The first Christian communities were concerned with charisms, not offices. Most Christians of that era thought Jesus was coming back in their lifetime; no one made plans for a distant tomorrow. They conceived of the future in months, not centuries.

So they worked to surface the gifts God had bestowed on people, gifts their communities needed then and there, gifts which helped them become other Christs. We must listen to Sunday's third reading against that background (Mt 16: 13-20).

With centuries of Christianity behind us, we usually interpret the famous lines from Matthew as the proof text for the office of the papacy. But if we do, we're ignoring the message Matthew originally tried to convey to his readers. As I said above, he and his community were interested in charisms, not offices.

Unique leaders

As Rev. John McKenzie stressed in his best-seller "Authority in the Church," the Christian community is unlike any other organization in the world. Because of its uniqueness, those in authority exercise the ministry of leadership completely different from their counterparts in other institutions. Actually, according to Father McKenzie, Church leaders have no counterparts. They, like the people they serve, are unique.

Matthew's ancestors in the faith presumed Yahweh gave certain individuals the charism of leadership. Isaiah emphasizes this charismatic dimension of authority in the first reading (Is 22: 15, 19-23). Only Yahweh can "thrust" Shebna from office and "summon" Eliakim to replace him. Yahweh alone clothes, girds, gives, places and fixes. The Chosen People have just one role in this process: to recognize the gift God bestowed on this special individual.

Paul, a faithful Jew, also has been trained to recognize Yahweh working in people's lives. As we hear in the second reading (Rom 11: 33-36), the Apostle believes this aspect of God's relationship with us is simply amazing.

"Oh," he writes, "the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are His judgments and how unsearchable His ways!" God's place for us is always far beyond anything we can conjure up for ourselves.

This is certainly the case with the "Rock" of early Christianity. Jesus will call the leader of the apostolic community a Satan for arguing with Him about His commitment to dying and rising; not long ago, Jesus referred to Peter as a person of little faith when he couldn't walk to Him across a stormy sea; later, He'll have to deal with Peter's denying he even knows Him. But this week, Jesus recognizes something God has put into the personality of this often out-of-control fisherman, something essential to keep His ministry going after His death and resurrection.

Peter's gift

Jesus' "heavenly Father" has helped Peter cut through the obstacles and distractions which sidetracked most of the historical Jesus' followers, and given him the ability to recognize that Jesus is not only the messianic person for whom Jews have been waiting, but also the "Son of the living God."

To appreciate Peter's historical charism, we must remember how often in the Gospels he's either the first disciple to experience the risen Jesus or the first to believe He's alive. Matthew reflects on this gift in this reading, a gift which only the Father could have instilled in Peter, a gift which strengthens the faith of everyone in the earliest Christian community.

Belief that the risen Jesus is alive and working among us is the foundation on which every Christian community is built. Such faith gives those communities the key to open the door leading to God's kingdom in their midst. Only that faith assures those communities that their "binding and loosing" goes beyond this earth.

Because of that faith, they, like the risen Jesus they follow, have become a new, unique creation. (08-22-02)