21st Sunday – Rock of Salvation

Matthew 16:13-20

Christ giving the Keys of Heaven, Rubens

The most important rock in all of Judaism was the foundation stone of the Temple. The Jews spoke of this as the foundation stone for all Creation. God had laid this over the primeval waters at the creation of the world. In laying this foundation stone, the forces of darkness, the chaos which constantly threatened to overturn Creation were held at bay by the power of God. While the Jews recognised this as a pious story, it nevertheless conveyed a very important truth. The Temple was the dwelling place of God on earth. It was where heaven met earth, where you went to encounter God himself. All of creation was built as a cosmic temple, the place where we encounter God. It is what Genesis means by saying that Adam walked with God in the garden. With man’s rebellion, the purpose of creation was lost and the chaos of the waters overwhelm it. Once again, God has to call forth a people to know him and gives them his presence – a new Temple. It now becomes the microcosm of all creation as the presence of God is confined to the Temple. But over time, with Israel’s fallenness, like the rest of the world, this Temple gets destroyed as well. The tragedy is that there is no place on earth now, where the presence of God can be encountered. But through God’s promises, the Jews believed there will be a new temple, built by the Messiah, which will last forever.

And now, more than halfway through the gospel, on a site which stands on a rock, Jesus suddenly turns to his disciples and asks them – ‘Who do you say I am?’ And Peter is the only one who answers. You are the Messiah. You are the anointed one. And in turn, Jesus anoints Peter – ‘you are rock, and on this rock, I will build my Church.’ ‘Peter’ or ‘Kephas’  – which means rock – is the name Jesus calls him on first meeting Simon, son of Jonah. The name ‘Simon’ has a couple of meanings: it can mean the ‘one who hears’ and equally something akin to ‘a reed swayed by the wind’. In Peter’s life and calling both of these will be true. The significance of this event at Caesarea-Philippi cannot be overestimated, both for Peter or the community to be built on him. The rock that had been lost, the stone on which the Temple can be built, is now revealed – and it is not a rock but a person. Not just any person, but the very unstable, swaying-in-the-wind Simon.

Calling of Peter, Duccio

Throughout the gospel, Peter is constantly seen as one who is swayed this way and that. He manifests an instability, which will finally result in his big fall, at the Passion. But within this same unstable nature, was also another characteristic, which would save him – ‘the one who listens’. Simon, clearly loved Jesus. All this time, he has listened to Jesus, the Word of God in person, and followed him more closely than anyone else. It is this very love he has for Jesus that makes him open to the revelation that the Father wants to give him. And when Jesus asks the question to his disciples, the rest of them act as reeds swayed by the wind. They bring forth every name that the crowds give Jesus, but they themselves are not sure. They don’t know. But it is precisely at this point, that Simon answers. Something within him has changed in all this time he has been in the presence of Jesus, listening to his Word, experiencing his love. And Jesus names him, not a reed, but a rock which will stand every wind and force of darkness that will assault his Church. It is important to note that God doesn’t randomly change people’s natures. He doesn’t for example, decide one morning that a potato will, henceforth be a sunflower. In Jesus naming Simon, Peter, he is not imposing something that is alien to Simon onto him, held fast only by the power of God in an arbitrary manner. All things, Paul says, were created in Christ and all things find their truth in him (Col 1:15-20) . I want to suggest to you that you cannot know yourself or be yourself, at least not fully, until you encounter the one in whom all fullness dwells. He who is fully man, because he is fully God. In the encounter with Jesus, Simon, swayed in all sorts of ways, finds his true nature. Jesus calls him forth into becoming what he was always created to be. Let us look at just three implications of this powerful gospel.

The place of encounter: In revealing Peter as the rock of the Church, Jesus reveals not a building made of stone, but a community, the Church which he will build. The Church, in the Greek is the ekklesia which literally means to be ‘called out’. Peter, having encountered this call first hand, would write later to the whole Church: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9).  From what does God calls us out? From the world – where we are moved by everyone else’s desires. We can all be reeds swayed by the wind, of current politics, fashion, opinion, fears, whatever they might be. We can easily lose ourselves in the cacophony of noise in the world and from here, God calls us, specially, to be what he has created us to be, to the calling he has for us. Whatever be the circumstances of our birth, each one of us has been called, given a new name, just like Peter, in our baptism. And just as the Temple was the place of encounter between God and man, now, we are made the new Temple, the body of Christ. We are now meant to be the place of encounter for the world. In touching Christ’s body, they touch Christ himself.

The possibility of encounter: Pope St. John Paul II once noted, that in the call of the Lord ‘is a declaration of love’. Addressing seminarians, he said, ‘your response is commitment, friendship, and love manifested in the gift of your own life as a definitive following and as a permanent sharing in his mission’. The Church exists to bear witness to and communicate the mystery of this divine love, incarnate in Christ. Everything else is secondary. While Peter and the apostles encountered Christ in the flesh, how is this possible today? It becomes possible through the particular calling of these men and generations of others who would follow – called to the ordained ministry. While it was an extraordinary grace given to the apostles, to know Christ in the flesh, the normal means of this encounter is through our faith and the sacraments. This is the most important reason for the ordained priesthood, exercised in service of the common, baptismal priesthood: to mediate the objective presence of Christ through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Here, one is renewed in the Image of the One who calls in love, finally and decisively.

The giving of the keys: To Peter first and the rest of the apostles, Jesus gives the keys of the kingdom. These are a sharing in his own spiritual authority. This is firstly a sharing in Christ’s authority to teach, and to forgive sins, specially granted to the ordained ministry. But Peter, with his keys also has the power to open and release the kingdom of heaven on earth. If there are demons roaming around the world (1 Peter 5:8),  Peter can release heaven itself on earth and the world and even more, the church becomes the place where this battle takes place. And each of us, in our baptism have been given a share in this authority to overcome the evil one. We exercise this through our faith, in our prayer. God responds to our prayer to make the world new. We have been given authority in our vocations, in our missions; it is our calling to exercise this faithfully where he has placed us. Rather than give in to anxiety when things seem bad, we need to remember that Christ has given us authority and has promised that the gates of hell will not be able to overcome the community he has called to himself. The battle continues, but together with the prayers of the Mother of God, the Body of Christ will overcome all things.

It is possible to truly encounter Christ through his mystical Body, the Church. It is possible to be truly transformed to become who God created us to be, in encountering Christ’s love. In becoming new ourselves, we can await with confidence, the day when all things will be made new.

4 Comments

  1. I liked the fact that he had made the Risen Christ give the keys. That’s quite profound, combining two episodes in one. You’re right about the expressions. They look envious! not sure about that!

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    1. The reformation was by then a reality, could the profoundness you mention be used to emphasise which was the true church?
      I agree the younger looks envious, he’s surely imagining all the interesting things achievable with such powers, something in the lines of Tolkien’s ring. Not so sure about the two elders, though. In my view, their expressions look more like dread, almost sadness from the one right next to Jesus. Maybe a misconception, but always hope we get wiser with age, therefore, foresee the cost those keys entail. As for the one I couldn’t read, I imagine it’s scepticism.

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      1. Interesting angle, I didn’t think of the Reformation; would certainly be interesting to find out what Rubens himself thought of it and what his faith was like!

        Liked by 1 person

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