Gospel bits. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
Then, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
What if a Seventh-day Adventist door-to-door missioner would come to your door and tell that today’s Gospel of Matthew 16:18 is not saying Peter is being commissioned to a special office, like as pope, but instead is being called a little rock, as like a tiny pebble—to be sure that he not get any such ideas in his head of being the chief apostle or being an equal to Jesus? What if the Adventist would then imply from that: Catholics have been wrong from day one about a papacy—what would you say?
This is what the missioner Adventists are actually trained to do with this Bible verse. Would you be ready to correct them to the truth?
Matthew 16:18 says: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.” We believe as Catholics that this is where, in the Bible, or of the moment in time, when Jesus appointed Simon the earthly head of the Church. That’s where He appointed him the first pope. It comes right after Simon first confesses officially: “Jesus, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” On that clarity of Who Jesus is—heard as Christ the Messiah on the lips of Simon—Jesus makes the appointment of Simon and gives him the new name of Peter. Peter means “rock.”
Now the door-to-door Adventist might retort that the word in Greek was Petros for “little rock” or “pebble.” Tell them that’s a translation mistake, what they’ve been told is false. The anti-Catholic sentiment behind such a rendering of Matthew 16:18 likely looked for some old Attick Greek for that reach—but the Bible is written in a different Koine Greek. Koine Greek shows that petros and petra meant “rock.” If Jesus had wanted to call Simon a small stone, the Greek lithos would have been used. The belittling of Peter, and Mary, in the non-Catholic interpretation of the Bible is sometimes either cruel or just way out there. We could say politely to that person preaching at us:
Why after such a marvelous confession by Peter, and at the critical turning point place of Matthew’s Gospel, would Jesus dress him, down, saying ‘You’re a pebble of a man. You’re unqualified. Only I can be the rock?!” But the wrong interpretations are laid against Peter getting any authority from Jesus here in this moment at Caesarea Philippi, his getting primacy of the apostles (but it’s there in Matthew 16) and the apostles appointment earlier is a vital part of Matthew’s Good News (in Matthew 10).
Jesus was not calling himself rock, He was speaking to Simon, saying to him: “You are rock.” The words are directed out to Simon. It’s to be his new name, Rocky, for the ministry now turns to the Cross, and gets real serious.
There is great drama in this moment, as Jesus delights that Simon sees Jesus’ surely as Messiah, THE Christ of the Living God, with trust in where Messiah will lead them—because of Who He is. The location of this confession was in one of the most worldly spots of the Middle East, in the far region not far from Carmel (or of another modern city today, Haifa). Upper Israel towards Syria. A temple to Caesar as “god” was at this huge, deep cave site talked of the pit of the gods. In huge contrast to that abomination, Simon proclaims Jesus as Lord, the sent One from heaven as savior, Christ. It calls for him to receive the new name. Matthew’s gospel delights it this moment, since he, another apostle, who writes the gospel, was renamed from Levi, to his new identity of Matthew, meaning gift of God. Peter means “rock,” on which the church can stand, and time and again Matthew has seen Simon Peter be the key apostle, ready for action. Jesus intends a church and one to continue in His Name and power upon His return to the Father. He won’t put it on a pebble. The Protestants have a big hymn with the words “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. “ They think that the papacy is sinking sand, with their version of interpretation. St. Peter getting reduced; only Jesus, they say. Yet Jesus choose Peter, and He chooses us as disciples, to live the call of being “church,” His chosen. Jesus promises Peter that He’ll protect us, in that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against us.” Try thought they may to stop The Church, Christ’s Body.
Jesus is the Savior and Lord and Redeemer, not doubt—but He has set up and laid down things here for His ongoing work of salvation. As He used His disciples so far in ministry (like depicted in Matthew 1-15), so will He use them post-Calvary, post-Resurrection and Ascension, and post-Pentecost. We see in this text again, as seen all through the Gospel, of how The Son of God is inclusive and has set a shared priesthood and Vicar ministerially here on earth, and then, by His death at Calvary, He gives us all a Sacrament of baptism to enter into life with Him; the High priest forgives and cleanses us so that He may enter in and live in the believers’ souls and be corporally alive to His Church to be His body of believers. “I will build My Church,” says Jesus here in Matthew 16, as He has plans ahead, which now has extended to 2023. (To Pope Francis, there have been 266 popes through that time, too, of The Church, Christ’ Body.) Here it clearly: Jesus said: “I will build My Church.” It’s Church, Jesus’ Way, He’s the Lord and Head of it, we are abiding in the Vine of Jesus together, as church, just like in the branches and tree illustration highlighted in John 15.
