Aug 19, 2011

21st Sunday - Peter: Rock of ages

St. Peter - Peter Paul Rubens

Isaiah 22: 19-23
Romans 11: 33-36
Mt 16: 13-20

We all want to belong. We all want to be part of a group. The give and take of human interaction from the very moment we come in to this world to the moment we leave it, defines our existence and our self-image.

Teenagers are “groupies” to the point that often the last person they would want to be seen with would be their parents. It’s time they spread their wings and establish their independence. Most often, once they cross the line into early adulthood, their parents are welcomed back into their world. But, the bottom line is that we humans are social animals and we are meant to be together.

In this Sunday’s Gospel it seems that Jesus is curious to hear about what others are thinking of him. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The title “son of man” was a somewhat obscure title used by Jesus likely in reference to the Messiah as the perfect God/man. What do you hear, he wonders? What's the chatter out there about messianic expectations?

The opinions, not surprisingly, are varied: “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets,” the Apostles respond. In other words, take your pick. Then Jesus poses a more personal question, “Who do you say that I am?” Ah, which of the above listing do you guys believe? What’s your opinion? It’s a very crucial question Jesus asks for they have been his followers for some time now.

The famous response comes from Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” It was not the first time that these disciples recognized Jesus for who he was. Remember the calming of the sea (Mt 14: 22-33) in which these men declared, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” But Peter’s profession went even farther.

To say, “You are the Christ,” was an answer to Jesus original question about who the “Son of Man” was. It isn’t the baptizer nor Elijah nor one of the prophets as was the varied opinions. Peter in essence said to Jesus – “You are he!” In Jesus, God has come to visit his people – the “son of the living God!” And these disciples, later to be sent as Apostles, would carry this message to the world. And Peter, the “rock” of both his person and his faith, would be the center piece around which the Church would gather.

So our Catholic ears hear, Pope Peter I in Jesus’ words – the establishment of what we have come to know as the Vicar of Christ on earth in the Bishop of Rome. But more is implied than just a pivotal position here. As crucial as the Petrine Office is to our Catholic identity and unity, the mission of the Church is established through this recognition by Peter and with him, the other Apostles.

That mission is carried on not just by the Pope, Bishops, us priests and religious. The mission of the Church is the mission of each disciple who has come to recognize Jesus as the “Son of the living God.”

The symbolic “keys to the kingdom of heaven”, given to Peter by Jesus, reassures us that the authority of the Church, though exercised by fallible human beings, is a shared authority between God and humanity. It is in Christ’s name that the Pope must speak, not his own. But it offers each of us the confidence that we know the Church will always prevail. History has shown us this time and again: the Roman Empire, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union have all withered away. Despite great persecution and the blood of millions sacrificed for the Gospel, the Church is still here. At least in recent history, above political parties and secular ideologies. The Church isn’t perfect because it is composed of sinners but it is holy because Christ, its head, is holy.

We surely have seen some notorious and colorful Popes over the centuries.  The names of Julius II and Alexander VI, hands down the most immoral and scandalous among these characters,  and other successors of Peter during the age of the Renaissance just all the more show the protection of the Holy Spirit in spite of our human sinfulness. But among our Pope's we have seen great charismatic saints and men of heroic virtue.  Blessed John Paul II certainly among the "Great."

Jesus promised us this: “. . . upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it . . .” In word and service to others we proclaim that Christ is God come among us in love and truth.

In all things, Charity. Our group identity is that of Christian and Catholic. With Peter and the Apostles still among us we have confidence to  know the Spirit guides and directs us when our own human energy gives out.

Maybe ponder one or two ways you can be Christ to others this week: to a loved one or to a stranger.