August 23, 2020
Revised Common Lectionary
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10 or Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 124 or Psalm 138
Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8 (8bc)
Institutional churches in North America have been faced with decreasing levels of confidence in recent years. According to polling data from the Gallup organization in 2019, just 36% of Americans had “a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the church,” compared with 68% in 1975. Gallup’s findings show that organized religion has fallen from its place as the most revered and trusted institution in U.S. society to a middle position among fifteen institutions they studied.
In the four Gospels Jesus utters the word “church” just twice, both times in the Gospel of Matthew. One of those instances occurs in the story that we hear today, a narrative that recounts Peter’s astonishing confession of faith and a response from Jesus that has been one of the most contested verses in the entire New Testament. For the church today that struggles with its role in the face of disillusionment, it is perhaps best to set aside the controversies associated with this story to ask how it can offer some guidance.
First, this passage calls the church to hope. It offers us assurance that the church—at least in its broadest sense as the community of disciples—is rooted in Jesus himself and sustained by him. Jesus uses a play on words in his declaration to Peter: “For I tell you, you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). While the church may be built on Peter the rock, it is built by Jesus. Whatever challenges may face the community from within or without, we can carry on our mission knowing that the church does not belong to us and that Jesus remains with us: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). As we face changes in the world around us, these words offer us hope that the church springs from Jesus himself and that we are not left on our own.
Second, this story calls the church to authenticity—to offer clear and consistent witness to the person and mission of Jesus. Peter’s famous confession of faith, perhaps the clearest and most powerful in the New Testament, is a model for what the church should stand for today: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). As many Christian communities scramble to attract people through media, music, and amenities, the confession of Peter reminds us that the church accomplishes its mission most effectively by proclaiming clearly our firm belief in Jesus as God-with-us. Faith in Christ includes our commitment to his mission of proclaiming the reign of God in word and deed.
Third, this story calls the church to humility. It serves as a reminder that the church is not only populated by flawed human beings but that it also led by them. While the astonishing confession of faith that Peter makes in today’s story is his finest moment, it needs to be understood in light of his portrayal throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Not long before today’s incident, Peter’s faith falters when Jesus invites him onto the water and he begins to sink (14:22-33). When Jesus speaks of his impending suffering and death, Peter rebukes him, earning the famous retort, “Get behind me, Satan!” (17:23). Perhaps his darkest moment, recounted in all four of the Gospels, takes place on the night before Jesus is crucified, when Peter denies three times that he even knows him. Whatever our involvement in leading or serving the church, it is comforting to know that even “the Rock” stumbled many times and in some pretty spectacular ways.
Yes, we belong to a church built on the rock of Peter’s faith. We are called to put our faith on display with hope, authenticity, and humility, knowing that the church is not ours—it belongs to Christ.
A Hymn for Today: “Let Kings and Prophets Yield Their Name”
Drawing on Jesus’ self-description as a servant and the story of Peter’s confession as told in today’s Gospel, hymnwriter Carl P. Daw, Jr., FHS, has crafted a text that encourages the singing assembly to look beyond pious assumptions and to enter God’s unfolding mystery as it is revealed in the life and mission of Jesus.
Let kings and prophet yield their name
To Jesus, true Anointed One,
For whom a nation looked in hope
Yet failed to see that God had done
A strange and unexpected thing:
God sent a servant, not a king.
But God reveals to searching faith
The truths that pious dogmas hide:
When Jesus asked the twelve his name,
Blunt Peter stepped forth and replied
In words that seemed both right and odd:
“You are Messiah, Son of God.”
Give us, O God, the grace to know
The limits of our certainty:
Help us, like Peter, to declare
The still unfolding mystery
Of one who reigns though sacrificed,
Our Lamb and Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Text: Carl P. Daw, Jr. © 1990, Hope Publishing Company. Used by permission.
Image: Symbols of Peter, St. Peter’s Church, Babraham, UK. John Piper, 1966.
“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.