Aug 23, 2014

21st Sunday: "You are the Christ!"

"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah"

The Word for Sunday:

Is 22: 19-23
Rm 11: 33 – 36
Mt 16: 13-20

I think we can safely assume that as the disciples spent more and more time with Jesus their relationship changed dramatically.  You spend time with someone and you learn far more about what they are like, what they enjoy and hold dear, about their values and motivations. In the end we may even come to understand that what may have appeared mysterious at first is now no longer confusing.  You come to appreciate this person in a new way. So, the same was true for Jesus’ disciples and surely for Jesus himself as he lived out his mission on earth.

Today’s familiar passage from Matthew’s Gospel reveals a watershed moment in Jesus’ relationship with his chosen twelve.  He asks them a question about his identity but begins with a less specific view: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

Now, that’s crucial because Jesus is not necessarily taking on himself that specific Messianic title “Son of Man.”  But rather generalizing to his twelve, “what are you hearing others say?” In other words, what are the general opinions out there about who the Messiah will be or who he will be like?

The response of the disciples is equally unspecific as they reflect what they have heard and likely what they themselves have discussed.  That he will be someone like our famed dead prophets: John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah come back from the dead. All these are popular opinions about the nature of who the Messiah will be like but then Jesus pushes the envelope further and turns the tide. In essence asking them, “Do you think I am one of these prophets?”

“Who do you say that I am?” It may have been true that as the disciples privately discussed among themselves and chatted with others that it was felt Jesus was one of the dead great prophet’s return among them.  But, Peter quite possibly reflecting the more personal opinions of the disciples boldly proclaims:  “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  That’s it!

I would have loved to see the expression on Jesus’ face when Peter proclaimed this great truth of who Jesus is.  Obviously, Jesus was deeply moved and recognized the divine inspiration that Peter was given by his Father: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you . . . you are Peter (rock or rocky) and upon this rock I will build my Church . . .” The “keys to the kingdom of heaven” place Peter in a role of leadership among the twelve and Christian history has supported how that played out in the early Church. 

This was no pop quiz Jesus gave the twelve but rather a search for identity and understanding.  For it was crucial that Jesus knew they understood although they did not yet realize the implications neither of his entire mission nor of theirs.  But here the foundation is laid for the Church: both a confession of faith in the person of Jesus and the entrusting to human, yet flawed leadership, in the person of Peter the rock who would provide a point of unanimity among the Christian communities.
Papal Coat of Arms - the keys of Peter

We as Catholic Christians have always interpreted this passage as the beginning of the Papacy and its evolution up to our own day in the 266th Successor to St. Peter our present Pope Francis. The Pope becomes a point of reference for us when we are challenged by conflicting opinions and viewpoints. He becomes the one who “holds it together” and interprets the constant truth that calls us back to unity along with the successors of the Apostles the Bishops.

However as crucial as this proclamation by Peter was for understanding the faith and the person of Peter and his successors, I think it likewise provides every one of us with a firm and eternal rock to stand on.

For,  Peter’s faith is more than individualistic. His proclamation of Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God” must be our confession as well.  The Church is bigger than any one Pope and a parish is larger than any one Pastor.  So, it is our understanding of the nature of who Jesus is, including the leadership among us, which is a rock we stand on.

Among the many lofty titles the Pope holds such as Vicar of Jesus Christ, Pontiff of the Universal Church and Sovereign of Vatican City there is one that I feel we can imitate: “Servant of the Servants of God.” 

Our relationship to one another is obviously different from the Pope to us but his office is essentially one of service.  Jesus entire mission on this earth was all about the “other.” His mission was to gather together the scattered sheep and to become the ultimate servant of God as he fulfilled his Father’s plan of salvation for humanity. 

We too are called in to service.  It is the one perspective that unites us as a Christian people.  We may find ourselves separated by language or cultures or economic status or politics or labels of conservative and liberal but we are united as we serve one another after the example of Jesus himself.  Our celebration of the Eucharist unites us and reminds us that in spite of our differences we all share a common unity as we recognize Jesus in the words of Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  
O God, who cause the minds of the faithful
to unite in a single purpose,
grant your people to love what you command
and to desire what you promise,
that, amid the uncertainties of this world,
our hearts may be fixed on that place
where true gladness is found. 
(Roman Missal - Collect of Mass)