21st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A) August 23, 2020

Isaiah 22: 19-23; Psalm 138; Romans 11: 33-36; Matthew 16: 13-20

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

Our days are filled with questions. Even during these very trying times most are part of our daily routine. "What’s for supper?" "Have you called your mother?" These times require we ask a new category of questions. "Did the kids attend their Zoom class today?" "Did you wear your mask when you went to the grocers?" They are not the questions we would have asked at a previous time, but now they seem to have become part of our routine as well.

Then there are even bigger questions that carry the extra weight of the times that we are now living in: "When will we finally get a vaccine?" "Do you think Frank will ever get off the ventilator?" These questions, which have been with us for a some years, are now being asked with extra urgency. They reflect our social inequalities and tensions. "If not now… When?" "If not here… Where?" "How long must we wait?"

Some questions carry little weight or consequence. "Do you want sugar in your coffee?" Others require a lasting commitment: "Will you marry me?" Some challenge us to make a decision. After I graduated from college my seventh grade Amityville Dominican teacher, Sister Monica, came up to me after Sunday Mass and said, "What are you going to do with the rest of your life?" I’m glad I had an answer for her, which I didn’t always have to the questions she asked when I was a kid in her class. "I’m going to join the same Order you belong to, the Dominicans."

We are in chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel today and Jesus decides it is the time to ask a very important question. "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" The disciples give him answers that reflect how important people thought he was. "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." Then he asks a more pointed question, "But who do you say that I?" It is not what other people say about Jesus, it is what we say. Peter is the one who replies, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Place is important in gospel stories. Jesus had taken his disciples 25 miles out of their way, all on foot to Caesarea Philippi. That is where he asks his question. It was a city on a massive wall of rock, 100 feet high and 500 feet wide. On top of the rock was a marble temple erected to honor Caesar, who considered himself a god. Over the years hundreds of people carved out niches into the stone wall and placed statues of their gods in them and worshiped them. Before the massive rock that exhibited the power of the Empire and beliefs and forms of worship of so many people, Jesus names another rock.

We disciples of Jesus are aware that the question Jesus put to the disciples is also asked of us, not just once, but throughout our lives: "But who do you say that I am?" Our answer to that question takes different shades, depending on the stage of our lives and our circumstances at the time. An answer to that question comes not only in words, but also in our actions. So, for example, these days we are challenged to respond to the realities of systemic racism, not only by words, but by changing out thinking and behaving. Or, to put it another way, Jesus is again asking his community of believers, "But who do you say...now....that I am?"

The question Jesus puts to us makes all others, as significant as they may be, pale. The answers to his question are hard earned. They cannot be begged, borrowed, stolen from others, or taken from a book. You answer that question in your way, I answer it in mine. The answer to, "But who do you say that I am?" must be worked out in the social, political, economic and religious world in which we live. Like the disciples standing before the great rock of the Empire, the answer to Jesus’ challenge colors, shapes and directs the responses we make to all the other significant questions life puts to us.

We are encouraged by Peter’s example for us today. Like us, he did not always get things right. He resisted Jesus’ prediction of his passion. And so he heard Jesus tell him, "Get behind me Satan." After Jesus’ arrest, when Peter was asked if he were a disciple of Jesus, he denied knowing him.

It is not just a question about Jesus, is it? It’s also about us: Who Am I? What do I believe? On what rock have I chosen to stand? Peter did not always get it right. The rock Jesus will build his church on isn’t Peter, it is his faith expressed in his testimony. Faith is the foundation of the Church. (Another interpretation has it that when Jesus said, "Upon this rock I will build my church," he was referring to himself. Jesus is the stone rejected by the builders that has become the cornerstone.)

Jesus did not require a curriculum vitae from Peter. Nor was there a job interview. Peter’s curriculum vitae was his knowledge of Jesus and his response. He was enlisted for his help and loyalty, for his love and service to a friend. Which is what Jesus does with us. He enlists a friend – actually a community of friends, the church, to love him and serve those to whom he sends us.

Only in Matthew’s Gospel is the word  "ekklesia" found. It literally means the "called-out gathering." The "called community" was formed by the earthly Jesus to continue his work. The "ekklesia" focuses on Jesus’ identity and authority, not on Peter’s. The church is not simply about a future world, but about being signs of the kingdom’s presence here and now. As Jesus proclaimed, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." Jesus’ question: "Who do you say that I am?" will define who I am; how I live; what I do; whom I become in my life."

Our individual responses will, of course, bind us more profoundly to Jesus. They will, in turn, bind us more closely to one another so that we will not only give an individual, but also a communal witness to Christ – for we are the  "ekklesia," "the called out gathering," called to effectively impact our world, so that others might be stirred to ask us important questions too, like: "Who do you say Jesus is?" "What does he mean to you?"

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