Today is the feast day of St. Peter and Paul and, with no offense to St. Paul, I’m a big fan of the original “Rock.” At the Mass today we read when St. Peter was the first to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, and in honor of that event I share this excerpt from my novel, Between the Savior and the Sea:
They were almost six months away from the Passover feast and Jesus was concerned. He knew exactly what would await him there, but that’s not what he was worried about.
The apostles weren’t ready.
They had shown little progress over the past twelve months. He had prayed that one of them, any of them, would understand who he was. But so far, his prayers to his Father had gone unanswered.
He led them north and they came upon the city of Caesarea Philippi. It took them about a week to get there, and they were tired from the rugged terrain.
The sun was still high in the sky, so Jesus knew they could make it to another town by nightfall. He told them to sit down and eat. Though happy for a chance to rest, Jesus could see the apostles were not comfortable to linger here. Caesarea was to the Gentiles what Jerusalem was to the Jews. It was their holy site, and people traveled thousands of miles to offer sacrifice to their gods.
Jesus looked up at the huge rock wall that the city was built against. In one part of the cliff, a large cave opened up into a bottomless pit. The Gentiles thought it was a gateway to hell. King Herod’s father built a large and beautiful temple dedicated to the god Pan and set it against this opening, so that sacrifices from the temple could easily be thrown into it. Jesus heard the cries of goats and lambs echo off the rock as they descended into “hell”, followed by the cheers of Gentiles who felt their god was appeased.
Statues of Greek gods were everywhere, especially that of Pan. He had cloven hoofs and played the pipe, dancing with a look of mischief on his face.
“Who is Pan the god of?” Simon asked.
“Shepherds and sheep,” Bartholomew said.
Almost as if on cue, a shepherd passed by followed by thirty or forty sheep, heading into town toward the temple.
“I have a feeling many of those sheep won’t make it back alive,” Philip said. The others laughed.
Jesus watched the flock closely as it passed. “I tell you the truth, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a bandit. But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the flock. The sheep hear his voice, and one by one he calls them and leads them out. They will never follow a stranger, because they don’t recognize the voice of strangers.”
He turned to look at his apostles. Blank, confused expressions were on their faces. Will they ever understand?
“I am the gate,” he said. “All who have come before me are thieves and bandits, and they have come only to steal, kill, and destroy. But I have come that they may have life and have it to the full. Anyone who enters in through me will be safe and find good pasture.”
He looked at the statue of Pan that hovered over them in a portico against the wall. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said, “and the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. I know my own, and my own know me.”
The apostles nodded as if they understood, but Jesus wasn’t convinced. Do you really know me? he wondered.
It was time to find out.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked.
Judas immediately spoke up. “Some say that you are Elijah…” It seemed as though Judas wanted to say more, or maybe wanted Jesus to react to the statement. When he didn’t, Judas looked around at the others and awkwardly sat down.
“I have heard people say you are John the Baptist back from the dead,” Philip said.
“One person thought you were Jeremiah, if you can believe that,” Little James said. Some of them laughed.
“What about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say that I am?”
An uneasy silence fell over the apostles.
Bartholomew stood and bowed to him. “You are a great prophet,” he said. “If I may say, one of the greatest in all of Israel. And we are honored to serve you.” The others nodded in agreement.
It was a bold proclamation and Jesus took it graciously. He looked around to see if anyone had something else to say. Everyone was still except for Judas and Simon. Judas looked anxiously around. Simon looked flushed and sweated profusely.
Jesus sighed. The greatest in all of Israel, he thought. At least they are getting closer. “Let us go,” he said. Jesus stood and turned to gather his things, and the others began to as well.
From the moment Jesus asked the question, Simon’s heart began to race. But he didn’t dare speak. His face grew red and he felt sweat roll down his back. When the others began to gather their things, Simon’s heart screamed to him: SAY IT!
He could bear the voice no longer. Simon stood up and burst out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”
Everyone froze, including Jesus who was turned away from him at that moment. Simon gasped for air, only then realizing that he had been holding his breath since Jesus asked the question.
Jesus turned and Simon did not know what to expect. He looked as surprised as the others. Then Jesus bowed his head and put his hands together over his mouth as if in prayer. He opened his arms wide and looked radiantly into the sun as if to say: thank you. Then he turned his gaze upon Simon.
“Blessed are you!” he cried out. “Simon, son of Jonah, you are a blessed man!” And he walked up to him and gripped his shoulders. Simon stood as one dead, unsure of what was going on. “My Father spoke to you, didn’t he? You didn’t get this from any man, but my Father in heaven.”
The Father? Was that the voice he heard on the boat?
Jesus hugged him and Simon found the strength to return the embrace. Jesus looked around at the others and then toward the large rock face that dominated Caesarea’s landscape. “You are no longer to be called Simon,” he said to him. “I say this to you, you are Peter, the rock, and upon this rock I will build my church.”
As if to compete with the sacred moment, the wail of an animal was heard, followed by the cheers of those who had thrown it into the pit. Jesus looked toward the temple of Pan and proclaimed, “And the gates of hell will not prevail against this church!”
He then turned his attention solely toward Simon, who fell on his knees before Jesus just as he did when he first called him on the boat. But this time, no words could come to his mouth.
You are the Messiah, Simon said to himself, reviling in the wonder of it all.
Jesus put his hands on Simon and blessed him. “Peter, I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound there, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Simon looked up at him in amazement. He wasn’t completely sure what was happening, but knew in his heart that his life would never be the same. Jesus looked at him with such joy and love that Simon wished he could gaze upon that face forever. His mind had thousands of questions, but his heart had never felt such peace.
Jesus raised him up and they embraced again. Simon turned and looked at the others. They seemed frozen in shock.
“You are the Messiah…” John said.
Jesus smiled and nodded.
John jumped up and down. “You are the MESSIAH!”
Jesus held out his hands to silence him. “Be quiet and tell no one about this. There is more for you to know. But here,” he said as he glanced around at the surrounding statues, “is not the place. Let us go.”