Monday, June 30, 2014

You are the Christ; You are Peter

St. Peter
This gospel passage we have today is the climax of the first half of Matthew's gospel. Everything so far in Matthew's gospel has been leading up to this, and everything that follows is playing the implications of this important conversation, all the way until the cross and resurrection.

So we need to look closely at this whole conversation between Jesus and Peter. To understand the conversation, we first need to understand where they were at. The first line of the gospel tells us they were at Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was a Roman town, not a Jewish town, so when Jesus and his disciples went there they were away from the questions and the prying eyes of the Jewish authorities. So it is in this context, away from the prying eyes and questioning Jewish authorities, that Jesus could ask straightforward "Who do people say that I am?" The disciples report the variety of opinions, but then Peter's voice rises above the others with an answer that could only have come from God, and he says "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

St. Paul
Now, this answer too has implications based on the location that we miss. In the Roman town of Caesarea Philippi, there was a temple in honor of Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus was a Roman emperor who given himself the title "son of god," because his father, Julius Caesar, had been declared a god by the Roman Senate after his death. So this town, Caesarea Philippi, had a temple to the son of a dead god. So when Peter says "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," it is a declaration against the gods of this world. When Peter declares Jesus to be the Son of the Living God, he is saying "You, Jesus, stand completely above and apart from the fake, dead gods of this world. You are the only person in who I can stake my hope."

Peter couldn't declare Jesus to be the Christ, the only Son of the only Living God, without also saying that he, Peter, is a disciple of this Christ. You can't say to Jesus "You are the Christ, the Messiah, the only hope for the world" without also meaning "You are my Christ, you are my Messiah, you are my only hope." So Peter's declaration that Jesus is the Christ is also a declaration of Peter's position of discipleship. Despite Peter's own weakness, he knows that Jesus is the one to follow, the one to who will lead him to eternal life.

And if Peter's answer had a lot of implications tied up in it, then Jesus' response has even more. First off, Jesus refers to Peter as Simon son of Jonah. Now, at other places in the gospels Peter is referred to as son of John. It seems that Peter's dad was actually John, so according to some scholars, calling him "son of Jonah" here is a reference to the prophet Jonah, who was sent to preach repentance to Nineveh, the center of the gentile, pagan, world of his own day. We know in Peter's life he ended up preaching in Rome, which as the center of the Roman Empire was the center of the gentile, pagan of Peter's day. The prophet Jonah converted many. Similarly, Peter converted many. Jesus is setting Peter on a path to be pivotal like Jonah was pivotal.

And then Jesus gives him a new name, Peter instead of Simon, and a new identity. Peter is now going to be the rock of Jesus' new Church. Jesus wants to use weak human instruments to bring about this new plan, the weaker the better so that God's glory might shine through. So he went looking for the weakest human he could find, and he found Peter, and made him the strong cornerstone of this new Church. This is one of our strongest biblical proof-texts for the papacy, and time and time again throughout history, the pope and bishops have shown just how weak human weakness can be. But also throughout history, the weakness of men has allowed the strength of God to shine through brilliantly. We humans have done everything we can to destroy the Church, and she wouldn't be standing today if God himself wasn't behind the whole thing, leading and strengthening her.

But Jesus didn't just establish Peter as the rock of this new Church, look at the power he gave to Peter. "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Jesus gave Peter power to change heaven by his actions on earth. This power is now entrusted to priests in the Sacrament of Confession. When your sins are forgiven by Jesus working through his priests in the Sacrament of Confession, all of heaven is changed. When you are loosed from your sins on earth, they are loosed in heaven as well. My friends, if you haven't been in a while, go to confession. It doesn't matter how long it's been, it doesn't matter if you forgot how, it doesn't matter what your sins are, go and receive this beautiful sacrament. If you forgot how, or if you're scared, just tell the priest that, and he'll happily help you through it. If you have ever had a bad experience in confession, from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry. Please, let's make it better.

"Tu es Petrus," in the dome of St. Peter's Basilica
So what's the final take-away of this whole conversation between Jesus and Peter, of these meaningful phrases "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" and "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church"? The one thing to take away from this conversation between Jesus and Peter, if you take nothing else, is that the Catholic Church is Jesus' will for the world, and it is Jesus' will for you. The world would tell you that you can be Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, atheist, or whatever, and it's really no big deal, as long as we all play nicely. The world would tell you that Jesus is just one option among many. The world would like to water down Peter's confession, so that maybe Jesus can be just one option among many. The world would like to water down Jesus' establishment of Peter as the rock, so that maybe there could be other rocks as well.

We are here for a variety of reasons. Many of us are here every single Sunday, and maybe more often, because we have found a family and a home here. Many of us are here maybe every other Sunday, or perhaps less often, and when we come we're not sure why. I get that. The Catholic Church is kind of a strange and unique phenomenon in the world. But through this strange pattern of life and traditions we see in the Church, through the baptisms and weddings, funerals and first communions, Christmas trees and Easter lilies, we work out our salvation. This one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is indeed God's will for you and for me. So in spite of all the humanness of the Church, always hold in your heart that this Church is established by Jesus on Peter's confession. Stick with Peter. Stick with the rock that Christ established, and say with Peter the rock "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

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