Sunday reflection: Matthew 16:13–19

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussionPrevious Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 16:13–19:

When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

“But who do you say I am?” Jesus asks this of all twelve disciples not long after feeding thousands in Galilee and rebuking a challenge from the Pharisees and Sadducees to perform “a sign from heaven” to prove himself. The disciples and Jesus decamped to the other side of the Galilee and forgot to bring bread, which caused the disciples to fret over their sustenance. Jesus rebuked them for not having trust in Him, especially just after watching Jesus feed thousands with just a few loaves and fishes, for the second time in his ministry (Matthew 16:9-10).  They, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, are missing the forest for the trees, and they have not yet learned to put their trust in the Lord rather than on material provisions.

At their next stop in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks them the quintessential question of faith. Who do you say I am? To the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he was a troublesome teacher, one who threatened their political power. To most of the other Israelites in the region, he was a healer and a leader, at least for as long as it cost them little to follow. While some speculated that Jesus was the Messiah, they only believed it for as long as they could maintain their own estimation of what a Messiah would be and do. They wanted a warrior to expel the Romans and restore the Davidic kingdom on earth, rather than a path to eternal salvation and forgiveness of their own sins.

At Caesarea Philippi, the question becomes acute for the twelve disciples chosen by God to carry out the ministry of the church throughout time. Who do you say I am? If Jesus is just a political provocateur or a wise teacher with healing gifts, then He’d hardly be remarkable or worth given one’s life to serve. No church, no Gospel of such a man would endure, nor would the disciples in their mission. After all, if these twelve who had ringside seats to Jesus’ works and teachings could not grasp who He truly is, then how could anyone else who had not had that vantage point?

Who do you say that I am? That question applies to us as well, Christians living in a world vastly changed over two millenia. It’s pretty easy at those times when the burden of living our faith authentically in the world to just shrug off the divinity of Jesus. We can easily become the mighty throngs called to hear Jesus’ teaching, happy to be fed and entertained for a while on a Sunday morning and then act as if that had no bearing on the other 167 hours in the week. When it comes to professing Jesus as the true Son of God and the necessity of living in His word, though, we can grumble and walk away, mutter about “hard sayings” and convince ourselves that these teachings have no relation to the real world. We can, in essence, decide to prefer our own concept of God and salvation to Jesus’ revealed Word, and end up denying him.

Alternately, we can become the Pharisees and Sadducees. Instead of shrugging off Jesus, we can react with hostility and anger to the gentle nature of God’s call to holiness and salvation. We begin trials in our own minds over the Scripture and the teachings of the Apostles in a legalistic and uncharitable manner rather than open our hearts to the Word. How many times have we called on Jesus to do a mighty work as “a sign from heaven” in order to prove Himself to us, rather than “interpret the signs of the times” on our own accord? When we were small children, some of our tried to test our parents to prove their love by buying us junk or letting us do something stupid, too. (Well, I know I certainly did on occasion.) Our parents were a lot smarter than us back then, though, and so is God at all times.

Who do you say I am? It’s the question that will force us to decide between being disciples, spectators, or antagonists. That’s as true now as it was in Caesarea Philippi almost two thousand years ago, when Jesus asked it of his own disciples. It was a challenge to them to choose now and make the commitment to faith.

And what happens? Simon Peter issues his statement of faith, one that marks the establishment of the Church in time: “You are the Christ, Son of the Living God.” That doesn’t mean that Peter had perfect faith or understanding in that moment — in fact, far from it. Just a few verses later in the same conversation, Peter get rebuked by Jesus for opposing the plan for His sacrifice that will enable salvation; Jesus even calls him “Satan,” just after pledging to give Peter “the keys to the kingdom” for his faith. During the Passion, Peter will deny Jesus three times before the sun rises. But from that declaration forward, Peter surrenders his own will to Jesus, even if imperfectly, and declares his commitment to faith in His teaching rather than Peter’s conception of salvation.

Nor is this the only such moment of commitment and declaration of faith in the New Testament. In our second reading today, Paul reflects back on his life shortly before his martyrdom in Rome. Paul once persecuted the Church out of zeal for his heritage and his community, but was struck down by a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. What was that vision? In Acts 9:4-6, a bright light appeared and a voice asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Who do you say I am? Until that moment, Paul had sided with the Pharisees and Sadducees, zealously so. Paul asked in return, “Who are you, Lord?” In that moment, Paul had been given another opportunity to make that choice, and instead of relying on his own will and understanding, humbled himself before God and opened his heart to faith. He professed that faith from that time forward and became a great evangelist of the Church instead.  Paul’s mission took him far from his community and the people of his heritage, as Paul spent long years traveling among the Gentiles and converting them to the faith. At the end, when facing martyrdom and death, Paul is exhausted but joyful. “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” Paul will proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the only Son of the Living God right until his death.

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul in the Catholic Church, united as the earliest of the Church fathers but also because of their proclamations of faith. They were two very different men, of differing temperaments, education, viewpoints, and ministries, and yet they were united by the answer to that one very basic and potent question: Who do you say that I am? In the end, that question isn’t about the identity of Jesus, but the identity of each and every one of us. When we answer that, we answer for our own identities.

Will we be disciples? Spectators? Antagonists? Who do you say Jesus is — and who do you therefore say you are?

The front-page image is of the Primacy of St. Peter Church, on the Sea of Galilee, from my own collection. And today’s Reflection was delayed because I slept in later than usual this morning. My apologies.