From the Catholic Liturgy for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, August 27, 2017. Matthew 16:13-20. Theme: You are Peter. If you study the doctrines of the various Christian churches you will come to see that the one thing which makes us Catholics most unique and distinct is our fidelity to the Holy Father as the God-given shepherd of the Church on earth. And today’s Gospel reading is the classic bible passage upon which this belief is based, so let’s take a careful look at its key points if we wish to make this Scripture alive and meaningful for our daily lives.
Jesus declares, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” This verse assures us that the office of pope would be a firm dependable rock-solid foundation for our faith in Jesus and our understanding of his gospel. It also tells us that the church was willed by Jesus to be an organized community with leadership to shepherd and guide it.
The Jesus promises that, “…the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” The phrase “gates of the netherworld” is a biblical reference to destruction and death. Jesus is saying that this ministry of Peter’s, which we have come to call pope, shall not pass away and neither shall the community of the church. There have been 266 successors to St. Peter over the past 2,000 years, each one carrying out that original mission given to him by Jesus. Indeed, the gates of the netherworld have not prevailed.
Finally, Jesus says to Simon-Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven…” To understand this verse properly we need to recall today’s first reading from the Book of Isaiah (Is. 22:19-23) and remember that Christianity is rooted in the culture and structure of Judaism. The office of steward mentioned in Israel was second in command to the king. The steward acted in the place of the king in many everyday situations. He was given the keys to the kingdom by the king as a sign of trust and authority. And so we see here that Jesus makes Peter – and by extension all of Peter’s successors – his partners in shepherding and governing the Kingdom of God, that is, the Church, on earth.
What does it mean for us today? Why does it matter? Here’s why. There are about 30,000 different Christian denominations in the world, each claiming to be preaching and living the Gospel of Jesus. yet most of these teach different and even opposing interpretations of the Bible. Who is correct? Where can I find the true Gospel? Today’s Gospel points us to the Holy Spirit led ministry of the pope, the successor of St. Peter, the steward of the Kingdom, where we find the teaching and the community that Jesus first started 2,000 years ago. We have Jesus’ own assurance of a solid faith built upon rock.
Jesus did not change Simon the Fisherman into Peter the Rock for Peter’s sake, no, he did it for us. He did it for you and me, so that we could confidently know that truth that sets us free and receive the light and direction we need to make our way through this life, through the many voices claiming to teach the full Gospel, and be brought safely to the kingdom of heaven for eternity.