Summary: Like Peter, we are followers of Jesus. Like Peter, we sometimes have deep faith, and, at other times, a lack of faith. Jesus saw in Peter the same thing he sees in us-building material that can be shaped into a people of faith to serve his reign.
The Gospel reading from Matthew 16:13-20 takes place in the region of Caesarea Philippi. It was a territory where pagan gods were worshipped, and it is there that Jesus asks Peter a question about his identity; not in some safe territory, but in a non-believing location. Perhaps that is why Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah, but I think the real reason is because Jesus had a special sense of timing about his ministry. He did not think it was time to reveal his true identity to the world. He was well aware that his claim was volatile in nature, and it was the claim that ultimately led to his crucifixion.
We as believers today have to answer the same question Jesus asked the disciples-“Who do YOU say I am?” We also have to answer it in a similar location-a world which is often hostile to Christianity. We can’t just coast on our faith, for it is not merely something handed down to us from our parents which we automatically carry with us for the rest of our lives. Our answer will not be made in words or church doctrine. It will be made by how we live and die. Peter’s faith gave him strength to follow Christ all the way to dying like Christ. In fact, the story is that Peter was also crucified, but he was crucified upside-down because he did not feel worthy enough to die in the same way Jesus did. Peter imitated Christ in his daily dying to himself and living for Christ. It is on faith and example like Peter’s that Christ has built the church.
Peter expressed the full belief he and his fellow disciples had that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah. This contradicts the view that others had of him at that time, and the view some people have of him today; namely, that Jesus was the reincarnation of Elijah or John the Baptist, or that he was a prophet or a good person. Peter did not know the theological implications of his words, and we might not know them either, but we can still make a commitment to know him and follow him until we do understand them. Jesus will teach us about what they mean.
God was the one who put those words into Peter’s mind and mouth. God’s actions were a product of Peter’s faith and reflection. The revelation that opened Peter’s eyes to see and his tongue to proclaim Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is our gift as well as we run into the gates of hell. We can see the inscription over these gates: cynicism in dealing with others; despair as we face the issues of violence, war and terrorism; greed that puts ourselves first on the list; indifference to the pain of others; cowardice when our faith is challenged; conformity when prophetic witness is called for; and lukewarm religious practice that has stalled through neglect and other reasons.
Peter took a leap of faith when he answered Jesus’ question, and we also have to take a big leap of faith when we answer the same question today. Peter reminds us that even when we want to do our best and when we are sure we can handle things, we are prone to our own human weaknesses. If we are to call ourselves Christians, then we will accept Christ crucified and rose from the dead not only two thousand years ago, but crucified and rises inside our own lives as well. If we do, we will be dead to our own sinful lives and alive in Christ. Then and only then are we dealing with the real Jesus. The only way we can come to confess Jesus as the Son of God is by the road of faith.
What does the word “church” mean to us? It means that the body of people and the congregation, and not buildings or properties. For example, Christians thrived in the first and second century, under persecution, when they met secretly in small, informal home settings. The same situation still exists in many countries today, especially because of persecution. Denominations were formed when groups of people formed. The church is not ours to build as we like. It is God’s church, and we as humans have to build it the way he wants us to build it. That means making difficult decisions. As the rock of the church, Peter and the disciples had to make decisions that would not please people, just like Jesus had to make decisions that did not please people. Church leaders today still have to make decisions that do not please everyone.
Peter became the rock of the church and just like Jesus was his rock, Jesus is also the rock on which we can build our faith. Living rocks are the building material of Jesus’ church. Peter himself called Christians living stones who serve as building material for a spiritual house and priesthood. All the living stones are fitted into place around a living cornerstone, Jesus Christ.