Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But 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. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
The Gospel lesson we just heard is pivotal for Roman Catholic self-understanding. It’s the foundational scripture for St. Peter becoming Christ’s Vicar here on earth. Jesus proclaims: 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. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Every successor of St. Peter has inherited this promise and it is the bedrock of the Church’s authority.
At the beginning of this passage we hear Jesus asking his disciples: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
The responses were interesting: John the Baptizer, who had recently been killed by Herod, Elijah the OT prophet who was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot and who would usher in the Messiah, the Christ. Or some thought the Son of Man might be Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. But Jesus presses them: “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s response is among the most important in scripture.
Among other things, this Gospel lesson is a story about conversion, the conversion of Simon Peter and by implication it’s a call to conversion for all who would serve Christ in His Church. This is the underlying message of the “New Evangelization” that the Church is emphasizing so strongly. We know that Simon Peter wasn’t a newcomer to following Christ, but this revelation depicted in the Gospel lesson was a call for Peter to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God and for Peter to receive him fully and to serve him with the entirety of his being. For the faithful thereafter, this was and is a call for all of us. We are to commit to Jesus deeply, strongly and with fervor. To embrace the fact that he is the Christ the Son of the living God.
The Catechism defines conversion as “A radical reorientation of the whole life away from sin and evil, and toward God. This change of heart or conversion is a central element of Christ’s preaching, of the Church’s ministry of evangelization, and of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.” (p 873)
It’s important to remember that for us Christians, our conversions start at baptism but they continue until we reach the throne of Grace. Even time spent in Purgatory is time spent in conversion, in changing whatever would separate us from God until we finally enter heaven. This is the process. The goal is to put our full faith, love and trust in Christ. This is the basic message of Evangelization.
As just mentioned, we Catholics are so blessed to have a Church which provides us with a sacrament that is focused entirely on conversion: the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. To lay our sins out to God in the presence of a priest as we repent them fully and then to have the words of absolution and pardon and peace proclaimed to us is so sacred, and so dear. Conversion in this sense is mostly course correction to make sure that we are walking on the path Christ has set out for us and when we deviate from it by our sins, God lovingly calls us back.
As we read through the rest of the New Testament, it is really evident that Peter’s conversion was to be a very long process. From denying our Lord 3 times to battling with St. Paul, St. Peter kept having to repent in order to stay the course. And for each of us, conversion is a long process too, a lifelong process if you will, and so often repentance is the only means that gets us back on course when we stray in thought, word or deed.
Other Christian traditions, especially evangelical Protestants, put more emphasis on a particular event in life which is frequently called “being saved.” When for example, a Baptist is asked when he or she was saved, often a specific point in time is mentioned. The Catholic Church acknowledges the validity of these experiences that turn one’s heart to Christ. So back in 1988 the Catholic Church and the World Baptist Confederation actually put out a statement of mutual agreement on the nature of conversion.
Here, in part, is what they said:
“Conversion is turning away from all that which is opposed to God, contrary to Christ’s teaching, and turning to God, to Christ the Son through the work of the Holy Spirit. It entails turning from self-centeredness of sin to faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. Conversion is passing from one way of life to another new one, marked with newness in Christ. It is a continuing process so that the whole life of a Christian should be a passage from death to life, from error to truth, from sin to Grace.”
“Individuals respond in faith to God’s call, but faith comes from hearing the proclamation of the Word of God and it is to be expressed in living together in Christ, that is the Church.”
I rather like this statement.
It’s important to keep in mind the primary purpose of Jesus’ declaration to St. Peter. He, Peter, would be the rock upon which the Church would be built; it was more about the Church and less about St. Peter. Individual Christians do need to engage in that long and important process of conversion, but as the Church teaches, the emphasis on personal conversion must be for the well being and furtherance of our community. For us, conversion always takes place in the context of community. We Catholics think “we” rather than just “me.”
Put another way, conversion is personal but not private. Not only is conversion for individual piety and holiness, it is also to enhance the Church, sometimes this is even done from the grave.
The story is told of the Emperor Charlemagne, who according to legend, was buried sitting upright on his throne. He had commanded that the crown remain on his head and that his scepter be in his right hand. He also gave instruction that the royal cape was to be draped around his shoulders and an open Bible be placed in his lap.
Nearly 200 years later, the emperor Othello determined to see if the burial instructions had been really carried out— so he ordered the grave to be opened. They found the skeleton just as Charlemagne had commanded. But what was most interesting was that the bone of the index finger of his left hand was pointed to a passage in Scripture six verses farther from the end of our Gospel lesson today: Mt 16:26: What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? It was message from the grave as a reminder to us all. It was a faithful response from a converted king.
The combined task of the individual believer, the Church, all the angels and saints and the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is to see that one does not forfeit one’s soul. Individuals need to be engaged in the long process of conversion, all the while being surrounded and supported of such a vast community of faith. And all this is set secure on the solid rock of the Church.