WHO DO YOU SAY I AM?
Is 22:19-23; Rom 11:33-36; Matt 16:13-20
Public figures such as Presidents, government ministers, governors, Chancellors of Universities, Bishops or even Parish priests are persons whom people easily form opinions about. Some of those opinions can be positive, while other can be negative. That is exactly the case with Jesus. Sometime after he began his public ministry, people formed different opinions about him – positive or negative. In today’s gospel passage, from Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus wanted to know from his disciples what people were saying about him; i.e., their opinions about him: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
When today’s Gospel opens, Jesus was in Caesarea Philippi, in the northeastern corner of Palestine. This was not his usual territory. He is on pagan land. This is where (as we heard in the Gospel of last Sunday, 20th Sunday of year A) Jesus healed the daughter of the pagan woman and fed 4 thousand people with 7 loaves of bread and some fish. This is one of the most decisive periods in Christ’s life. Surely, Jesus prayed for his disciples that they should understand who he was. He yearned that they should understand that he was more than a great preacher or even a prophet. In today’s gospel text, Peter seems to finally understand. It is possible that Peter may have been voicing what the disciples, as a group, were thinking. What Jesus said to Peter in response to his insight gives Jesus an opportunity to lay bare his agenda to build his Church on earth.
- “WHO DO PEOPLE SAY THAT THE SON OF MAN IS?”
The disciples were tactful enough to tell Jesus only the positive things that people were saying about him: “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Meanwhile, they omitted the negative opinions about him: “a drunkard, a glutton, a friends of sinners, and, worst of all, Beelzebul, the prince of devils”.
Somehow, what other people were saying about him did not interest Jesus as much as what his disciples were saying or would say about him. Judging from the gospel texts of Matthew’s gospel, the evangelist has been gradually revealing the identity of Jesus. In Matt. 8:23-27, when Jesus stills the storm at sea, the result is that his disciples “marveled, saying ‘What sort of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’” (Mtt 8:27) On the 19th Sunday, Jesus walked on the sea (Matt. 14:22-33), frightening his disciple who were in a wind-tossed boat, and who thought he was a ghost. When he rescued a sinking Peter and entered the boat, causing the wind to cease, his disciples “worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Mtt 14:33). For the first time, the disciples acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God. What this implies, is not clear in their minds. Last Sunday, 20th Sunday of the Year A, the Canaanite woman of the Gospel makes quite a stunning declaration. She calls Jesus “LORD” and “SON OF DAVID”. “Son of David” was a title of the Messiah. Jesus cures her daughter and performs many other miracles on this pagan land. His identity is gradually unfolding in the eyes of his disciples. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The answer to this question helps us to see whether a person understands or does not understand who Jesus really is. It also reveals whether the disciples of Jesus have been attentive to what Jesus has been teaching and doing.
- “BUT, YOU, WHO DO YOU SAY I AM?”
Jesus want his apostles to think for themselves, to form their personal convictions. Hence his question: “But you, who do YOU say I am?” Simon gave the answer, and it was straight to the point: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The response is the moment of insight that Jesus had been waiting for. Nobody had ever said that about Jesus before. What Peter says is significant because he is applauded by Jesus. First, Peter said Jesus was the Messiah (the Greek word for “Messiah” is “Christ”; they mean the same thing.) Peter recognized that Jesus was the promised and anointed one of God. He was the One whom all Israel had been waiting for. He was the One to fulfill the promises of God. He was God himself who had come to save them. He was the One, they believed, who would make Israel “great again” (Like Donald Trump of the USA).
- “YOU ARE THE CHRIST, THE SON OF THE LIVING GOD”
In identifying Jesus as the Son of God, Peter is recognizing the “god-ness” of Jesus. Most Jews would have considered this statement to be blasphemy. The idea of calling a human being God was an act worthy of death! For instance, when Thomas saw Jesus after the Resurrection and declared, “My Lord, and my God”, it was an equally spectacular claim. These would not have been words anyone would take lightly! Until a person recognizes Jesus as God-become-man, he/she has not yet understood who he is. And once you understand who he is, everything in your life changes.
Even Simon did not know what he was talking about, if we are to go by the comment of Jesus: “…it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my father in heaven.” That is to say, it was God who put what Simon said into his mouth. It did not come from Simon himself. That was all that Jesus needed in order to change Simon from just one of the Twelve, and, after the ascension of Jesus, leader of the entire Christian community, the Church. Jesus would later confirm the leadership of Peter after his resurrection with a threefold charge: “Feed my lambs”, “Tend my sheep”. “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15-18). He did all this in spite of the fact that Peter had earlier denied him three times.