I go back to languages of Jesus’ time. Koine Greek was the written word, but the spoken was Aramaic for Israel. Many hold that Matthew’s gospel was first written in Aramaic, too—we know this from records kept by Eusebius of Caesarea—but it was then also translated into Greek early on. An Aramaic phrase you know is: ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ for My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me? Which Jesus said from the Cross. Let’s see what Aramaic lines help us see a papacy in Peter.
To show connection of St. Paul’s writings to this Matthew Gospel: In Paul’s epistles—four times in Galatians and four times in 1 Corinthians—we have the Aramaic form of Simon’s new name preserved for us. In our English Bibles it comes out as Cephas. That isn’t Greek. That’s a transliteration of the Aramaic word Kepha (rendered as Kephas in its Hellenistic form). And what does Kepha mean? It means a rock, the same as petra. It doesn’t mean a little stone or a pebble. What Jesus said to Simon in Matthew 16:18 was this: ‘You are Kepha, and on this kepha I will build my Church.’ Big rock.
So our English translation is right. You are Peter, and on you I lay/build My Church. In French it is one word, pierre, that has always been used both for Simon’s new name and for the rock.”
When I hear about rock foundations, I think of New York City’s Manhattan area, all resting on some solid rock. How does it manage to support all that weight of buildings and things and people atop it?! It does so because it is strong. It was a good choice for building a city upon. The Church is Jesus’ hearted and founded, but it lays on a set-up made by Jesus in His apostles and a lay out and liturgy and Gospel for His followers. That set-up has supported a believing people of millions and across time and across the globe. No pebble could hold all that!
Jesus is the Love and the One we put our faith in, even as we rest on this Church foundation He gave. Some detractors to Catholicism think that the idea of church, with apostles and pope and priests—is a bad institution started by some controlling clerics, and also that such a set-up gets in the way of knowing and serving only Jesus. Yet the fact is that Jesus founded “church.” He gave it apostles and clergy for service, as a passage in 1 Corinthians says. The final focus is not them; they don’t save. It’s not us, we can’t save. We all seve a Savior Who saves via His intended instrument, the Church. It’s like the Ark of Noah’s time; God likes to save all in one big ship.
Friends, as Catholics we are to expect that non-Catholics Christians who are protesting us, in a downplaying of Peter’s role in the Church, His papacy and priesthood—we realize that they must do so, because if they didn’t, they’d have to admit the truth and wonder, then, of why are they not Catholic? If indeed Jesus founded things this way, His Way, then His disciples should be following it. But we just hope that realization can come, and we will continue on as the Mother Church, this Church is still here today, still the one Jesus founded. In Matthew 16, Jesus is installing Peter as a form of chief steward or prime minister under the King of Kings by giving him the keys to the kingdom. As can be seen in today’s first reading, Isaiah 22:22, kings in the Old Testament appointed a chief steward to serve under them in a position of great authority to rule over the inhabitants of the kingdom. Jesus quotes almost verbatim from this passage in Isaiah, and so it is clear what he has in mind. He is raising Peter up as a father figure to the household of faith (Isa. 22:21), to lead them and guide the flock (as in the last verse of John’s gospel, in 21:15-17). This authority of the prime minister under the king was passed on from one man to another down through the ages by the giving of the keys, which were worn on the shoulder as a sign of authority. Likewise, the authority of Peter has been passed down for 2000 years by means of the papacy.” So, there it explains how we have the papal flag of the Church in the sanctuary with the keys on it. It shows who we are: The Church under Peter, under a pope, the 266th one, going back the one started in Matthew 16’s recorded moment of the hinge, turning point of all we have and believe today. Keep building your Church Jesus. We are here to serve, to live in Your Holy Name.