The Rock Of Our Weakness
I will never forget the shock I experienced one day some 15 years ago when I passed by a church in London and decided to step in for a little time of prayer. There was a eucharistic celebration and just as I opened the door I heard the celebrant preach and say this sentence: “The sacrifice of Christ would be locked up in the past if it was not for the power of the priest to make it present in the eucharist”. I was so dismayed by this declaration that as soon as I heard it I went out straight away. The expression “the sacrifice of Christ” here encompasses everything the Son of God came to accomplish by becoming one of us: his ability to touch our hearts, to enable us to call God Father, and to act decisively in history. According to this priest, but for the power of the ordained ministers in the church, all this would be unable to reach us.
Is this not the meaning of the pivotal passage of Matthew’s Gospel usually called “the confession of Caesarea”? On this occasion, when Peter proclaimed “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, Jesus rewarded him with four promises: the church was to be edified on the rock of Peter’s confession, no power on earth was going to prevail against it, Peter would receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever Peter would bind or loose on earth would be bound or loosed in heaven (Mt 16.16-19).
How should we understand these promises? Is Jesus handing over his authority and power to Peter, that is to the ordained ministers of the Church? Is he declaring that the mediation of priesthood is necessary in Christianity just as it was in the Old Testament? Is this a confirmation of the sentence I mentioned earlier, “The sacrifice of Christ would be locked up in the past if it was not for the power of the priest to make him present in the eucharist”?
The truth is that this interpretation is possible only if we insulate these promises from the content of Peter’s confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Whatever Jesus promises entirely depends on the correct understanding of what it means for God to be “living” and for Christ to be the “Messiah”.
To be “living” for God does not simply mean to be alive but includes the reason why he lives and what he is living for. We often say that Christ died because of his love for us and we are right. But we forget that Christ also is alive for the same reason, that is because of his love for us. What keeps God alive is the power of his invincible love for us, a love stronger than death. Nothing captures this aspect of Christ’s resurrection more deeply than the Gregorian introit of Easter: Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum, “I am risen, and I am still with you”, which means “I remain alive so that I can be with you always”. The God who wants to be with us in Christ is not just a message, or a memory, but a presence. To be “alive” for God means to remain by our side in spite of everything else. It is not our action that makes God present, but his presence that explains why there are Christians in the first place, why we believe in God, why we can pray and minister to each other. No Christians and even more so no priests would even exist if Christ was not living, present and active now.
The importance of Peter’s confession can be guessed by its location in the exact middle of Matthew’s Gospel. It contains a crucial lesson not only about real power and authority with reference to the living God but also about the proper way of “telling” about this God, of preaching the good news, and of ministering in his name. This is why the passage ends with a mysterious warning: Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah” (Mt 16.20). This warning does not mean that we should not give witness to him, but that the proper way of doing it depends on the right understanding of God’s presence and action in our midst today.
This is explained by the end of Matthew’s Gospel when the risen Jesus is about to ascend to the Father and sends his disciples to the world. Throughout the centuries, the emphasis in the reception of this passage has been laid on the following sentence: “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you” (Mt 28.19f). Indeed Jesus asks us to act in his name by telling everyone about him, making disciples and baptizing them. However we should not overlook what precedes this declaration and what follows it. Just before, Jesus does not say that he is handing over his authority to his disciples. On the contrary he emphatically declares that all authority belongs to him alone: “All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth” (Mt 28.18). Even more significantly, just after the sentence in which he entrusts to his disciples the mission to speak and act in his name, and just before disappearing from their eyes forever, Jesus does not say to them “From now on it is up to you” but on the contrary he declares: “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt 28.20). He does not go away, but promises to remain with his disciples, implying that everything they do entirely depends on his presence, on his action, and especially on his power.
The nature of this authority and of this power is revealed in the other element of Peter’s confession we have not seen yet -“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”-, namely what it means for Jesus to be ‘Messiah”.
The word “Messiah” means “anointed” with reference to the ritual of pouring oil as a sign of investiture for prophets, priests and kings in the Old Testament. Proclaiming that Christ is the messiah means that he is the real prophet because he alone can speak properly and effectively about God; he is the real priest because he alone can make us acceptable to God, give us access to the Father and make our prayer effective; and he alone is the real king because he has the power to change history not through a legal or coercive authority, but uniquely through the power of his love.
Many will remember the 2010 film Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts. Through a little tweak, the title of this film can help us to capture what it means for Jesus to be the messiah and memorize it in a simple way: “Speak, Pray, Love”. These three terms explain what kind of power and authority Jesus has and why they belong to him alone: only Jesus can speak words that really change our heart; only because we are united to him in baptism, we can pray as children of God and call him “Our Father”; only by letting ourselves to be lovedby him we become able to radiate this same love throughout history, and thus truly change the world.
This is the meaning of Peter’s confession, the real nature of power and of authority in Christianity and the proper way of proclaiming the Gospel.
Christ does not want the disciples to talk about his real identity before his resurrection because only then he will be able to be the “living God” that is present everywhere and always. We can make disciples, teach and baptize in the name of Christ not by claiming power for ourselves, as if Christ had gone and it all depended on us. On the contrary, our speaking can touch the hearts only insofar as it is based on the constant listening of the Word of God; our praying, both personal and sacramental, can reach the Father only thanks to the Spirit of Christ praying in us ; the world will recognize that we are disciples of Christ by the way we love each other and every human person, as Jesus himself stated: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13.35).
Of course, another crucial meaning is included in Peter’s confession. The reason why Christ remains with us, and why all authority remains with him – the reason why our speaking, praying and loving constantly need to be received from Christ, is that left to ourselves we can only doubt, betray and deny God, just as Peter did. When Jesus says to him “You are Peter”, he knows that he is the first in a line of priests, bishops and popes who will claim authority for themselves and monopoly over speaking, praying and loving in God’s name but instead bring immense corruption and cause endless scandal in the world. Jesus knows very well that we misunderstand, misuse, abuse, thwart, corrupt his message, and constantly hijack it for our own purpose. And yet he is not afraid of taking this risk precisely because he is the “living God”, he does not leave us alone, he remains with us.
Nothing captures this paradox with more truth and humour than the well-known comeback of Cardinal Ettore Consalvi to the emperor Napoleon when the latter threatened to crush the church. The cardinal calmly replied to him: “We the clergy have done everything in our power to destroy the church from the inside during the last 18 hundred years and have not succeeded – what makes you think you can do better than us?”.
The church built on the rock of Peter’s confession of faith is just as capable of betrayal as, mysteriously, of remaining the instrument through which God brings his consolation to the poor, comes to the help of refugees, gives meaning to people’s lives, and slowly but surely changes the course of history. This is why ultimately the “rock’ on which the Church is built is not only Peter’s faith but especially his weakness, his doubts and his denials. His very weakness, our very weakness as Christians is a testimony to the power of God, as Paul memorably proclaimed: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12.9f).