This Gospel is a call to be a follower of Jesus, as a gracious act of God. Following Jesus is something we are able to do because God loves us and has forgiven us. God's love and forgiveness enable us to be like Christ, and with his own Spirit change our lives from one of self-serving to serving as a servant. The challenge of being a disciple of Christ involves a complete change in our lives. Jesus speaks plainly about what it will mean to be one of his followers; we must deny our tendency toward living a self-centered life to living a Christ-centered life. No longer are our personal concerns of primary importance. As a disciple, our concerns are consistent with God's will. God becomes the guiding force in our lives. No longer can we set the conditions for our lives and the lives of others. As a follower of God, it is God's will that rules. A disciple of Christ must be willing to "take up their cross." That is to say, we must be willing to adopt the principle of self-denial. A disciple's life involves sacrificial service. Each day a disciple has the opportunity to renew the character of their baptism; we have the challenge to put aside self-service in order to take up self-sacrifice. Each day we have the opportunity to let Christ lives through us and to take seriously the demands of God and the needs of others. Self-concern gives way to the greater concern of the love of God. The disciple is to learn from and follow Christ. This means we will regularly be renewed by forgiveness, have love for one another, and care for those who need our help. As a disciple, we are involved with a new way of life. When we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our entire lives are affected. Christ enables his disciples to lose, to give up, desires that do not reflect who we are as people created in God's image. Christ empowers his disciples to live life as the Creator originally intended us to live our lives.
This Gospel reading (Mt. 16:13-20) is usually divided into two parts: the first part (vs. 13-16) tells what various people and what Peter himself thought about Jesus; the second part (vs. 17-20) records the answer of Jesus to Peter. Just like Mark and Luke, Matthew places this event at the center of his Gospel and the reading is quite clear: he wants his readers, who have known Jesus for some time, to proclaim Christ as the Son of God. Not unlike the people of Jesus' day, we can also today hear opinions about "who" Jesus is - a great teacher, a social activist, an exceptional person, and a visionary who has transformed human society. However, to profess that Jesus is the Messiah is to say that he is the Son of God, the Savior of the world. In the second part of today's Gospel reading, Jesus tells Simon: "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. With these words to Simon Peter, Jesus is referring to the faith that is in Peter, which enabled him to make his confession. This faith is the solid foundation of the Church. All those who, like Peter, will profess faith in Jesus as the Son of the living God, are a part of this solid foundation that will never fall. Then, Peter is given the "Keys" to bind and to forgive sins. This power is not limited to Peter, it is the ability of all those who live with faith (Mt. 18:18; John 20:23). The disciples now have authority to forgive sins. Christ said to his disciples, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld" (John 20:23). In Matthew 18:18, Christ speaks to congregations in every place and in every time, entrusting his Church with the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. We have received from the Lord the power to share the gift of forgiveness with one another.
In the early times of the Church, the Apostles found themselves with the serious problems of whether to admit, or not to admit, foreigners into the Church. One day, a foreign woman comes to Jesus. She belonged to the Canaanites that had often drawn Israel from its faith in the Lord to the worship of Baal. At first, Jesus relates to the woman very harshly, and rudely says to her: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel….not to wild scavenger dogs" (!). At first Jesus relates to her with contempt as any of his fellow Israelites would have treated her. However, the rest of the story reveals how Jesus challenged the Apostles to accept a radical change of mind. In the end, Jesus says: "Woman, you have great faith!" By healing the daughter of the Canaanite woman, Jesus is showing that the time has come to pull down the barriers that have divided people throughout the ages. The greatest thing to come out of Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman was the "great faith" she was given by Jesus. The New Testament teaches us that faith is a gift God gives us to:
Realize the damning consequences of our sinful nature and our need for a Savior.
Accept that God freely gives us his own Son as our Savior from sin, death, and the devil.
Celebrate that this "great faith" within us is an unconditional gift of God which we were "predestined to receive" (Eph 1:4).
For St. Paul, and the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers, nothing can surpass the "saving faith" we have received as a gracious gift from God.
This Gospel provides a summary of how our faith matures: At first we are attracted to Jesus and give him a place in our hearts, trusting that our life will be better with him. For the most part we limit Jesus to our hearts. The areas of our daily life - school, business, leisure, relationships, marriage, etc. - are experienced without Jesus. Then it happens, a storm of life appears. Whether or not we turn to Jesus for help is not always certain. At some point our faith in Jesus experiences a new level of maturity when we cry out for Jesus to help us through one of the storms of life. As we go through life there are many storms and many opportunities to cry out to Jesus to help us. Usually, at some particular point, usually out of necessity, we deepen our dependency upon Jesus' saving power in the midst of a difficult storm. The Church's first great theologian, St. Augustine, wrote much about how our faith in Jesus becomes more mature. His commentary on this Gospel says, "The boat that is carrying the disciples is like the Church, tossed and shaken by the tempests of temptation, which come from the devil. But, greater is, 'He who is the Lord' (v. 30). In times of illness, troubles, and a multitude of difficulties we need to be reminded that Jesus taught that, 'God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.' Fortunately, the storms of life can be for us Christians a great blessing. Unless we experience the storms of life, like Peter, our hearts will never truly learn to cling to Jesus as our Savior. A fearful, broken and troubled heart is the door through which Christ Jesus can find entry. Jesus, the one who saves, comes to us in the midst of our troubles saying to us 'take heart it is I, do not be afraid' (v. 27). Christ uses all the troubles of life to reveal his presence in our hearts and in the world."