A story is told of John XXIII who was Pope during the turbulent 1960s when it seemed that everything in the Church was falling apart. There was a crisis in the priesthood, in religious life, in married life, in faith, indeed in the Church. The Pope worked long and hard hours trying to address these problems. One evening, after an exhausting day in the office, he went to his private chapel to do his daily Holy Hour before retiring but he was too exhausted and too stressed out to focus or pray. After a few minutes of futile effort, he got up and said, “Lord, the church belongs to you. I am going to bed.” Yes, the Church did and continues to belong to Christ. He is the builder even if Peter and each of us are the rocks on which the Church is built.
There is a striking parallel between the first reading from the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel text of today. The prophet denounces the master of the palace, Shebna, and says that the Lord will place another, the more worthy servant Eliakim, in his place. Eliakim will have binding authority over David’s House, and the Lord will make him secure. He will be a father to all. The text from Matthew portrays a similar investiture of power and authority. Simon is renamed Peter which is translated “Rock” and on which foundation the Church of Jesus will be built. Though there is still some debate about whether it is Peter or Jesus who is the rock mentioned in the text, if one remembers that it is Jesus who builds, then one will not have too much difficulty with accepting Peter as the rock on whom the Church is built by Jesus. Peter will also receive the keys of the kingdom and be given the power to bind and to loose, which will be ratified in heaven. The foundation for such authority and confidence is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Somewhat paradoxically, having altered Mark to enhance the role of Peter in making him the recipient of divine revelation and the foundation of the Church, Matthew leaves virtually intact the subsequent misunderstanding of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection by Peter, whom Jesus rebukes as a “Satan” who “is not thinking as God does, but as humans do.” This is an indication of how weak the foundation can be. The same Peter who was declared “blessed” a few verses earlier is now regarded as being against Jesus and all that he stands for. The whole story portrays blessedness on the one hand and brokenness on the other. It portrays insight on the one hand and lack of sight on the other. Without the whole story the dangers are enormous. The church has always been in danger of becoming one of the powers that it has been called to confront. That reality is lived out in history - on a grand scale, but also in each of us. The will to power and pomp and glory is very seductive.
Thus instead of this incident celebrating a turning point in recognizing who Jesus is, as in Mark, it has become in Matthew a celebration of what the church is.. Peter is representative, but it is significant that it is precisely Peter who represents. He appears to have been chosen as a leader, but he and the others are to be the church, the community, who will be called to feed the multitudes, walk on water, and who bring God's compassion into confrontation with the destructive powers of life. That will sometimes mean having to say, no, having to exercise discipline within the church.
They will also be the community who will often fail and fall short of what it means to be “Ekklesia” or “those who are called out”. They will sometimes side with the powerful against the weak and with the “haves’ against the “have-nots”. They will sometimes sink because of the fear that overwhelms them and because of their lack of faith, but they continue nevertheless to be called to be that “contrast community” who will show by their words and actions that the community of Jesus continues to be alive and that negative forces or evil can never overcome it. What Jesus is stressing in these words to Peter is continuity namely that the historical and spiritual reality that the church Jesus is creating is his and his alone. No one can create another church. Christ’s church can be built on no other foundation, with no other living stones than those he names, and with no other cornerstone and chief builder than Christ himself. We constantly re-live this Gospel story. As we like Simon say to Jesus, “you are the Christ,” he says to each one of us “you, too, are Peter, you too, are a rock, and with you, also, I am building my church.” What happened to Peter continues even today and it includes us.
Paul is clearly aware of this and so in his hymn to Divine Wisdom he affirms that it is only because of the active wisdom of God working in the world that the Church can continue to be faithful to the promises of Christ, the Lord. The depth of God’s wisdom and purpose are a marvel. God’s action for the most part, goes beyond human understanding.
This idea is reiterated by the Psalmist who acknowledges God’s unfailing love and faithfulness and his immediate answer to the prayer of a humble heart. God, in Jesus is a God who constantly stretches out his hand to save the lowly. He is a God who will not abandon the work of his hands.
Thus the idea that comes through powerfully from the readings is that it is indeed God who builds even if on weak human structures, and without his sustenance nothing can really stand. The weak are made strong, sinners are forgiven, the sick are healed and the incomplete is completed. He remains the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega.