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Home : Faith/Spirituality : Columns
Who Do You Say that I Am?

Mary Jo Tully
Chancellor, Archdiocese of Portland

August 24, 2014 
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 22:19-23
Romans 11:33-36
Matthew 16:13-20

In today’s Gospel, we learn that Jesus had gone to Caesarea Philippi with his disciples. There were few Jews in the area so it was a peaceful time for Jesus and the disciples. It was a time for the Lord to test them, to discover what they believed about him.

For more than three years, Jesus’ disciples followed him as he healed the sick, cast out demons and raised the dead. They heard him teach and they heard him preach. Now as Jesus’ approached the end of his earthly time with them, he wanted to know just how committed they were to his mission. What difference had he made in their lives? Who did they think Jesus was? A teacher, a healer, a prophet?

Jesus begins by asking what ordinary people think about him. He already knew the answer to that first question. He wasn’t conducting an opinion poll. He was preparing to take a very important action on behalf of the future church. Jesus asked the question to provide a context for what the disciples would answer to the more important question.

Even those who only heard about Jesus thought that there was something different about him. Some thought he was John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or another prophet. None of them were saying that he was the Messiah. The more crucial and deeply personal question was the one he asked of the disciples.

“And you—who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answers. That Peter would be the one who responded should not surprise us. He often spoke on behalf of all the disciples and we can believe that he was doing that now. Like many leaders, he was a step ahead of his followers. As much as he was speaking for them, he was telling them how they should think about Jesus. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The answer was so significant that now Christ could begin to form his Church. Peter and the apostles would form the foundation for all future believers.

When Peter responded, Jesus had the assurance that the one he had chosen to lead his Church knew who Jesus was. He calls Jesus “Messiah.” With this proclamation, Peter told Jesus that he was the one who could give meaning to all life. His announcement did not come from logic, intuition or piety. It came from the prophetic gift given by the Father. Jesus responded by calling Peter “rock” and giving him the keys of the kingdom.

When Peter received the keys, they became a symbol of the sort of power the institutional Church has. The “keys” given to him are not a sign of absolute power. In the understanding of the time, keys are given to the individual who can grant or deny admittance to the royal presence. The one who has the key is a deputy or vice-regent rather than a ruler in his own right. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Catholics can know what God does and doesn’t expect in an ever-changing world.

The Church belongs to Jesus. He calls it MY Church. That should be a comfort to all of us.

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