21 Sunday A #121
Is 22, 19-23
Rom 11, 33-36
Mt 16, 13-20
August 21, 2011
Deacon Tom Cornell
Jesus and his disciples have been up north in what is now Lebanon, trying to get away from the crowds that gathered around Jesus. They needed time to think and to pray. So did Jesus. Now they are on their way south to Jewish territory. In this morning’s reading we find them in northern Galilee on their way back to Judaea where the drama will be played out soon enough. They skirt Caesarea Philippi, a city built by Philip, son of Herod and Tetrarch of Trachonitis to honor the Roman emperor. The city lies in ruins, no one lives there now. Still it is a splendid site, reflecting the glory that was ancient Rome. It was built by slaves, and maybe even Jesus had been conscripted from Joseph’s carpentry shop to work on it. Slavery lay the foundation for wealth in the ancient world and it was taken for granted as part of the human condition until the 19th Century, not so long ago in historical terms.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus asks his closest companions, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They answer him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “And you,” he asks, “who do you say that I am?”
Did Jesus himself know who he was, precisely? As a little baby in the manger did he know that he was both God and man, the Incarnate Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity? Not likely! Scripture tells us “he grew in wisdom, age and grace before God and men” (Lk, 2, 52.) His self-knowledge developed. As an adolescent Jesus knew he had a special relationship to God. “Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business?” (Lk 2, 49). After his baptism by John, Jesus goes to the desert to fast and pray for forty days to discern his mission. He must not have known what his mission was if he had to discern it. And he is tempted. But he sees the right path and he sets out upon it. Even at the last, on the Cross, he calls out, “Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me?” Saint Paul tells us that “although he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself and took on the form of a slave” (Phil 2, 6-11). Emptied himself! That is, he set aside all divine powers and prerogatives so as to live just as you and I do, as a man, a human being like any other. Otherwise, how could we men and women be called to follow in his footsteps, to imitate Christ?
“Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers for the other apostles. “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my heavenly Father. As for me, I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I entrust to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you hold bound on earth, it shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, it shall be loosed in heaven.”
Moments later, when Peter remonstrates with Jesus, telling him that he should not suffer and die in Jerusalem as he has just predicted, Jesus tells Peter, “Get you behind me, Satan!” This is not the only time that Peter fails. And yet Peter is always mentioned first in every listing of the apostles. It is Peter who speaks for all the others. It was Peter to whom Jesus entrusted the keys to the kingdom. It was Peter who gathered the apostles together after the Resurrection when their faith was faltering. It was Peter who was told, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep” (Lk 21, 15-17).
There were disagreements in the early church, especially as Gentiles, more and more of them sought baptism, in Palestine but throughout the Mediterranean basin. It was for Peter to see that the other church leaders came to agreement and that they did not split up into factions and so weaken the witness to the Risen Lord.
It is our belief that the Bishop of Rome, is the successor of the Apostle Peter. The Pope is the symbol and the guarantor of the unity of the Church. That’s what he’s for above all else, to be the symbol and guarantor of the unity of the Church. Why is unity so important? In the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for the apostles and all who will come after them in faith, that “they all be one, Father, just as you and I are one, so that the world might believe that you have sent me.” Three times he prays, “that they be one” (Jn 17, 20-23). Good people, non-Christians look upon a divided church and wonder, which should I join, the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist – and there are many others. They all claim to have the truth but they do not agree one with another. And so many good people turn away.
Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindu saint, is a good example. As a young lawyer in South Africa, he read the Sermon the Mount and was mightily moved by it. He built a philosophy of action based in good part upon it, satyagraha, nonviolence or soul force. He said that if Christians acted as Jesus did, if they did what Jesus instructed them to do, then he would believe and be baptized. Gandhi freed India with nonviolence and Martin Luther King changed America with it. They believed that, if we come closer to the model that Jesus left us, the day will come when war will be as unthinkable as slavery.
That should leave us all with a question. What does it really mean to follow Jesus?