52. Christian Rock (Matthew 16:13-20)

“Love for the Roman Pontiff must be in us a delightful passion, for in him we see Christ.” -St. José María Escrivá

Matthew 16:13-20: When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’. ‘But you,’ he said ‘who do you say I am?’ Then Simon Peter spoke up, ‘You are the Christ,’ he said ‘the Son of the living God’. Jesus replied, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’ Then he gave the disciples strict orders not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

Christ the Lord  The Lord announces his plans to build a Church, a community of believers that will overthrow the rule of evil, which has dominated the world since the fall of Adam and Eve.

The city of Caesarea Philippi was constructed on the top of a huge hill, one side of which was a bare rock cliff. It gave the town an appearance of invincibility and magnificence. Here Jesus explains that his Church will be invincible, because it too will be founded on rock, the rock of Peter, whose special role is guaranteed by “my heavenly Father.” Peter will receive the authority to rule that Church in Christ’s name. This authority is symbolized by the keys and the “binding and loosing”: the former refers to authority held in ancient Israel by the King’s master of the palace (cf. Is 22:22); the latter refers to the authority of the Jewish synagogue leader to expel and reinstate people from the synagogue community, in order to preserve the community’s religious and moral integrity. This authority has remained intact through twenty centuries of popes (the successors of St Peter as Vicars of Christ on earth), giving the Catholic Church unity of faith, worship, and governance in spite of its members’ many failings. Christ had the authority; he demonstrated it over and over again. He gave it to Peter – he didn’t have to, but he wanted to spread his Kingdom through a Church that was both human and divine, just as he wanted to redeem us through the two natures (human and divine) of the Incarnation. We may find God’s strategy hard to understand (why didn’t Christ himself just stick around after his resurrection to rule the Church?) but we cannot deny it.

Critics twist this passage into nonsensical knots by pointing out that the Greek word for rock (Peter) is of the feminine gender (in Greek all nouns are gender-specific). They conclude, therefore, that Christ wasn’t really applying the term to Simon (even though he changed it into a masculine form when he made it into a name) but only to Simon’s faith. Or else they claim that Christ said these words while pointing to himself. Such objections make complicated a text that is actually quite simple. They also ignore the many other passages in the New Testament that illustrate Peter’s primacy among the Twelve. For example: Christ originally renamed him “Peter” in Chapter 1 of John’s Gospel, when he first met him – and renaming people in the Bible is much more than handing out nicknames; it signifies receiving a new role in salvation history. During the Last Supper Christ prayed in a special way for Peter and gave him a special commission to “confirm your brethren in the faith” (Luke 22:32); Christ gave him a unique commission after his resurrection (John 21); Peter’s name always appears first on the lists of the Twelve Apostles…

There is one Lord: Jesus Christ. And he founded one Church to wage his definitive war against sin and evil: that Church’s keys are in Peter’s hands.

Christ the Teacher  Good teachers know when their students are ready for a new lesson. Christ knew that this was the time to give his Twelve their first quiz. They passed. But the rest of the people were not ready. Their idea of a Messiah was still too worldly, too focused on hopes for a mere earthly kingdom, too limited by images of past prophets. They needed more preparation, especially the instruction of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Therefore, the Master tells his disciples to keep this lesson to themselves for now. We also need to know when to speak with words and when to speak with actions; the more in tune we are with the Holy Spirit, the fewer times we’ll flub.

At the same time, we still need to relearn how to see things from God’s perspective. Sometimes the trials of life and the strong currents of anti-Christian culture make us forget that Christ’s Kingdom is truly present in the Church. Instead of embracing and honoring the papacy, the guarantee of Christ’s guiding presence among his people, we become impatient for the Church to adapt itself more to the world. Christ’s idea of a Messiah, however, is not the world’s idea. It includes the cross; it wins victory through the cross. We should regularly check up on ourselves, to see if we are seeing the world and the Church with Christ’s eyes, or with the world’s.

Christ the Friend  Friends are people you can count on. We can count on Christ. He promises that the gates of the underworld (the gates of hell, the powers of the devil) will not prevail against the ferocious assaults of his Church. In other words, his team will win; his Kingdom will stand – both in our hearts and in the world. If we follow Christ, if we stay faithful to him, we will share in his victory; we can count on it. The history of the Church confirms it. Scandals, heresies, wars, slander, and seduction have all tried to halt her advance – to no avail. In every age her voice rings out in defense of human freedom and the truth of Jesus Christ. In every epoch she renews the human race with saints whose divine love sets the world ablaze. In every era she widens the scope of her saving action. We can count on Christ, but can he count on us?

Jesus: I knew that you would need a firm point of reference as you travel through life. I knew that you would need a rock to hang on to when fashionable trends and apparently reasonable cultural options tried to sweep you away. This is why I left you my vicar on earth, the pope. Follow his teaching, because it is my teaching. Listen to him, because I want to guide you through him. If I hadn’t left you a guide, you would be at the mercy of flippant fads. I want you to grow in wisdom and grace steadily, without interruptions, without going down dead-end detours, without suffering the damage inflicted by false philosophies and distorted theologies. Stay close to me, stay close to my vicar; I won’t lead you astray…

Christ in My Life  I believe that you are the Son of God, the Savior. I believe that you were sent by the Father to redeem me. You were sent to rescue me, to bring me into your Kingdom, your family, your heart. I believe in you, Lord; increase my faith. Never let me be separated from you and from your Church…

I get so used to your Church. I take so many of your gifts for granted. Help me to live less superficially. Enlighten my mind. I want to appreciate the teaching and guidance you offer me through the pope and the bishops, through your saints, and through the rich doctrine of the Church. I want to do my part to build up your Church. I love you, Lord, so how can I not love your Bride, for whom you died?…

I am no genius, Lord, but I want to be able to defend the truths of your doctrine, to be able to explain them. You are the one Lord, the one Savior. And so many people just don’t know you! So many lies, so much misinformation and misunderstanding deceive them. Instruct me, teach me –  help me do my homework, so that I can bear the torch of your transforming truth with elegance, respect, and gusto…


PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.

About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. He has also published two other titles: “Meditations for Mothers” and “A Guide to Christian Meditation”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN’S BOOKS include: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”, Inside the Passion–The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Meditations for Mothers, and A Guide to Christian Meditation.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.

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