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"Rock of Grace" - A Scripture Reflection for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

by Stephen Bevans, SVD | August 27, 2017

"Rock of Grace"
A Scripture Reflection for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 27, 2017: Is 22:19-23; Ps 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

Around the base of Michelangelo's great dome in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome are written the famous words from today's gospel: "Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam; et tibi dabo claves regni caelorum"—"You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven." Check out the photos and commentary here. Here in St. Peter's, in the Pope's special church, above the altar on which only the Pope—or someone designated only by him—can offer the Eucharist, we read one of the great callings in Christian history—Jesus' commission to Simon the son of Jonah at Caesarea-Philippi. Maybe we can't quite say at this point that Peter was "a Catholic" (that term only appeared about a century later in an early Christian document). But Peter was certainly "on call"!
Jesus' call/commission to/of Simon is one that needs a bit of unpacking, however. When we look at it closely, especially in the context of the entire passage in Matthew's gospel (which we will read next Sunday) it is hardly a commission that can be interpreted in the triumphal way that we have often understood it: a kind of proof for the monarchical and hierarchical structure of the church. Rather, it is a call to or commission of a very human person to take on a very difficult role—to be a "rock" for the community and on which it is built.
The first thing we notice is that it is a call/commission based not on merit but grace. When Jesus asked the disciples their opinion about who he really was, Simon blurted out the right answer—he was the Messiah, the one chosen of God. But as we will hear next week, although it was the right answer, Simon didn't really understand what he was saying at all. Nevertheless, Jesus commended him for it: "blessed are you"; "flesh and blood has not revealed this to you." You might not understand, but grace is at work.
On the strength of this grace, Jesus gives his call or commission. As he does this he changes Simon's name to Peter. A name change in the Bible is always a sign of a special vocation—e.g. Abram to Abraham, which means "father of many peoples." In this case, the name "Peter" ("Petrus" in Latin, "Petros" in the original Greek) is explained by the wordplay that follows: "on this rock (in both Latin and Greek "petra") I will build my church."
The irony, of course, is that Peter hardly lives up to his name. He is hardly a rock! As the scene continues he shows how little he understands by practically scolding Jesus' explanation of his messiahship, earning Jesus' reprimand "Get behind me, Satan!" And later on, Peter is hardly rock-like when he denies Jesus three times after Jesus is arrested. Maybe Judas the accountant might have been a more logical choice on which to build the Jesus community (maybe then he wouldn't have betrayed Jesus). Or Matthew with his money raising experience. Or Jesus' best friend John. Somehow, though, Peter is Jesus' choice. By grace. Paul is certainly right to say that God's judgments are "inscrutable," and God's ways are "unsearchable."
But Jesus goes on. He gifts Peter with authority in words that echo the call/commission to Eliakim in the first reading. He will be the keeper of the keys. He will act as partner with God in making decisions. Despite his obvious shortcomings, Jesus trusts Peter with his very mission. Inscrutable. Unsearchable.
And yet, "the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!" Yes, Peter had failed to understand, and showed a lack of courage when courage was most needed. But, ultimately, he was open to the same grace with which Jesus called/commissioned him. After Jesus' resurrection he was restored by Jesus' threefold call and commission that echoes the one we read here, and which explains it more fully: Peter was to offer nourishment and strength to the community by feeding the lambs, feeding the sheep, strengthening his sisters and brothers. He was indeed a rock in the early Jerusalem community, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. But he was a rock, not of natural hardness, but a rock of grace.
What a consolation for us, Catholics on Call. Amazingly, like on Peter, Jesus wants to build his church on us. This is why he calls us to ministry—as lay women and men, as religious, as ordained. Like Peter, of course, we are hardly perfect. We don't always understand, and we might have even betrayed the Lord's trust. But like Peter we are "rocks of grace"—not always totally reliable, but nevertheless chosen, commissioned, and often amazingly able to take charge of the keys, amazingly willing to be part of God's mission in this world. Like Peter we can only exclaim with his friend (and sometimes challenger) Paul: from God and through God and for God are all things. To God be glory forever!
The above image is from the Public Domain.
Author information Stephen Bevans, SVD

Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD, Professor Emeritus of Mission and Culture
S.T.B., S.T.L., Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome; M.A., Ph.D., University of Notre Dame; Study: University of Cambridge

Steve Bevans is a priest in the missionary congregation of the Society of the Divine Word and Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD, Professor Emeritus of Mission and Culture.

After completing his Licentiate in Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1972, he served as a missionary to the Philippines until 1981. In 1986 he received a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and has taught at CTU since that time, officially retiring from the faculty in 2015.

He is the author or co-author of six books and editor or co-editor of eleven, including Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004), and An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009). In 2013, he edited A Century of Catholic Mission, and, in 2015, with Cathy Ross, Mission on the Road to Emmaus: Constants, Context, and Prophetic Dialogue.

He is a member of the World Council of Churches' Commission on World Mission and Evangelism.

Books written by Steve Bevans

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