Our first reading this morning is from the prophet Isaiah and is about a change in the appointment of a royal steward. God’s will is that Eliakim is given the power to control the royal palace, as he is someone who can be relied upon and trusted. At a deeper level the prophecy anticipates our Gospel reading.
And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. (Isa 22:22)
The words look forward to Our Lord’s promise to St Peter, and remind us that God keeps His promises, and that we can trust what we read and hear in Scripture.
One of the most important questions in the entire Bible is found in this morning’s Gospel: who do you say that Jesus is? How we answer this question can tell us a lot about our faith. It matters, and it is central to who and what we are as Christians.
Jesus and his disciples ventured into the District of Caesarea Philippi, an area about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. The region had tremendous religious implications, as the place was littered with the temples of the Syrian gods. Here was the elaborate marble temple that had been erected by Herod the Great, father of the then-ruling Herod Antipas. Here people worshipped the Roman Emperor as a God himself. You might say that the world religions were on display in this town. It was with this scene in the background that Jesus chose to ask the most crucial questions of his ministry.
Jesus looked at his disciples and in a moment of reflection said: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples begin sharing with Jesus what they have heard from the people who have been following Jesus: Some say that you are Elijah; others say John the Baptist, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. It has always been this way. Jesus has been seen by the masses in so many different ways. But Jesus then asks his disciples, ‘But who do YOU say that I am?’ (Mt 16:15) Peter answers ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’ (Mt 16:16) This is a big claim to make. Saying that Jesus is divine was certainly problematic, as it undermined what Jews thought about religion, and also the claims made by Romans about the Emperor. It is a very radical thing to say, that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Hope of Israel, who fulfils the promises in the Prophets.
Nowadays you can speak of Jesus as prophet, holy man, teacher, or spiritual leader, and few will object. But speak of Him as Son of God, Divine, of the same nature as the Father, and people will line up to express their disapproval. This is not a new phenomenon, the history of the Church is full of people who have disagreed on matters of doctrine. This is reason why the Church repeats the words of the Nicene Creed week by week. It is to remind ourselves of what we believe. As Christians in worship we stand up and make a public declaration of our faith, something which would once have led to our death at the hands of the state, and still does in some places today. Nonetheless, we believe that the Nature and Person of the Son of God (who and what Jesus is and does) is an important thing; it is central to our faith.
As a result of Peter’s confession of faith Jesus makes the following promise:
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:17-19)
Jesus gives Simon a new name, Peter, which means the rock, a rock upon which Christ will build His Church. We know from the Gospel that a wise man builds his house on rock not sand (Mt 7:24-27). The Church is built upon Peter because he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Our profession of faith makes us Christians. Because of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, sin death and Hell no longer rule over humanity. Christ has conquered, and His victory is complete. Peter is then given the power to bind or loose, which is in effect the power to forgive sin, through Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. The Church exists to bring people closer to God and to create in the world a kingdom of peace and reconciliation to heal the wounds of sinful humanity. The Church exists to make humanity holy, through all that Christ has done for us, and to share this with others and transform the world into the Kingdom of Peace which is what God wills for our good and our flourishing. This is a radical and transformative vision which begins with our acknowledgement of sin, admitting that we have fallen short, and that we cannot sort things out ourselves alone. Only God can do this, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, he has. God longs to heal our wounds because that is what the Kingdom is based upon: healing, reconciliation, transformation. This is what takes an enemy of the Church, Saul, a man who zealously sought to destroy the Church, and makes him its most ardent advocate.
Thus, St Paul came to write to the Church in Rome:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33)
Paul knows this to be a reality because he can testify to the transforming power of God’s love. It is beyond words, beyond human understanding, because His love is a gift which asks for nothing in return. There is nothing we can give God. But we can live out the values of His Kingdom to enable us to flourish as men and women. We will often fail in this, just like St Peter, yet God’s love and mercy are always greater. We keep making mistakes, but God’s love is not conditional, we cannot earn it, it is freely offered to transform us. Thus, our faith is the work of a lifetime. Day by day God’s grace can perfect our nature, if we are humble enough to let God be at work in us. We pray that God’s grace may transform us so that, in this life and the next, we and all creation may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen