For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? Or who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. — Rom 11:34-36
This Sunday is the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings can be found here. The Gospel includes the famous scene where Jesus appoints Peter as leader of the early Church. What Peter and the early disciples did not fully appreciate at the time is that, unlike leadership of political or economic institutions, Christian leadership means a deep love of God and service to neighbors, especially the outcasts. We have been blessed by our recent Popes who have not only understood that but attempt to live it out in practice.
This week’s reflection comes from Living Space. You can find the full reflection here, but set forth below is an extended summary:
IN TODAY’S GOSPEL WE RECALL a high point in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples. It represents a quantum leap in their understanding of who he really is. It took them quite a while to come to this point. And even here, as subsequent events in the rest of the Gospel clearly indicate, they still did not fully understand the implications of what they had just begun to realise. We will see a clear indication of this in next Sunday’s Gospel reading.
In a way, of course, today’s passage really is an expression of the faith of the early Church rather than just that of the disciples at the time of the event described. Mark, in particular, likes to emphasise the poor understanding of the disciples with regard to the identity and teaching of Jesus. The first person in his Gospel to recognise Jesus fully was a pagan soldier at the foot of the Cross (Mark 15:39). At that moment, Jesus’ disciples, his chosen followers, were nowhere to be seen.
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Nevertheless, aware of their limited grasp of what they are saying, Jesus praises Peter. “Simon, son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.” Only faith could have led Peter to say what he did. It needed faith to recognise the Saviour-King in the dusty human figure standing before him, so different surely from the images that most Jews would have had of their long-expected, all-conquering and nation-liberating leader. Only with God’s enlightenment could they see God’s presence in this carpenter from Galilee, their friend and teacher. Peter must have glowed with pride and this will partly explain his bitter disappointment and shock in the passage immediately following (cf. next Sunday’s readings).
Despite this moment of insight, Peter and the rest have a long way to go in fully knowing Jesus. We might say at this point that we are in exactly the same position. Perhaps for a long time we have recognised in Jesus the Son of God and our Lord but we, too, have a long way to go in fully understanding and in accepting the full implications of being his followers.
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The leadership of Peter and his successors is not one of coercion and political power but of example and service. As long as faith, hope, and love are strong in the community, it will survive and flourish. It is not just a matter of unquestioning obedience to the decrees of an institution, issued from some far-off headquarters.
Today we see in the pope the successor of Peter. He shares the same charism or gift of leadership, a leadership of service. Traditionally the popes have called themselves Servus servorum Dei, the ‘servant of the servants of God’. The pope is not a dictator with absolute powers, as he is sometimes depicted. He is limited by the faith of the whole Church. He is not the originator of that faith; he does not decide what we should believe. Rather, he communicates to the Church at large what it already believes. He is the focal point of unity of that one faith, the unity in the Spirit. The pope is the servant of that one community united in one faith.