Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and
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 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.”
Then he strictly ordered his disciples
to tell no one that he was the Christ.
In today’s gospel, we hear the promise that Jesus made to Peter and the other disciples: “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Such a promise of divine strength and protection must have been heartening to the disciples, though at the time they were probably uncertain about what Jesus meant by “my church.” But then a few weeks later they saw their master hanging from a cross, crucified by the Romans for sedition at the urging of the leaders of the Jewish people. It would have looked like the gates of hell had indeed prevailed.
The resurrection renewed their hope: Jesus had triumphed over death, the gates of hell could not contain him. Jesus promised them, “I am with you always, unto the very end of the age” (Mt 28:20b). They went forth, empowered by these words, and began to build the church, confident that in following Jesus, they could triumph over hell itself. But, as the years went by, and the hope of second coming faded from “very soon” to the indefinite “fullness of time”, what did this promise come to mean to the leaders of the early church? Their numbers grew quickly, but they were still few, they were often divided, the Jewish community had rejected them, and the Roman world, while at times very receptive to the gospels, could also lash out in violent persecution. It would be tempting to despair, or to become lukewarm. The introduction to the Book of Revelations makes it clear that many individuals and churches had gone this way, and John shared his vision with these churches to remind them, as Paul had said, that despite their troubles, nothing could separate them from the love of God, and God would sustain his Church: the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
Nevertheless, we should not despair. We need to remind ourselves of the promise Jesus made to his disciples: “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” This is not a promise that things will be easy, that the Church will move forward from victory to victory. Even a casual glance at 2000 years of history is enough to dispel such triumphalism. But it is a promise that in the end, God’s love will overcome all obstacles, and that his Church will survive. It will do more than survive: united with its head, the Church will be there as witness when Christ puts all his enemies under his feet. (cf. 1 Cor 15:25).
In today’s Gospel, Peter professed his faith: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God!” Profess this with him and in faith hear the promise Christ made to him and to us. Hold fast to the Lord’s command: “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Help to bind up our wounds. We can learn from our mistakes and failings, and we can resolve to do better by God’s grace. It will not be easy. There will continue to be problems and adversity, and as individuals and as a Church we will stumble and fall again. But even in our weakness, we must have faith in the promise of Jesus: in the end the gates of hell will not prevail against it!