21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.
Isaiah 22:19-23 – Romans 11:33-36 – Matthew 16:13-20.
Jesus and the disciples were in the region of Caesarea Philippi in the Golan Heights. Caesarea Philippi (also known as Tiberias) overlooks a large rock which the Greeks called “the Gate of Hell”. As Christ’s followers, the knowledge that we have been invited to become members of His Church built upon a solid foundation, upon “the rock of Peter”, gives us great strength.
The Jews believed in the One-ness of God (Deut 6:4) and awaited the salvific Messiah, but what they didn’t know was that the Messiah would be simultaneously fully God and fully Man. There existed a far deeper mystery than they thought. Through the maieutic method of teaching that Plato and Socrates used, Jesus led His disciples to a proper understanding of His identity. Jesus questioned His disciples about who people were saying He was. Then He questioned His disciples about who they were saying He is. That led Simon Peter to make the key declaration of faith: you are the Christ, the son of the living God. Peter’s confession of faith was all the more remarkable because for Jews, it was-and-is impossible for the One-ness of God to include a second Person. Immediately following Peter’s confession of faith, Christ – the logos made flesh – empowered Peter – petros, the “rock” – as the primary leader of the Church. Looking out over the rock of “the Gate of Hell” at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus – the Gate of Heaven – established Peter as “the rock” on which the Church would be built and structured. In empowering him, Our Lord made four promises: that (1) on this rock my Church will be built, (2) the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, (3) the keys of heaven I give you, and (4) whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven.
Now, along with St. Peter, we share in the grace of the Church’s empowerment through her being built on strong foundations, and in being empowered over evil. Through Peter’s answer, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the disciples from the Twelve down to the present day are graced for mission. In the First Reading, Eliakim, as master of the palace with the keys of the house of David, has the authority to act in the name of the King, just as Peter has the authority to act in the Name of Christ on behalf of the whole Church. The Lord today empowers us, as He empowered Eliakim in Jerusalem, to fight against sin and corruption. He empowers us to act on behalf of the Kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy brought by the Holy Spirit. Strong in our loyalty to the Lord, to the Church and to the Successors of Peter, we are empowered to contribute effectively towards the coming of the Kingdom on earth. But the question arises: have we ourselves genuinely made a firm decision for Him, declaring Him to the world through our words and our example?
The region of Caesarea Philippi was as far North as Jesus and the disciples ever went. The city was in pagan territory and was replete with shrines to pagan gods. Its original name was Paneas, named after Pan, the god (small ‘g’) of nature. Herod the Great erected a white marble temple here. Later on, his son Philip enriched the temple and changed the name of the city from Paneas (‘Pan’s area’) to Caesarea Philippi (‘Philip’s city dedicated to Caesar’). Why was it, then, that Caesarea Philippi of all places – a place adorned with pagan altars, idols, temples to Syrian gods and to Caesar – was chosen by Christ as the place to ask His disciples those questions about Who He Is?
It could be argued that Christ, the Son of the Living God, deliberately set Himself against a background of many gods and their purported splendour, and questioned His followers in that context so as to lead them to identify Him correctly. It could also be argued that Christ, the King of the universe, deliberately set himself alongside Caesar’s image and his purported political power, and questioned His disciples in that context so as to lead them to identify the real King of all that is. If both those arguments are correct, then Our Lord implicitly challenges His disciples to decide for themselves whom they will love and serve….choose this day whom you will serve (Josh 24:15). St. Paul, in the Second Reading, pointed out that everything that exists comes from the Lord. That’s why it is both correct and essential to serve Him.
Christ leads us too, step by step, to encounter Him, because He understands that we live in a world where distractions abound, distractions that have the capacity to distance us from His love, if we let them. Jesus invites us today to make a firm resolution for Him… a resolution born out of His gift of free will, a resolution to recognize His power working in us, a resolution to remain with Him and to follow Him faithfully. We sincerely need to accept that invitation. Do it today. Amen. God bless you.