The audio version of this reflection can be found here.
Jesus wasn’t conducting a straw poll when he asked his disciples. “Who do people say I am?” Neither was he having an identity crisis when he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” The passage we have as today’s gospel reading (Mt 16:13-20) emerged from the needs of the early Christian communities, not from Jesus’ need to know what people thought of him.
Matthew’s composition of the gospel reading consists of two sections. The first part consists of two questions, “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” It concludes with Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Mt 16:16). This section gives the readers an insight into Jesus’ identity. The second part is Jesus’ declaration of Peter as the “rock on which I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). This Church, even “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” (Mt 16:18). This section gives the readers an insight into the Church. The part that focuses on Jesus’ identity we can call Matthew’s Christology (because it talks about Christ’s identity), and the part that focuses on the church we can call Matthew’s ecclesiology (because it talks about the Church).
In my three points today, I will touch on Matthew’s Christology very lightly in my third point but place the focus on his ecclesiology. I will also draw some practical implications. But to do so, first we must understand the historical context of the Matthean community and the early Christian church. At the end of it all, I hope to present what I am calling, “an ecclesiology of hope.”
Matthew’s Unique Narrative
Those of you who have studied scripture a little more in depth probably know that much of the Gospel of Matthew is based on the Gospel of Mark. Matthew wrote his gospel following Mark’s timeline and another source called, Q Source (Q stands for Quelle, meaning “source”). Mark’s narrative of the same episode is very different than Matthew’s description. In Mark’s story, after Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah, Jesus predicts his future suffering and death for the first time. On hearing this, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. In turn, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mk 8:33). By comparison, in Matthew’s composition Peter is affirmed. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah,” Jesus said, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (Mt 16:17). Jesus goes even further. He declares Peter as the “rock” on which “I will build my church,” and “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). Matthew writes his narrative the way he does because it was based on the needs of his community.
Matthew’s Narrative of Hope
What were the needs of Matthew’s community? I believe we must pay attention to three historical realities to understand Matthew’s narrative.
First, Matthew’s gospel was written around 85 AD, a good fifteen years after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Even though the Jewish-Christians had come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, they were traumatized by the destruction of the Temple. Unfortunately, both Jewish and Gentile Christians were beginning to feel unwelcome in the existing synagogues. Unfortunately, again, churches had not been built communal worship. Moreover, persecution had scattered Christians to various parts of Asia Minor. Without a public place for worship, Christians had to meet secretly in each other’s homes. These were not easy times.
Second, the Jewish-Christian and Gentile-Christian divide presented a huge challenge in the early Church. It had the potential to destroy the Church. Matthew’s community was primarily Jewish-Christian. Meanwhile, Paul had founded church across Asia Minor which was comprised of both Gentile and Jewish Christians. Paul spent much of his time addressing the bitter Jewish-Gentile divide. Surely the Matthean community was aware of these developments and Matthew addressed these concerns as he composed today’s gospel passage.
Third, by the time Matthew’s gospel was written by 85 AD, Peter, the rock on whom Jesus said, he would build his church, had already been martyred for 35 years. Paul, who became the champion of Gentile-Christianity had also been martyred. There were other local leaders but none that could match the combined caliber and charisma of Peter and Paul.
Putting these three historical realities together, the nascent church must have felt like it was on the throes of hell. In this context, Matthew composes, what I am calling a “narrative of hope.” In this narrative, Jesus is the undisputed Son of God, and the Church is the Church of Jesus Christ. In a scattered and divided Church, Peter, the first of the apostles, becomes the focal point of unity. As Matthew puts it, “Even the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. (Mt 16:18). Matthew was presenting a “narrative of hope” to his community of faith. And indeed, his prophecy has proven true for 2000 years.
A Narrative of Hope for Our Times
As I said earlier, Matthew was presenting both a Christology and an ecclesiology of hope. Even though I have focused on his ecclesiology, we must begin our reflection on some practical implications with our faith in Jesus Christ or Christology.
Messianic Confession: A Christology of Faith
Similar to Matthew’s historical context, our times has its own context. Data suggests that membership in organized Christianity and the Church is drastically declining. But this is no indication that people are also giving up faith and spirituality. People may be becoming less religious, but most are still very spiritual. If Jesus had to ask today, “Who do people say I am?” I think people would still say that Jesus is God, the Son of God, the Messiah; that he is most admired character in human history; that Jesus is exceptional for his teachings, such as the Beatitudes; that his personal example of faith, self-sacrifice, selfless love, compassion, mercy, non-violence is admirable. But the question for you and me still is, “And who do you say that I am?” This week, Matthew is inviting us to make a renewed profession of faith. Matthew recommends that we further develop our Christology.
Synodality: An Ecclesiology of Hope
Similar to the Matthean Church, today’s Church faces numerous challenges. In the same way that Matthew was addressing the issues of his time for his community, today Pope Francis is proposing ways to address the challenges of a 21st Century Church. He is proposing an ecclesiology for our times. He has called for a “Synodal Church.” Synodality literally means, “journeying together.” As Pope Francis explains it, “a synodal church, is one where all are welcome, where all share the mission and contribute their prayer, time and talents will have an impact on those the Catholic Church still believes have been chosen by God and given special gifts to lead and to discern.” He further says, “We should ask ourselves how much space we make and how much we really listen in our communities to the voices of young people, women, the poor, those who are disappointed, those who have been hurt in life and are angry with the church. As long as their presence remains sporadic in ecclesial life overall, the church will not be synodal, it will be a church of the few. I believe that a Synodal church promises to be an ecclesiology of hope.
Matthew’s gospel passage is relevant for our times in newer ways. I pray that Christ, the Messiah who has called us to be church will continue to lead the Church so that “even the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
Image: By Nicolas Régnier – Saint Matthew and the Angel – http://emuseum.ringling.org/emuseum/objects/27793/saint-matthew-and-the-angel?ctx=91da5062-05b5-4d03-b653-24b7b7118134&idx=87, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66960636
Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.