In the region of Caesarea Philippi—a Gentile territory far to the north of Galilee, Jesus sits down with his disciples and says, “Look, guys, I know they’re talking about me. What’re they saying?”
The disciples let him know that the rumor is going around that he’s a prophet like John the Baptist or one of the prophets of old.
Then, he turns to them—and to you—and asks, “But you? Who do you say that I am?” It’s a direct challenge that Jesus offers to his followers throughout history. After all, it’s a good thing to know about Jesus, but the question hangs in mid-air: Who is Jesus for you?
Put yourself in Peter’s place. He answers Jesus’s question saying, “You are the Christ—the Messiah—the son of the living God.” He speaks from the heart. Yes, but does he know what he’s saying? His heart tells him that Jesus is the Messiah—the king who is to come. But what does that mean to Peter? And when he calls Jesus the Son of the living God, how does he understand that? After all, the Hebrew Scriptures call many people sons of God, even angels. Regardless of what Peter understood, there’s one thing we can be certain of: he did not understand those words the same way we do. Peter was stumbling over his words, trying to express what he felt in his heart. Peter’s faith couldn’t be expressed in a theological treatise or a formal creed. In fact, Peter couldn’t express his faith adequately in words at all. Can any of us? Can you? And yet, we recognize that something inexpressible lives in our hearts. The response to Christ’s challenge for Peter and for us is recognition—recognition that something greater than we is here.
In reply to Peter, Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of John. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my heavenly Father.” Pay attention to Jesus’s reply. What Peter found in his heart was not of his own creation. He didn’t imagine it. He didn’t figure it out logically. Neither Peter nor you and I can reason our way to faith. It’s not a logical syllogism—if A and B, then C—nor is it a mathematical formula—A plus B equals C. It’s a realization that comes to us when we are challenged and all else fails. God doesn’t reveal himself only to certain people based on their intelligence or goodness. If that were so, we’d never know God. God’s self-revelation is constant and continuous. For some of us, it takes being challenged to recognize it, as Peter did. Flesh and blood never reveals the God of faith to us. It takes literally an act of God. And, as for Peter, God’s self-revelation doesn’t come pre-assembled. It takes time and effort to unpack the heart of faith and to discover what God means to each of us. Peter didn’t know what being the Messiah, the son of the living God meant until after the resurrection, and even then, he could not have understood it all. No one can.
Despite whatever lack of clarity Peter suffered, he didn’t keep what he knew in his heart to himself. He spoke it aloud. He gave words to it. He shared it. He proclaimed it. When we encounter the living God, how can we keep silent?
Jesus continues. “And so, I say to you, you are Peter—you are Petros—you are rock—and upon this rock, I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld—the gates of death—shall not prevail against it.” But we might say, along with Peter, “Lord, I am no rock.” Even Peter didn’t fully grasp the depths of his weakness until that cock crowed. The rock of faith doesn’t depend on our strength, either. Our solidity, our stability, and our courage come from our trust in God, not the other way around. We are strong and courageous in this life because we can acknowledge and accept our weaknesses. Even Saint Paul said, “When I am weak, then I am strong” [2 Corinthians 12:10]. On this rock of trust in God despite our weaknesses, God creates his community.
Look at God’s community, the Church, for a moment. Often in the Hebrew Scriptures, the leaders of the Jewish people—from Moses and Aaron to Ezra and Nehemiah—called the people to assemble together. This, in Hebrew, is the קָהָל (qahal), or the assembly of the people of God. When it was translated into Greek, they used the term ἐκκλησια (ekklesia), which means to be called out or summoned to gather together. It was the term for a civil gathering of people who were called together by the town herald. The Romans had no other term for this kind of gathering, so they kept the Latinized Greek term, ecclesia. That’s where we get the French église and the Spanish iglesia. In Germanic languages, it’s been translated kirk, or in English, church.
We might be tempted to think that Peter’s proclamation of his faith was something limited to Peter alone. Yet God never gives the gift of faith in isolation. It comes from someone and comes for someone. Peter made his profession of faith in and for the sake of the community of disciples—the qahal, the ekklesia. In the same way, our faith neither grows in isolation nor is it granted us for our own selfish ends. The slavery the Messiah was sent to free us from is the slavery to death. Our faith in Jesus is faith in his resurrection. Our proclamation of faith says, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Our faith is a common faith—a “we” faith, not an “I” faith, and the power of death shall not prevail against it. We are a community of faith, a community of trust, a community of love, a community of life. We are Church.
We, the Church, in the person of Peter, have the power to bind and loosen. In today’s first reading, we hear about Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. In this passage, God is appointing him to the kingdom’s highest office—that of Master of the Palace. He’s given the vestments—the robes and the sash—of office. But most of all, he’s given the symbols of his office: the keys to the palace, giving him executive authority over the Kingdom of Judah and the City of Jerusalem. He has the authority to bind the people to their obligations and to loosen them from them. Now, Jesus gives that same authority to the Christian Community, the assembly of the people of God, the Church. The kingdom over which the authority is given is the kingdom of heaven—not the reign of God as we’ve seen so many times, but the kingdom to come. The community of the faithful exercised that authority for the first time when they loosed the Jewish Christians from the bonds of the dietary rules from the Law of Moses.
There is an awful lot to consider in today’s gospel. I would like to distill it down to five milestones we find along the journey to a life of faith. Milestone one: the challenge. Tell us who God is for you. Milestone two: the recognition. God reveals himself to you in your heart. Milestone three: the proclamation. “You are my savior and my God.” Milestone four: the community of faith. We share, strengthen, and support our faith with one another in community. Milestone five: we bind and loose. As a community—as a Church—we bind one another in bonds of love and loose one another from our burdens. Five milestones: challenge, recognition, proclamation, community, binding and loosing. Now, as a community of faith, as Church, we offer to our heavenly Father our sacrifice of thanksgiving, our Eucharist.