus did not
say, “Be good” or “Hang in there!” Rather, he directed him to feed and tend his
sheep. This is a reiteration and affirmation of the authority Jesus gave to
Peter in granting him the keys of the Kingdom (Matt. 16:16-20). It builds upon
an important and lengthy discourse by Jesus about his identity as the Good
Shepherd (Jn. 10). We are familiar with the image of the humble, loving
shepherd, but we sometimes overlook how this image is as much about royal
authority and messianic identity as it is about pastoral care.
Jesus’ discourse was based in part on a prophecy given
through Ezekiel: “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David,
and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezek.
34:23). Jesus is the Davidic King, and he established a Kingdom that exceeds
the wildest dreams of any earthly king. “My servant David shall be king over
them,” God told Ezekiel, “and they shall all have one shepherd” (Ezek. 37:24).
But if Jesus is the one shepherd, why appoint Peter to also
be a shepherd? Because the Vicar of Christ, the apostles, and the bishops are
“partakers of His consecration and His mission” (Lumen Gentium, 28). They have a specific place in the Body of
Christ, a vocation to pastor and feed the one flock of the one true God. And so
Jesus, after asking his three questions of Peter, simply said: “Follow me.”
Why? So we can find, receive, and follow him.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the April 18, 2010, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)