I remember standing on the shore at the north end of the Sea of Galilee one morning in January of 2012. Mike, our tour guide, had asked our group to gather around him as he stood on a rock. He told this story from Matthew’s gospel and then began to suggest that there is more to it than we have understood. I have reflected many times on the thoughts he shared and have come to believe that he was right. There is more going on than I had previously been aware of. Tradition has always held that this was Peter’s commissioning. It was at this moment that Jesus declared that Peter would be the rock, the foundation, upon which Christ would build his Church. Indeed, even the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven would be Peter’s, and therefore the Church’s, to use as the Church became the vessel of salvation through which Christ’s redeeming acts were administered. This tradition is a cornerstone of Catholic Christianity. Peter is remembered as the First Bishop of Rome, and his commissioning continues to be celebrated to this day. I have stood in St. Peter’s Square and seen the flag of Vatican City fluttering in the breeze; a flag with keys depicted on it. While I do not doubt that Peter played an integral part in the establishment and building up Christ’s Church in the world, I do think Mike was right; there is more going on here.
Matthew identifies the exact place that the conversation between Jesus and Peter took place. It was at Caesarea Philippi, just north of the Sea of Galilee. It is out of the way in the area where the Jordan River begins. In this place is an ancient site known as the “Grotto of Pan.” Pan was the god of the wild and the companion of nymphs, and his devotees would celebrate him in rather wild and lewd ways at the grotto. To that extent, Caesarea Philippi had a reputation of being “Sin City” in first century Palestine. It was not the kind of place that the disciples would be proud to tell their mothers that they had visited. The fact that Matthew explicitly names the place, and that Jesus went out of his way to take his disciples there suggests that the place itself, and all that it symbolized, played a role in Jesus’ pronouncement to Peter and the other disciples. Another interesting fact about the Grotto of Pan was that it had another name attached to it as well. It was also known as the “Gates of Hades.”
What if what Jesus was saying to Peter and the others as he stood on the great stone slab at mouth of the grotto had more to do with establishing the purpose of the Church than it did establishing Peter as the head of the Church? What if this was Jesus announcing his Church and where it would be called to be at work in the world? What if Jesus was using Caesarea Philippi as a symbol for the sin and death that the Church would speak the Gospel of freedom and life into? The Grotto of Pan is a place of depravity and self-indulgent sin. The Gates of Hades speak to us of the inevitability of death. Perhaps Jesus is saying that this is the kind of real estate on which he will build his Church; you know, that lot in the darkness at the intersection of sin and death; an uncomfortable place that is out of the way for most of us.
“On this rock, I will build my Church and the Gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” This is the language of a Church on the move, or even more, a Church on the offensive. The work to which Jesus calls his Church is too important and too desperately needed for the Church to be passive, waiting for the lost and the spiritually dead to come to it. Maybe instead of the keys to the Kingdom being about who will be let into heaven at the end, perhaps they are about setting people free from sin and death to be able to live in the Kingdom of God now and always.