This Gospel is the standard reference for Jesus establishing His Church upon the authority of Saint Peter. If you’ve ever been to Rome, or read or watched anything about St. Peter’s Basilica, you may know of those famous words etched along the center apse: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram ædificabo ecclesiam meam (“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church”; Mt 16:18). Since St. Peter’s is so huge, part of the next verse also fits up there: Et tibi dabo claves regni cælorum (“And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”; 16:19).
There is a definite motion on Jesus’ part to gather people from Israel and from outside of Israel; "ecclesia" comes from the Greek "to call out" from various places to a point of assembly. Jesus forms the “New Israel” that knows no earthly boundaries.
He further chooses Peter to safeguard and strengthen that people’s unity in belief, worship, lifestyle, and prayer. The apostles and their successors, the Bishops, and their priest-coworkers, continue to make this unity a living reality by absolving sins, and making pronouncements of doctrine and discipline. Their authority is not meant for bossing around, but rather for promoting people’s spiritual condition.
That wasn’t the popular impression years ago (depending on who you ask, it still may not be). We catch glimpses of that misconception in the apostles themselves, as we read of them being envious of one another, arguing with each other, even siccing their mothers on Jesus! An authoritarian mode can be prideful, giving the impression that the leaders are better off than the people, in a higher class. Institutions with human beings are subject to such unfortunate tendencies.
Today Jesus asks for a pulse reading from the apostles on who people think He is. They give several different readings: Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah or another prophet. You can imagine them chuckling at “how silly and uninformed these people are,” until Jesus turns the tables on them by asking the same question—the question at the very heart of the Gospels. Who is Jesus? What does He mean for you?
You can almost hear the apostles stammering and shuffling their feet until Peter pipes up. (He was always known for having something to say.) What does he say? “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!" "Good answer! Good answer!" the disciples said, as if they were on "Family Feud."
|"We asked one hundred liturgists...oh, we had to scratch that survey, because we got one hundred different answers."|
Here as elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus acknowledges the faith of those who dare to enter into dialogue with Him. In other cases He healed people because of their faith—not really because they gave the "Number 1" answer, but because they gave the honest answer: because they opened their hearts to Him in relationship.
Jesus always gives us the opportunity to open our hearts to Him as we are. When we open our hearts to the open Heart of Christ, He can work miracles within us. He gives our lives a share in His authority that moves people toward greater faith, hope, and charity—not in a bossy way, but definitely a compelling way.
Perhaps the greatest miracle is that God becomes real for us: infinitely more than a vending machine that’s supposed to give us what we ask for, something we might want to kick, or manipulate, when “it” doesn’t “work.” Growing up, that is to say, growing out of such a flawed appreciation of God, is a hard thing. It takes a lot. It takes life, but it also gives life.