- “YOU ARE PETER”
What Jesus said to Peter has been the source of a great deal of debate. “You are blessed, Simon son of John, because my Father in heaven has revealed this to you. You did not learn this from any human being. Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. And I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mtt 16:17-19). For recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, Peter is rewarded with a second name, PETER, which means rock. In the ancient times, names were important. They expressed the parents’ hopes for what their child would be and do in life. By naming this apostle, Peter, Jesus does more than express hope. The name is his pledge that Peter would, in fact be, like a rock, strong, solid and enduring. Like Yahweh giving Abraham a new name, Jesus gives Simon a new name – Peter, Rock. (‘Petros’ in Greek means rock.) He then states that upon this Rock he will build his church, against which no evil will prevail. Further, Jesus promises to give Simon Peter (Rock) the keys to the kingdom of heaven so that whatever he binds or loses on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven.
As Catholics, we believe that these words are the Biblical foundation for the office of Pope. Tradition has it that Peter became the bishop of Rome. Therefore, the bishop of Rome holds the highest position which came to be known as Pope. But the Reformers and many Protestant groups, over the course of time, pose the question: what “rock” is the church going to be built on? Is it on Peter himself? Or is it on the truth that Peter just expressed? Or is Jesus referring to himself? The Reformists and Protestants further hold that the Apostles were the leaders and foundation of the church. They also affirm that Peter was certainly a leader in the church. But they insist that there is nothing in scripture about Peter’s position being something handed down to others over the course of time or that Peter was superior to any of the other disciples.
Catholics, on the other hand believe that Jesus empowered St. Peter to rule over the Church that he (Jesus) would soon inaugurate. Peter’s leadership of the church passed on to his successors as Bishop of Rome, where he made his permanent abode, and where he suffered martyrdom under Emperor Nero about 64 AD. The New Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Church is apostolic. She is built on a lasting foundation – ‘the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb,’ (Rev. 21:14). She is indestructible (Matt 16:18). She is upheld infallible in the truth. Christ governs her through Peter and the other apostles who are present in their successors, the Pope and the College of Bishops,” (no. 869). The current Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, is thus the 265th successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome and leader of the Universal Church. He is therefore, Peter among us today, the rock on which Jesus continues to build his Church to this day.
- “GATES OF HELL WOULD NOT PREVAIL AGAINST MY CHURCH”
Our Lord, Jesus, further promised his apostles that the “Gates of Hell would not prevail against his Church”. First of all, Jesus uses the word ‘MY’. It tells us that Jesus is the owner of the Church. Neither Peter nor the disciples own the church. Bishops, priests, pastors and other church leaders who think and act as if they own the church are like farm workers who go out posing as if the farm belongs to them. All God’s people have been called together as co-workers in Christ’s vineyard, though some work as foremen overseeing others. But we do not own the church. We belong to the Church. The owner of the Church is Christ.
Now, the gates symbolize the hostile powers of evil forces but victory is on the side of the church, the budding forth of that kingdom which Jesus founded. As it were, the Church is on the offensive side. The Church fights to win the battle against evil forces. In the end battle, evil forces have no prospect of success or winning. That is why this church is stable and does not collapse because it founded on a solid and stable rock. What makes the Church stable? It is not our being stubborn or sinful. The stability of the Church is coming from God himself. God, Jesus Christ, the rock foundation, is stable. The love of God for his Church is stable and strong even if we are weak. That love that can withstand all the times.
However, saying that the “Gates of Hell would not prevail against his Church” does not mean the Church and her members would not feel the hot breath of hell. In fact, the church is battered from all sides by many criticisms. She is beset by scandals from her leaders and members. Yet a vast majority of committed Catholics still profess the faith. Jesus told Peter that the church would withstand whatever comes against it. The reason for this is that God is in the midst of his people! The Holy Spirit resides in God’s Church and each believer. As John reminded us, “Greater is he who is in us, than he who is in the world” (1Jn 4:4). Therefore, the Church remains firmly One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic as recite in the Nicene Creed.
To each baptized, to each Christian, Jesus asks, “But YOU…who do YOU say I am?” Our knowledge of Jesus must be practical knowledge, not something that stays in a closet. St Paul, writing to young Timothy, did not write, “I know what I have believed.” Rather he says, “I know WHOM I have believed” (2Tim 1:12). Knowing the person of Jesus makes all the difference. Christianity does not mean memorizing the Nicene Creed. Rather, it means knowing our Saviour. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, assassinated in 1980 while defending Jesus, said eloquently: “Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed or laws to be obeyed. Rather, Christianity is a person. Christianity is Christ.” On this score, Christ teaches us, “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do” (Jn 14:12). Those who know Jesus and believe in him do his will and follow in his footsteps. May our knowledge of Jesus, our Saviour, show itself in a life of commitment to him in everything that we do and say!
Furthermore, upon reflecting on today’s Gospel passage, may we keep the Holy Father, Pope Francis, and our bishops in prayer. May they be given the graces and gifts they need to live out their calling in such a way as to truly reflect the mind of Christ. Our spiritual care is entrusted to them and this is a mighty weight upon them. May they walk with Christ who will help them with this mighty task and help them to be Good Shepherds. Finally, may we be blessed to be faithful members of the flock, attentive to the voice, presence and care of our Shepherds.