Nova’s Ordo: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Nova’s Ordo: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time August 21, 2011

Matthew 16:13-20

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.

Today, there are again grave reasons to be concerned about the Church.  The scandal of priests and religious sexually abusing children and young adults has marred the image of the church as the spotless bride of Christ.  Our bishops have failed miserably as shepherds:  far too many have been revealed as company men, bureaucratic placeholders more concerned about the institution than about the faithful.    Many Catholics have despaired.  Understandably, some have gotten angry and turned against the Church, rejecting her message along with her failed messengers.  Others hide their despair in defensiveness, sure that if they circle the wagons and enforce doctrinal purity, this remnant will recapture a lost golden age.    Many more are uncertain and afraid.  They go through the motions, but their hearts are no longer in it.  This may seem an uncharitably bleak assessment, but I think it is true.

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!

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  • Mark Gordon

    Amen, amen, amen!

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you Mark.

  • Chris Sullivan

    David,

    I liked your honest appraisal of the current difficulties facing the Church which was well coupled with hope.

    God Bless

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Year’s ago I read “Be Not Afraid” and though I have forgotten most of the book, the title has stuck with me over the years. This gives me good grounds for hope.

  • I have real doubts about maintaining that Matthew 16:18 refers to the Catholic Church (if that is what was implied).

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Yes, that is what I was implying. What’s the problem?

      • Jesus was a Jew. He says he was sent to “the lost sheep of Israel.” In Matthew 10:5-15, “The Commissioning of the Twelve,” we have,

        Jesus sent out these twelve after instructing them thus, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’

        It is at best (it seems to me) anachronistic to claim that Jesus, in referring to “church,” was founding the Catholic Church, or any church at all, or that he was designating Peter as the first pope.

        In Matthew 18 we have the only other mention of “church” (ekklesia) in the Gospels:

        “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

        I don’t think anyone would maintain that the Catholic Church existed at this point. The “church” was a community of Jews with Judaism, not a new church made up of “Christians.”

        The “Jesus movement” developed in many ways. For those who want to believe that the Catholic Church is the organization most faithful to the Jesus movement, I don’t suppose I would feel compelled to argue against that. But (I am going out on a limb here, since I don’t have my references available) I am almost certain Christianity spread and branched before there was any idea of the primacy of Rome. So the community Jesus began had different branches before the “Roman Catholic Church” was a concept.

        Also, wouldn’t the “church” include, at least in some way, all Christians, including Catholics, those who never were part of the Roman Catholic Church from the outset, and even those who broke away from the Catholic Church?

        I don’t know how far speculating about the mind of Jesus ever gets anyone, but I will say that personally, I find it very difficult to believe that when (or if) Jesus spoke of founding his church, an idea flashed through his mind of what was to happen in the future. I doubt that Jesus knew there would be such a thing as a pope. The idea of an omniscient Jesus raises many problems.

        • Mark Gordon

          David,

          Jesus was a Jew. He says he was sent to “the lost sheep of Israel.” In Matthew 10:5-15, “The Commissioning of the Twelve,” we have,

          Jesus sent out these twelve after instructing them thus, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’

          Why those specific instructions preclude the possibility that Jesus intended to found a universal church on Peter isn’t clear (unless one is simply grasping at straws in order not to believe). Later in the Gospels, Jesus himself entered principal Samaritan town, Sychar (or Sechem), where he asked the Samaritan woman to draw water for him from Jacob’s Well. Presumably, he even took his disciples with him. In this week’s Gospel, Jesus instructs his followers not to tell anyone that he is the Christ. Later, he tells them to make disciples of all nations.

          It is at best (it seems to me) anachronistic to claim that Jesus, in referring to “church,” was founding the Catholic Church, or any church at all, or that he was designating Peter as the first pope.

          Ah, yes. The worst sin for self-impressed moderns is to be “anachronistic.” But, if we agree (as, of course, we don’t) whether Jesus used the term “church” in the first place, does it make sense that he didn’t mean “any church at all?” The Catholic Church, which traces its organic development from this Gospel passage, has always taught that there is only one Church, just as there is only one Christ.

          In Matthew 18 we have the only other mention of “church” (ekklesia) in the Gospels:

          “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.

          Why would Jesus, the faithful Jew, instruct his followers to take their case to a non-existent “church” if he had never meant to build any “church” at all? Why wouldn’t he instruct them to take their case to those who “sit on Moses’ seat?,” the scribes, Pharisees, and temple priests? In referring to the “church” in this passage, he clearly anticipates an alternative, independent, and authoritative body.

          I don’t think anyone would maintain that the Catholic Church existed at this point. The “church” was a community of Jews with Judaism, not a new church made up of “Christians.”

          Of course the ‘Catholic’ Church didn’t exist at this point. At this point it wasn’t necessary to differentiate between the authoritative church and competing movements. As you must know, the term ‘catholic’ merely means ‘universal.’ The term came into use later to designate those who taught the apostolic faith and – especially – who accepted the organic principle of unity rooted in the Petrine office.

          The “Jesus movement” developed in many ways. For those who want to believe that the Catholic Church is the organization most faithful to the Jesus movement, I don’t suppose I would feel compelled to argue against that. But (I am going out on a limb here, since I don’t have my references available) I am almost certain Christianity spread and branched before there was any idea of the primacy of Rome. So the community Jesus began had different branches before the “Roman Catholic Church” was a concept.

