Who Christ Is and Who Peter Is, 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), August 25, 2002

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, A
August 25, 2002
Is 22:19-23; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

This Gospel concerns, essentially, two things or, better, two persons: Who Christ is; and who Peter is. If we want to be faithful Catholics, we have to know clearly who and what each is. We’ll spend today reflecting on these two essential personal realities.

1) The first thing: Who really is Jesus? — Jesus asks the same two questions in every age. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say that I am.” Who do people say that Jesus is today? If we took a poll of the crowd at this week’s Grandes Festas, probably the most popular response we would hear would be similar to the one the Israelites were giving two-thousand years ago. The Israelites said Jesus was a prophet like John the Baptist, or Elijah: in other words a good, holy man — but only a good, holy man. As a priest today, I hear similar responses all the time. Jesus was a very good man. He gave a good philosophy of life. He taught compassion and kindness. He encouraged people to love. A great guy. The holiest guy who ever lived. But too many people stop here. They admire Jesus, but Jesus didn’t come and die for people’s approval or admiration. Jesus was much, much more — and if he weren’t well, then, he was none of these things. Jesus was either who he said he was — the Son of God made man — or, as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen used to say, the greatest liar of all time. Jesus could not have been a good man if he were the worst fraud or liar in history. You see, Jesus, claimed to be the Son of God, and if he weren’t the Son of God, then simply everything about him would be part of that great lie. Jesus was not merely a good man — he was either who he said he was — the God-man — or he was a bad man, a great and terrible deceiver. Jesus challenges us to be honest about this. He wants more than our admiration. He wants us to recognize him for who he is — our Redeemer, our Messiah, the One who came to save us — and come to him for the love he wants to give us.

2) Jesus was not satisfied with the response of the Israelites to the question of his identity. The Israelites weren’t getting it. After he heard the results of the disciples’ poll of the Israelites, he then turned to his closest disciples — as he turns to you today and to me — and asks “Who do you say that I am?” This is the most important question we will ever have to answer. This is the one question on the final exam of life. Who is Christ? Is Jesus just a good man or is he really God? Because if he’s God, we’ll make him first in everything in our lives. I ask this question to all the young people preparing for Confirmation, because to be confirmed means to be ready, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to give witness to who Christ is by what we say, do and are. I get two types of answers from them, but the same types of answers would generally come from the parents who have taught them the faith. The most popular answer comes from those who know about Jesus. They’ll repeat Peter’s words, that Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Second person of the Blessed Trinity. This is good, very good in fact, but it’s only a start. Jesus wants more than a theoretical answer. He wants a lived answer. He wants people to know more than about him. He wants people to know him personally. The second group of young people, rarely but with stronger faith, certainly know about Jesus but they have come to know Jesus as a friend through prayer; they have come to know Him as the Good Shepherd bringing them back into the fold through confession; they have come to know him as their spiritual food in the Eucharist; they have come to know him as their chief confidant through daily conversation; and they have come to know him as the Way, the Truth and the Life in their daily life, at home, at school or work, on Sundays and on Mondays and on every day of the week. These are the people who say all day long, all week long, all life long, “You, Jesus, are the Son of God!,” not as if they were answering a question on a test, but as a proud spouse might, “he is my husband,” “she is my wife,” “she is my daughter,” “he is my father.” Jesus wants to be known intimately and personally. Jesus is here in our midst. If he became visible in front of us right now, so that we could see and hear him, and if he asked us this very same question — Who do you say I am? — how would we answer? If he were to ask our friends, family, fellow friends what answer we give in daily life, would they say we live up to that statement?

