Brothers and sisters,
Today marks exactly one month from the time I left the United States. What a blessed time, filled with difficulties and struggles which are pushed aside by the overwhelming presence of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God in my life. For years, I have dreamt of standing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, kneeling in prayer inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, gazing into the mystery of England’s Crown Jewels, exploring the grandeur of the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. Since first grade, my history classes have told of the glory of Rome: the excitement of being in the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and so on. More important to me than any of these places, however, is the Papal Basilica of St. Peter’s in the Vatican, aka St. Peter’s Basilica.
When we arrived in Rome on September 6, the group had the chance to visit St. Peter’s Square for a few moments on the way to catch our next flight. What an experience. It was like walking into the living room of the Universal Church. There were people from all over the world, some to adore the art and architecture, some with tour groups, some on their own kind of spiritual adventure. But isn’t this the Church? People from every end of the earth, every walk of life, every situation, and every journey, all of whom share in the most important reality of all: We are, each of us and in his own way, sinners who neither have a right to nor have merited the salvation offered us through God the Father’s self-donative act of giving his only son, Jesus Christ who is Lord, to the world so that he might suffer and die on a cross, only to defeat the powers of death and sin and rise again in three days.
In Sacred Scripture, it is clearly the intention of Jesus to found a Church, The Church, which would continue to spread his message of life, faith, hope, charity, and salvation for all even after his ascension into heaven. St. Matthew records the events quite clearly in his gospel, Chapter 16:13-19:
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi* he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist,* others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”17Jesus 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.18k 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.19l 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.”
This question and answer session between Jesus and Peter is foundational (no pun intended) for the creation of the Church. Jesus approaches his disciples and asks who the people say he is. Indeed, the Jewish people have been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to come and some consider him to be one of the Old Testament prophets returning to them, either to announce in a new way the coming of the Messiah or perhaps even as the Messiah himself.
This bears much similarity to today, doesn’t it? There is the common phrase, “Jesus Christ is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord.” That is, this man called Jesus was either lying and pretending to be the Messiah like countless phonies before him, he was just another crazy person or perhaps taken over by a demon, or he was in fact the Son of the Living God. The world today, through the influence of “popular culture,” mass media, and an increasing atmosphere of individualism, materialism, and a greater secularization of culture, believes Jesus was a) a liar: There really is no God because we humans are as good as it gets; how can an all-good God allow evil in the world?; there is no such thing as objective truth, morality. No one is going to tell me how to live my life; Science has proven there is no God; b) a lunatic: Jesus preached love for everyone, no matter what; my sins don’t matter because Jesus came to teach us about loving other people and if we do that, then we are ok; I love Jesus so I am saved; c) The Lord: there really was a man named Jesus Christ, who was born of Virgin, suffered, was crucified, was buried, and rose again; that he does call us to love others, but to love as he loved: giving of himself totally for the good of another; there is One God, who is a community of persons, of Father, of Son, and of Spirit. The world says many things to us about the role of religion, Christianity in particular, and since the beginning the world has been uncomfortable with Christianity because, in many respects, it goes directly against every trend and whim of society in favor a life of self-donation, of Truth, of love.
After this question, Jesus takes the generality out of the picture and goes directly at his apostles: but who do YOU say that I am? This is no longer an opportunity for the twelve to talk about the problems of the world, the cultural attitude toward Christ,the struggles of others; instead, this question is aimed directly at the truth of the identity of Christ as it has been planted in the hearts of the apostles. Who do you say that I am?
Isn’t this the same question asked by Jesus to our hearts, our minds, in prayer? Isn’t this the question that Christ asks us and then waits so patiently for our response? This is what Christ is asking when we are faced with a tough decision in life, one that can lead us closer to him or into sin, a situation in which we are faced with following the way of the world or the Way of the Cross. So often I am faced with my own sinfulness and inadequacy for the life to which I have been called and am often tempted to throw in the towel and move to something more pleasure-oriented; but it is in these moments that Christ looks at me and says “Ryan, who do you say that I am? You say that I am the Lord, your God; you know of my love for you; you say ‘Jesus I trust in you,’ you tell me you want to follow me…is this true? Who do you say that I am?”
In my better moments, I am able to look back in to the eyes of Jesus and, echoing St. Peter, can say with conviction, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” That is the answer. If Jesus is who we say and who we believe in our hearts that he is, then we can’t go wrong. In our fallen humanity, we are prone to sin and we will veer off the road from time to time, but this is the beauty of Christianity: we are fallen but redeemed, sinners but saved, selfish but wiped clean in the blood of the Lamb of God.
Because St. Peter had the courage to profess his faith in the identity of Christ as Messiah and Son of God, he received the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven from Christ who changed his name from Simon to Peter, which means “rock,” and it would be upon this rock, this man, that the Church Christ intended to build from the very beginning and, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, sustain until the end of time would be born and would flourish for the promotion of abundant life, of repentance and renewed focus on the “narrow door,” of redemption in blood and salvation in glory.
In the same way, Jesus Christ asks us to be like Peter and have the same courage to affirm and defend Christ’s Church in the world so that we may participate ever more intimately in the everlasting life that has been promised by God the Father, through his Son, to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church since the very beginning.