By Damian Feeney
What’s the word on the street? What’s the gossip? Today gossip is a multimillion-dollar industry, whether in magazines full of celebrity gossip, or all over social media sites. Whole publications are shamelessly devoted to the seemingly delicious business of discovering the minute details of the private lives of those who are in the news.
Some journalists, it seems, are prepared to do anything — disguise themselves, break the law, anything — in order to get the latest, to be in the know, to get that one story that will make them. The precise reason Princess Diana died, that awful night in Paris, was that paparazzi followed her car through the streets in order to get a photograph of her riding away with Dodi al-Fayed. Such people are prepared to feed the frenzy that is the public appetite for gossip, which is seldom in the public interest.
In focusing the disciples’ understanding of who he is, Jesus wants to know what the gossip is. What have they heard? What are people in the streets saying? As Oscar Wilde once put it, “There’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about.” As a public figure, as a poet and a playwright, Wilde knew this to be true. His profile depended on what people were saying about him, the reviews, and the word in the theater lobbies. Had he been an entirely private individual, had he not had to rely on such means to populate the theaters, I daresay his view would have been different.
Jesus is also a public figure. He is a man with a mission, a mission from the Father, to bring good news to the people of his time and place, and we who have come after. He knows that the word on the street, the mood music, is important. He knows that what is said and spread about him as he goes from place to place is important. It matters what they think of him.
And the replies from the disciples betray a certain tendency (as with all gossip) to the dramatic. He’s John the Baptist, the one Herod killed a few weeks earlier by beheading him. He’s Elijah, whose return had at least been prophesied and who was a giant among the foundational figures of the Jewish faith. He’s Jeremiah, the prophet who had lived about 600 years ago — a bit like us saying “Who is that?” and replying “It’s Henry VIII, come back to life.” There is a mixture of the mythical, the fantastical, and the downright ridiculous, which is often the way with gossip. The disciples can laugh at all that and dismiss it. Too silly for words.
So Jesus asks another question. What about you? What are you saying among yourselves? What’s the word when you speak among yourselves, perhaps in twos or threes, or when Jesus isn’t around? What are you saying? One can imagine the atmosphere changing at that moment, because the disciples were being invited to nail their colors to Jesus’ mast.
And Simon Peter nails it. Often we are critical of Simon Peter when we read the gospels, but here he speaks with courage and without compromise. You are the Christ. You are the one the prophets said would come. You are the one who’s been gossiped about for hundreds of years. We wait no longer, because the one promised us, the Messiah, the Christos, the anointed one — is here. That’s what we’ve been discussing, and saying to each other, and now we can say it to your face, because that’s who we think you are.
Jesus’ response — which acknowledges that this piece of insight comes from the Father himself and that this is the bravest truth that could be spoken — is to let them in on a bit of strategic planning. He gives them authority. He says the Church will be built on the Petrus, the Rock, on Simon Peter himself, with the other apostles, and the authority he imparts is astonishing. Elsewhere in Scripture we are reminded that “only God can forgive sins.” And here is Jesus giving precisely that authority to the Church.
This is so important for us, dear friends. The Church is not merely a place to meet, or the heart of a community, or a place where faith, please God, is lived and taught. It is important because it is instituted by Jesus and is given powers that had previously been reserved for God himself. The Church has the authority to forgive sins. It is the most astonishing, the most demanding, and the most precious gift we could receive — the assurance that our sins are forgiven, that our captivity in sin has an antidote, that we only need to turn, and ask, for help.
So what’s the word on the street? What’s the gossip? Who do you say this Jesus is? If the one you worship, and the one you receive in this Mass, is who Simon Peter says he is, then it reorganizes your whole life. Your reality is changed, centering as it now does upon the truth that Jesus Christ is God. Come to him, listen to him, let him forgive you, let him feed you, and be caught up in the whirlwind of love and mercy that is his to give, and yours to receive.
The Rev. Damian Feeney is vicar of Ettingshall, England.