Acts 12, 1-11 + Psalm 34 + 2 Timothy 4, 6-8, 17-18 + Mathew 16, 13-19
A few weeks ago I was reading about this text from Matthew’s Gospel, and a commentator said something that stuck with me for days. He said that you could tell when someone was a real student of music when they heard to Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” and not think of the Lone Ranger. You can also tell when someone is a real student of the scriptures when they read Matthew 16 and do not think of the Papacy. We Catholics have taken these verses and used them to support an ecclesiastical structure that we have created. It is almost impossible for us to hear the words: “You are Peter and upon this Rock I will build my church” without thinking of Vatican City, Miters, Bishops, and the medieval papacy. Scholars tell us that nothing could be further from the mind and the intention of Matthew. Taking those verses out of context within the whole Gospel is like taking a few bars of Rossini’s Overture to start another episode of the “Lone Ranger.” Rossini did not know a thing about the Lone Ranger, and Matthew could never have imagined anything like Vatican City.
Matthew is writing for a Jewish/Christian community: followers of Jesus who faithfully go to the synagogue every Saturday, have been circumcised and observe kosher laws, and still feel obligated to keep all 613 Mosaic Laws. They’re the earliest kind of Christians. They also seem to be one of the last biblical communities still expecting Jesus’ Second Coming to take place in the relative near future. Unlike Luke’s community, they’re not yet into preparing for the long run. They’re much more interested in the implications of living their faith right here and now, convinced that no matter what problems they face, the risen Jesus is present and working effectively in their lives.
With that awareness, we proclaim this Gospel today not to justify or confirm the institution led by the Spirit that grew out of those days, but to be reminded of who we are and what it is this church rests upon. To think that we rest upon Peter is to miss the point and perhaps build upon a shaky foundation. This church, our church, rests upon faith and not only the faith of Peter. The commission we read of today is not exclusive to Peter. Two chapters later in the same Gospel Jesus will give the commission of forgiveness to all the faithful. Faith is the foundation. The faith of Peter, the faith of Paul, and the faith of all the other apostles and disciples. The challenge of our times is to recognize that our faith matters as well.
At the heart of these verses, a question is raised. It is a question of identity. In the context of the Gospel it is the identity of Jesus. In the context of our proclamation today it is our identity. The question today is not “Who do people say Jesus is?” It is no longer about whether Jesus is the Messiah, a Prophet, or the Biblical “Son of Man.” That identity was settled long ago. We would not be in this church were it not settled in our minds and hearts. The question now proposed by the Word of God is, “Who do people say we are?” Wondering what people think and say when they look and listen to us is important, and it has something to do with the foundation of the Church and our future as a church.
Peter and Paul, and all the saints in every age were for their day and time what Jesus was for his, the Word made flesh. By putting on Christ in baptism, we are for our day and time what the saints were for theirs and Christ was for his. Peter and Paul were the continuing presence of Christ where ever they were. That would be their answer to the question: “Who do people say they were?” Our words, deeds, and attitudes make Jesus present in our world today. Our witness gives people a concrete experience of Christ and answers the question Jesus put to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” When we feed Christ’s flock with his compassion and love, people can say, “In you we see Christ.” When we offer what we have to a sister or brother, whether healing, listening, or the truth of the Gospel as we understand it, people can say, “In you we see Christ.” When we are willing to sacrifice and give ourselves totally to another like spouses do to one another, or parents do for their children, or children do for their parents, or ministers, lay and ordained, do for the people of God, people can say, “In you we see Christ.”
Like that breakfast conversation with Peter after the Resurrection, Jesus offers us the gift of reconciliation and renews our ability to make his presence known. Like Paul, Jesus heals us of our blindness so that we turn to him in our need and see his unconditional, merciful love in our midst. When we are for our day and time what Jesus was for his, we offer firsthand testimony that we have seen the Lord. Our witness is anything but hearsay when we tell the story of our experience of Jesus Christ who has rescued us from the power of sin and death and promised to bring us to God’s heavenly reign. Grow close to Christ in prayer. Tell the story of how he has changed your life like Peter and Paul did. Stand on their apostolic foundation, feed Christ’s lambs, and run the race that will give glory to God forever. This is what we celebrate today as a church: the experience and consequences of our own faith; and the joy of living that faith together in unity and peace, forgiveness and love.