          The primacy of Rome is demonstrated as early as The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (96 CE), in which he presumes to settle a dispute. You see the same presumption of Roman primacy in Ignatius of Antioch, Ireneaus, Cyprian, and others. The Orthodox accept that in the early Church Rome held primacy, at least in honor, if not in governance. Most Protestants, too, acknowledge the historical primacy of Rome in the early Church, even though they deny the biblical warrant for it in Matthew 16. The “Roman” Catholic Church wasn’t a term used until after the Reformation to differentiate between churches still in union with Rome and those who no longer were. As for succession, you see the practice on display in the first chapter of Acts, when the apostles gather to elect someone to take Judas’ “office.”

          Also, wouldn’t the “church” include, at least in some way, all Christians, including Catholics, those who never were part of the Roman Catholic Church from the outset, and even those who broke away from the Catholic Church?

          The Catholic Church teaches that all who are baptized and profess Christ are members of the Church, though imperfectly or incompletely united. The “Church” is indeed wider than the visible Catholic Church, although it “subsists” in that body.

          I don’t know how far speculating about the mind of Jesus ever gets anyone, but I will say that personally, I find it very difficult to believe that when (or if) Jesus spoke of founding his church, an idea flashed through his mind of what was to happen in the future. I doubt that Jesus knew there would be such a thing as a pope. The idea of an omniscient Jesus raises many problems.

          Only a divine being could be omnicient. I guess the notion of Jesus’ divinity is what really “raises many problems” for you. You’re in good company in that, of course. There is no question that the entire edifice collapses into inexhaustible doubt if one cannot, like Peter, say that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

    • Steve

      David – you can personally question the reading all you want thou it baulks 2,000 years of Catholic teaching. Catholic Answers has a good review and history of this passage…
      http://www.catholic.com/library/Origins_of_Peter_as_Pope.asp
      God Bless

  • Excellent commentary, thanks. Interestingly I was listening to Pope Benedict’s homily to the youth in Madrid (WYD 2011). At one point in his reflection he asked the youth to question their sources. He asked…’Where do you get your knowledge of Jesus? Is it in what what other people say…or is it found in prayer and openness to the Holy Spirit’. (I’m paraphrasing of course).

  • I agree with Chris – good combination of honesty and hope. I think if we ever had an image of our Church as spotless, therein lies our problem.

  • Mark Gordon,

    Maybe this quote from Towards a Truly Catholic Church: An Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium, by Thomas P. Rausch (Liturgical Press, 2005), will help:

    Can we say that Jesus “founded” the Church? Not in the sense of establishing an institution with a clear structure and a constitution. But there is a clear continuity between the Jesus movement and the early Christian communities. According to Daniel Harrington, “in their beliefs (about God’s kingdom and Jesus as its prophet), personnel (the Twelve, Peter, the women), and practices (shared meals, freedom vis-à-vis Jewish legal traditions), those who gathered around Jesus in the Jesus movement constituted the basis for ‘the Church.'” Gerhard Lotfink states, What Jesus founded, when he appointed the Twelve, was not the Church but the eschatological people of God. But in that act of foundation the basis for the Church was prepared. The Church goes back to the actions of Jesus himself.”

    I would say that Jesus started a community, and that community (ekklesia, church) developed into the Christian church. It was, however, a community of Jews both during the lifetime of Jesus and for some time afterward.

    Of “upon this rock I will build my church,” In Dictionary of the Bible, McKenzie says

    It is possible that this passage, like others in Mt, is stated in the form which had been imposed upon it in the development of Christian oral tradition. The unique instance of the word ekklesia in this sense in the Synoptic Gospels suggests this view. But this does not alter the fact that the idea of such a group is found clearly in these three Gospels.

    In other words, Jesus may not have used ekklesia (or, rather, an Aramaic equivalent, of which there are apparently several possibilities).

    Of the two references to “church” in Matthew 18 he says:

    The other instance of ekklesia (Mt 18:17) does not so clearly signify the group of Jesus’s disciples. In this context, where the disciples are urged to report the recalcitrant member to the assembly, the Jewish synagogue may be signified. The difference between the group of Jesus’s disciples and Judaism is not as clear at this stage of the tradition as it later became. Members are to seek redress for personal injuries from the synagogue rather than by their own acts of revenge.

    Only a divine being could be omniscient. I guess the notion of Jesus’ divinity is what really “raises many problems” for you. You’re in good company in that, of course.

    Certainly you must be aware that many perfectly “orthodox” Catholic theories about the self-understanding of Jesus and the human conscious of Jesus assume limited knowledge on the part of Jesus. It is not necessary to disbelieve in the divinity of Jesus to doubt that someone who is truly human (even if truly divine) could be omniscient. Did the infant Jesus not have to learn how to speak? Or was there an omniscient person inside the body of the infant Jesus who already knew all languages (including English)? An omniscient person could never ask a question he didn’t know the answer to, and would always know in advance what the person he was talking to was going to say. Jesus in the Gospels is sometimes presented as knowing more than he could naturally know, but he is not presented as omniscient.

    There is no question that the entire edifice collapses into inexhaustible doubt if one cannot, like Peter, say that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

    I don’t think it can be claimed that Peter here was declaring Jesus to be God incarnate, the second person of the Trinity. A note in the NAB says,

    The Son of the living God: see Mt 2:15; 3:17. The addition of this exalted title to the Marcan confession eliminates whatever ambiguity was attached to the title Messiah. This, among other things, supports the view proposed by many scholars that Matthew has here combined his source’s confession with a post-resurrectional confession of faith in Jesus as Son of the living God that belonged to the appearance of the risen Jesus to Peter; cf. 1 Cor 15:5; Lk 24:34.

    It goes far beyond what I know or have access to at present what the Apostles might have made of the title “Son of God” or understood by the “Holy Spirit,” but the doctrine of the Trinity as we know it today dates from the 4th century, not the 1st century.