21st Sunday of Ordinary Time (A): Matthew 16:13-20
Catholic teaching points to this passage in Matthew’s Gospel as the moment when Jesus designates Peter as the primary witness of the Church’s faith in Jesus, as the head of the Apostles and thus as the first Pope. Most contemporary Scripture scholars (Protestant as well as Catholic) agree that Peter is being given a central role as the first of the Apostles, though not all agree on the implications of this role. However, Catholics believe that the mission given to Peter must endure as the Church has endured, and therefore this mission remains as that of Peter’s successors, the Popes. The Pope remains the primary witness of the Church’s faith in Jesus. Just as Jesus told Peter at the Last Supper that, after he had recovered his faith, he must strengthen his brethren, so too, the Pope is called upon to strengthen the faith of all who believe.
The need for the ministry of the Pope – and, by extension, for the teaching office of the Church (also called the magisterium) can be seen in this simple example. Think of a baseball or football game. All the coaches, players and fans may know the rules of the game. However, someone is needed with the authority to make the call on each play – an umpire or referee. If the ump or ref is doing a good job, the game moves along. Without an ump or ref, the game would soon degenerate into chaos. So, too, in the changing circumstances of each generation, someone needs to be able to make the call as to what is in harmony with our faith in Christ and what is not. So, we need this teaching ministry that the Pope (and, to an extent, all the bishops) provides.
The need for this ministry can be seen in another way. Every Catholic is also the citizen of some country. We are Catholic and American, or Catholic and German, or Catholic and Nigerian, and so forth. In many cases, one can be both with no problem. However, it will inevitably happen that one’s government or one’s culture will expect something from us that we as Catholics cannot give or consent to. We will find ourselves torn. The tendency will be to fudge the conflict, or to choose loyalty to our country or culture whenever possible. The ministry of the Pope helps put a brake on that tendency. It reminds us that we are accountable primarily to God. As Thomas More once said, “I am the King’s true servant, but God’s first”. We can feel tempted to leave out that last phrase. The Pope helps to remind us of it, and what it means.
Here, I will shift gears and look at our passage from Matthew from a slightly different perspective.
Jesus has taken his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee. The area was the site of a shrine to the Greek god Pan. Philip, the son of Herod the Great and the leader of Galilee, rebuilt the town near the shrine and named it after Caesar and himself. As such, the area was a symbol of pagan and Roman power and influence. Moreover, Jesus and his disciples had been experiencing increasing opposition from the leaders of their own people. The disciples must have felt pulled in any number of directions. Their faith would be further tested as Jesus made his way to Jerusalem. This faith needed to be expressed so that it might be strengthened.
So Jesus begins by asking them a seemingly innocent question: “Who do people say that I am?” “What’s the word on the street? What are people tweeting about me? What are they posting on Facebook?” (And so forth!) The disciples, up on their social media, answer right away with all the top hits: John the Baptist, Jeremiah, Elijah, or some other prophet. Yes, Jesus, everyone thinks you’re a big deal!
Okay, Jesus responds. That’s nice. “But – who do you say that I am?” I’m imagining a moment of hesitation. The disciples are looking at one another. Who will answer? They have already expressed some degree of faith in Jesus after he calmed the sea: “Truly you are the Son of God!” (Mt 14:33) But now they are called upon to say more. To say it all.
Peter, of course, is the one inspired by the Father to speak. But let’s stay with that moment of hesitation. Why might there be hesitation? As Peter discovered, to name Jesus is to leave yourself open to Jesus renaming you. To call Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, is to totally disarm oneself before him. It is to leave oneself totally open to anything he might ask. If Jesus is truly the Christ and the Son, each one of us must give our all to him. We must listen to him and obey him. We must follow where he leads. To be gifted by the Lord also means to accept a call from him – a mission. For Peter, that mission was to be the prime witness of the Church’s faith in Jesus. For each one of us, there is a personal call, a personal mission.
We can resist that call and mission, of course. We don’t want to give up the illusion that we have complete mastery over our lives. So, we fudge it. Well, Jesus isn’t really Christ and Lord. Or it doesn’t mean THAT kind of commitment. After all, he’s so kind and gentle, he wouldn’t make me uncomfortable, would he? Or, we fudge it on our end. I’m just an ordinary person. I’m no saint. To which Jesus answers: “Oh, yes you are! Nor because of anything you have done, though. Because of my call. I have called you to be a saint, and to live that out in a specific way. Follow me.”
The main point is this: to say that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is also to say: “Behold the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word”. We can’t say one without saying the other. To proclaim Jesus as Lord, we call ourselves his servants. We trust him with our future, with our lives. We trust him, even when he leads us by paths we would never have taken, in directions we would never have chosen. Nothing else in this world can have that place in our lives. Everything belongs to Christ. He is all.
So. When you come to the point when you sense Jesus asking you, “Who do you say that I am?”, don’t be surprised if you feel like hesitating. Any step in the direction of true faith is scary. Any encounter with the true Lord is scary. Jesus, like Aslan in the Narnia stories, is good, but not tame. However, it isn’t merely scary. It’s also attractive. Fascinating. It’s what you were made for from the very beginning of your life, and you know it. Don’t give in to fear. Respond as Peter did. Be ready for your own mission. Trust that the Lord will always be with you. Say, “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your will”.
Let the adventure proceed. Further up and further in!