Is 22:19-23 • Rom 11:33-36 • Mt 16:13-20
But who do you say the Son of Man is? What do you say the Church is?
The first question is asked directly. The second question is, without a doubt, implied. Matthew unites the two questions in such a way that we must answer each of them to fully answer both of them.
According to Matthew, Jesus had a clear idea about what lay ahead — His suffering and death — but Jesus also knew that His disciples had no sense of this whatsoever.
Jesus took His disciples to Caesarea Philippi to give them a last, in-depth course on who He was. It was the site of the headwaters for the river Jordan, the river most sacred to the Jews. Matthew implies that out of Caesarea Philippi would flow not only the Jordan, but the Church itself. Four Sundays ago, after hearing a few Sundays of parables, we heard Jesus ask His disciples, “Do you understand all these things?” At Caesarea Philippi came the question that really counted: “Who do you say that I am?” The answer would let Jesus know just how prepared the disciples were to stay the course when confronted with Jesus’ passion and death.
Peter’s faith was immature and untried, but it was faith nonetheless. Surely the Father had touched Peter in a special way, and Jesus said so as He invoked the memory of the beatitudes: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.”
At this point in the history of Palestine, Peter (petros in Greek and kefa in Aramaic, both meaning “rock”) was not a proper name, so Jesus was truly giving Peter a nickname. Through a play on words Jesus laid the foundation of the Church: “You are ‘Rock,’ and upon this ‘rock’ I will build my church.” On the faith and person of Peter, the Church would be built. (Only in Matthew — and then only twice — is the word “church” used.)
Matthew had his own Christian community in mind as he wrote in order to teach and to answer their questions. Although we do not know what specific concerns Matthew’s community had, playing scriptural “Jeopardy” is interesting. If Peter’s faith and the “the keys” are the answer, what was the question? The community’s questions had to have been about the Church itself. Was it necessary to be a member? Did the Church have the authority to define the Christian faith? Obviously Matthew thought it did, but some must have disagreed.
Not only must we answer for ourselves the question “Who do you say that the Son of Man is?” we too must ask about the role of the Church in our lives. What is the Church to me? Will I let it have the authority Jesus gave it through Peter? Just like the question about Jesus, how we answer these questions about the Church will say a lot about how faithful we are.
Matthew’s idea of the Church was not an institution. The Church did arise after the Resurrection as an institution to promote the teachings of Jesus with authority. But what Matthew implied was that Jesus laid guidelines for the Church to be a continuation of the work and mission begun by Him on earth. It is a community of faith united in its mission to announce and build the kingdom of God.
Jesus was getting ready to turn to Jerusalem and to His suffering and death. He wanted His disciples to possess the kind of faith that would help them stay the course. They faltered quite a bit, but because they had come to have faith in Jesus, although they did not yet understand everything, they did stay the course. The only reason they could was because they had a personal sense of who Jesus was, and more, they stayed together in the community that Jesus formed — the Church.
Life can blindside us too. We also experience suffering and death. We also live in a world unfriendly to faith in Jesus Christ. Is our faith in Jesus enough that, even though we ourselves falter, we can stay the course as the disciples did? The Gospel of Matthew attempts to make clear that staying faithful depends on our staying close to the community of the faithful. The expectations created by Jesus are high, and hardly a one of us finds everything the Church teaches easy to accept, but staying true to the mission of the Church to announce and build the Kingdom can pull us through the challenges of faith and faithfulness.
Isaiah’s deposing of the steward Shebna is a lesson about not staying true to one’s purpose. Paul’s words tell us that we can find riches and wisdom in staying true to God’s word. Jesus teaches that so great is the community of faith — the Church — that not even death (the gates of the netherworld) can prevail against it.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.