August 21, 2020

Christ the Cornerstone

The defining question that Jesus asks us

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? Or who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Rom 11:33–36)

The Gospel reading (Mt 16:13-20) for this weekend, the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, contains Peter’s bold confession in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” St. Matthew tells us that Peter’s response was unequivocal:

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:16-19).

There are several things in this Scripture passage that are worthy of prayerful reflection.

First, there is the question of Jesus’ identity. This was something of a mystery even during his lifetime. On the most obvious level, Jesus was a carpenter’s son from the small town of Nazareth. He was not rich or successful (in the eyes of the world). He was not a priest or a political figure. But he was highly intelligent, steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, and was clearly a man of prayer, a charismatic teacher who possessed miraculous powers of healing.

The question Jesus posed to his disciples in the region of Caesarea Philippi was not, “Who do people say that I am?” It was more indirect: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Mt 16:13) As a result, the disciples’ response is understandably noncommittal: “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Mt 16:14). They were not about to declare themselves one way or another, so Jesus asks for a commitment: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15)

How would we respond if Jesus looked us in the eye and posed this same question? Would we hesitate, would we be noncommittal—some say this or that, but we’re not sure—or would we say with absolute confidence, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”?

Peter’s unqualified affirmation prompts Jesus to declare him blessed, the rock on which he will found the Church so that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). This is not an honor that Peter earned by his own merits. As Jesus says, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (Mt 16:17). In fact, we know that Peter will prove himself unworthy when out of fear he denies Jesus three times.

God’s grace alone reveals to us who Jesus really is. Only by the gift of the Holy Spirit do any of us have the confidence, and the courage, to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Our job is to listen attentively to God’s word, to be open to an encounter with the Son of the living God in the sacraments, and to discover who Jesus is by loving our neighbor through corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

The Church, which was founded on rock, but which is led by sinful, imperfect people like us, can only proclaim Christ when it remains faithful to Peter who wept over his weaknesses and repented of his sins. Once we acknowledge our doubts and hesitation, and open our minds and hearts to the Father, then we can say with confidence that Jesus is the One we have all been waiting for. By entrusting ourselves to him alone, we can let go of all the false hopes and empty promises held out to us by the world, the flesh and the devil.

As St. Paul proclaims to the Romans and to us, the wisdom and knowledge of God far surpasses anything we can know. “How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!”(Rom 11:33) How marvelous it is that the Father has revealed his Son Jesus to us by the power of the Holy Spirit!

Let’s be open to meeting Jesus in word, sacrament and service. Let’s be Spirit-filled evangelizers who cling to Peter, the rock, whenever we’re tested by our doubts, fears and sense of inadequacy. †

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