3) The second reality is who Simon Peter is. When all the other disciples fell silent, Simon stood up and confessed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, and then added something that couldn’t have been guess-work, or hope, but had to be a revelation, because nothing in the Old Testament had prepared the Jews for the second reality Peter confessed: “You are the Son of the Living God.” Jesus was not only the Messiah, whom the prophets foretold would come to save Israel. They always thought the Messiah would merely be a man, a descendent of King David. Jesus was more, and God the Father revealed this to Simon, and thereby revealed Simon to Jesus. Jesus was God. That was a quantum leap, as a result of a grace from God the Father. “Flesh and blood hasn’t revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven,” Jesus replied. Then he changed Simon’s name and gave him his own authority: “I tell you, that you are Kephas, and on this rock, on you, I will build my Church and the gates of Hell won’t prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. What you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven and loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Jesus changed Simon’s name to Rock and said he would build the Church on him. Jesus was saying he was going to build his Church on a man who’s first words to the Lord were, “depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” Jesus was promising to erect his family in faith on a man who would betray Jesus and even deny he knew him three times, when Jesus needed him, after the last Supper. Knowing all of this, that Peter was weak, that Peter would betray him, Jesus founded his Church on Peter, and gave him incredible authority, his own authority. Jesus made Peter his vicar, his authoritative proxy, his definitive ambassador, to act in his name. To understand what Jesus was doing, we can go back to the first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. There we meet Eliakim, whom the king of Israel made his vicar, to whom he gave his authority, to whom he confided the key of the House of David to him; if he opened the door, no one could shut it; and if he closed it, no one could open it. Eliakim had the keys of the kingdom of Israel and had the king’s ring, to seal and approve everything in his name. This is what Christ has done with Peter. He made him the rock on whom he has built his one and only Church. Peter received those keys and has passed them down to his successors, right down until his 263rd successor, Pope John Paul II. That’s the incredible reality. They have his authority. Christ’s own. To bind and loose on heaven and earth. Sometimes the Popes will be great saints. Sometimes they’ll be pretty uninspiring men. On a few occasions, they have actually been pretty bad men and notorious sinners. But each has Christ’s authority. That’s our faith. That’s what Jesus did in Caesaria Philippi. And this is an incredible gift.

4) If Christ were going to ascend to heaven, he knew his Church would need a leader, someone to speak definitively in his name, someone who would receive special graces from God. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the pope into all truth and to prevent him from ever teaching something wrong about faith and morals. Let me say that again, because it’s really an incredible claim, that the Pope would never, not once, teach anything incorrectly about what we need to be believe and what we need to do in order to get to heaven. Why did Jesus do this? Because the stakes were too high not to. Out of love, he wanted us to be able to know for sure what we need to do to get to heaven or not. He wanted one person to have final authority so that we could rest our consciences. The Protestants split from the Catholic Church about 500 years ago. They have no Pope. They have no real bishops. They say all they need is Sacred Scripture, that the Holy Spirit helps everyone to interpret Sacred Scripture correctly. It’s just not true, and we can see that in the history of Protestantism. Some have taught that to get to heaven you need to be baptized. Others say you don’t, that you just have to give yourself to the Lord. Well, that’s a pretty important question with pretty big stakes. Some say that we’re predestined to heaven or hell before we’re even more. Others that we’re not. That’s another huge question. Some say that all sex outside of marriage is a sin. Others say it’s not. I could go on and on. They all cite Sacred Scripture. The thing is we need to interpret Sacred Scripture appropriately, which is what the Pope, moved by the Holy Spirit does. What a great gift this is! Jesus gave the keys to bind and loose on heaven and earth to Peter and his successors and promised that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against his Church. This is a tremendous gift, but it’s also a task.

5) It’s a task because we have to pay attention to what the Pope says. The Pope speaks in the name of Christ himself. Papal loggia della benedizione in Rome. He speaks under Christ and for him. He has said a lot of things recently, interpreting the deposit of faith for our own day. He’s talked about abortion. About cloning. About things like vasectomies, in-vitro fertilization, homosexuality, child abuse, the need to go to confession, the need to oppose our culture’s materialism and consumerism, etc. Are we listening? Are we looking for what he says, what God is saying through him? Are we opposing him? Many people today, particularly in America, think that the Church is supposed to be a society of independent thinkers and that they can disagree with the Pope and not risk their eternal life. They’ll say about JP II, he’s a great man, but that they disagree with him on contraception or on women’s ordination or on several other issues. That’s just not a Catholic response.

6) “Who do you say that I am?” The Church is ultimately comprised of those who say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Those who really mean this trust the Lord and trust in his way of doing things. They might not know why Jesus did what he did, but they trust that when he acted, he knew what he was doing. Christ founded the papacy, he built the Church on the Rock, Peter, and his successors, and made the Pope the visible head of the Mystical Body which is the Church. So when the Pope teaches authoritatively on faith and morals, in Christ’s name, we believe, because we believe in Christ, who founded the Church on the Papacy and promised to be with it always. And this truth will ultimately set us free.