Twenty-first Sunday of the Year
One of the most important questions to us “Who do you say that I am?” The disciples tell Jesus what everyone else says. He was asking what they think. He also asks what we think. This is central for anyone who follows Jesus. The answer makes all the difference. We should note where Jesus asked this question. Caesarea Philippi, founded on a massive wall of rock, had a marble temple built in honour Caesar. Caesarea Philippi was a place of imperial power and authority and Jesus’ takes on a political nature. It flows an earlier political question: ‘Who do people say that I am?’ It comes down to asking who has taken the strongest stand against Israel’s oppressors. They mention Elijah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist. Then Jesus’ question takes on an anti-imperial tone, ‘What about me? Who do you say that I am?’
Isaiah shows God’s interest in politics, oppression and the liberation. It is a theme continued in the responsorial psalm - ‘Forsake not the work of your hands’ – that emphasises God’s commitment to this world especially the poor and victims of injustice and violence. The psalm also praises God’s kindness, truthfulness, encouragement of the weak, care for the poor - again all connected with life here and now. The titles, Son of Man (Human One), Son of God, and Christ are politically loaded in favour of the poor over the privileged and powerful. So our response to Jesus’ question, determines who we sit with - those in power and control, or the innocent victims of these abuses. This recognition moved Peter from engaging the mind to engaging a person, a relationship, a commitment and responsibility.
We can hardly see Jesus’ choice of Peter as a winner. The other disciples were less embarrassing, less impulsive, less overreaching without falling short in loyalty and denial of Jesus. However, it seems that Jesus could nothing else, knowing that only a forgiven sinner, who knew what screwing up meant and still being love, could authentically preach the Good News. He knew about binding and loosing, and someone who knew his or her need of forgiveness could only lead the community. Jesus reminds us that we have a lot of power. We can release people or bind them. We have the authority to say ‘You are forgiven’ in Jesus’ name. Jesus’ encouragement to Peter suggests that the ultimate decision-makers are poor people like Peter, and like other followers such the beggars, prostitutes, and victims of Roman imperialism, and their counterparts today. It’s what they decide — what they bind on earth — that reflects God’s divine order.
Pope Francis continually challenges us to look at ourselves, and each other, in new ways: with the eyes of mercy and not of power. Many people are behind spiritual prison bars of failure and shame. We have a responsibility to remind each other that we are forgiven. We need to be loosed or freed from whatever weighs us down, our sin, our shame, our despair, and our guilt for failing to live up to our values. Peter’s reminds me of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s words in Pastrix: ‘I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of antiheroes and people who don't get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen...It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn't help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. And having seen it, I couldn't help but point it out.’ This becomes the rock of creative transformation and from where the church needs to constantly grow.
Our response to Jesus’ question changes as we grow and experience more of life. It expands through our encounters with others. It expands as we see the ‘otherness’ in the person we fall in love with, our children, the parents we care for, and as we witness the sufferings in people everywhere from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, Nigeria and Sudan, Palestine and the intergenerational trauma of our First Peoples. These are the faces of Christ for us. Do we see those faces when we respond to Jesus’ ‘Who do you say that I am?’
Peter is declared the rock and foundation of the church not because of who he is, or any particular skills he has, status, ordination, academic degrees, and certainly not because he is a male, but because he recognises who Jesus truly is. That is the foundation of his authority.
Isaiah confronts those in leadership with the leadership God requires: a leadership that stands with and supports people, that ensures food, health and education for all, that does not spend on the dubious security of manufacturing weapons or selling them to poor countries at the cost of their food, health and social cohesion. Part of that leadership might be to stop teaching, lecturing, and just listen and engage with their people to understand the concerns their hearts and lives. For each of us, it is of greater importance to recognise and tend Christ present in the poor; to speak out against injustice; and, to give ourselves to help, listen, serve and befriend another.
When Jesus says that the powers of death will not prevail, we think in defensive terms where we are under attack from atheists, secularists, radical theologians, strident women or the gay community. Instead, Jesus sees the church as engaged in a positive engagement with whatever is not life-giving for God’s people.
For Jesus, the keys to the reign of God/heaven were to be keys of liberation – not to lock people out. They are gifts to free people from their prisons, closets, and the traps we set for one another. They are the gifts to empower the least among us. Ministering to others is not about judgment but a reminder that God’s mercy has no limits. Peter stands for each of us. When Jesus say, ‘You are rock, and on this rock I build my church’ he is referring to our faith in action when expressed in service, love, care and nurturance, forgiveness and reconciliation that builds up the church.
This new community is to be about life, justice and right relationships. We have to bring it about .... not just talk about it. The spirit of Jesus can create within us a passion for justice that will shake up our certainties, our privileges and our self-interests. We cannot truly confess Jesus as ‘Lord’ if we turn our backs on the project of forgiveness, mercy, tenderness, justice; if we turn our backs to the real people, the image of Christ, in our midst and in other parts of the world, that cry out to us for peace, freedom, justice, life itself. Jesus can construct within each of us a tenderness that puts our pettiness to shame, and an experience of freedom that will release us from all our enslavements. Will we face the wall of Caesarea Philippi and honestly answer this single Gospel question: ‘Who do you say I am?’ How will we answer? All of us need to embrace that wisdom, refuse discouragement and continue doing what we can to resist the forces of empire and unlock those ‘Gates of Hell.’ We may not live to see them swing open. But they will. That’s our faith.
“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables