To be a rock of faith, we must let our thinking be changed

by Thomas Gumbleton

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Among the various Gospel readings that we have Sunday after Sunday, I think this particular lesson is one that every one of us probably feels we can easily be drawn into that situation, put ourselves there with the disciples as Jesus says, "Who do people say I am?" And I think it's easy to imagine how they must have kind of chatted with one another, "Well, what have you heard? What have I heard?" And they come up then with these answers: "Some say you're John the Baptist." That would be John risen from the dead because he had been put to death by Herod, and Herod was very frightened of that possibility.

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 22:19-23
Psalms 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8
Romans 11:33-36
Matthew 16:13-20
Full text of the readings

"But then others," the disciples said, "well, they say you're Elijah or Jeremiah, one of the other prophets." But then comes the really important question to those disciples and to every one of us: "Who do you say that I am?" "Who do you say that I am?" This is Jesus now, who we learn about through the Gospels: "Who do you say?" And that question, of course, is key to everything in our faith. Are we ready to say with Peter, "You are the Christ, the chosen one, the son of the living God"? And so we try to enter into this and see if we're ready to say to Jesus, "You are the Christ, the Messiah, the son of the living God."

There are many various commentaries about this Gospel lesson that then speak about this rock upon which Jesus builds the church, and the most ancient commentary understood that Peter was a type of every disciple, of every one of us. So if we can say, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God," Jesus is saying to us, "This is a gift of faith. God has helped you to know this." And so as a disciple, each one of us can also say, "Yes, Jesus is the Christ."

So it's the whole church, every disciple, who responds to this question by saying to Jesus, "You are the Christ." That's the rock of which the church is built, the rock of the faith of all of us. It's not just Peter and his faith that is the rock on which the church is built. This is reinforced just a couple of chapters later in Matthew's Gospel, where Matthew has Jesus saying to all of the disciples, "I say to you, whatever you bind on earth, heaven will keep bound. Whatever you unbind on earth, heaven will keep unbound."

And so we, who are the church, are the rock foundation. Our faith is a rock foundation of the community of disciples of Jesus. And of course, that's for each of us a blessing, a grace that God has enabled us to have this faith. It's a gift to be able to say about Jesus, who was fully human, "You are the Christ, the son of the living God." But when we do make that pronunciation of faith and claim then our discipleship, we are part of this church of community of disciples throughout the whole world on who the church depends as the rock.

The church is built on us as the rock, and of course, I know we all are blessed because of this, but also it presents to us a very real challenge as disciples of Jesus to follow him, to accept his teachings, to live according to his way. It's very strange, almost, that Peter, the one who is the first to proclaim his faith in Jesus, in a very short time shows his inadequacy ... Shortly after this happened, Matthew tells us, "From that day, Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem.

"He would be handed over to his enemies, suffer many things from the Jewish authorities, that he would be killed, and be raised on the third day." And when Jesus said this to the disciples, Peter immediately objects. Peter took Jesus aside and began to reproach him: "Never, no! This must not happen to you." See, I think Jesus is trying to show Peter the way that Jesus wanted his disciples to follow him so that when he's handed over to his enemies, he doesn't take up the sword to fight back. He allows himself to be tortured, executed, be put to death.

And when Peter objected, Jesus says to Peter, "Get behind me, you Satan! You're a stumbling block! You are an obstacle. You are not thinking as God does, but as people do." Even though Peter is the first disciple among all the disciples and is the beginning of this rock on which the whole church is built, he finds it difficult to accept the way of Jesus.

See, this is the time, it's toward the end of the public life of Jesus, and there are huge followings, and some of the disciples have begun to think that Jesus is going to be a warrior king like David. He will lead an army to overthrow the Roman occupiers, and that's what Jesus is rejecting -- any kind of violence, any kind of war that would try to correct injustice or violence by more violence, and that's what Peter couldn't accept. Jesus then goes on to say, "If you want to be my disciple, deny your very self and follow me. Follow me, my way of love, rejecting all violence."

And just as that was very hard for Peter to accept -- and probably the other disciples, too, although Peter was the one who spoke out -- it's very hard for us to accept. But if we're really going to be that rock of faith that is the foundation of the whole church, we must try to let ourselves be changed in our thinking. I look back to this week, and I think there's a very powerful application for the Gospel message today.

Perhaps you saw the news conference, and President [Barack] Obama spoke about James Foley. President Obama was passionate, first of all, with his grieving with that family, the hostage who had been beheaded. And he spoke out with vehemence about what an outrage, what a brutality, what a terrible thing that is -- people being killed like this -- and he pledged that we would respond.

But do we ever stop to think? The president, who's our leader, and all of us must think about this: Can we just respond to violence with violence? In fact, isn't that what is already happening? Listen to this article describing what happened on an afternoon in October 2012 in Pakistan: "Sixty-eight-year-old Mamana Bibi, while gathering vegetables in the family fields in northwest Pakistan, was blown into pieces by at least two Hellfire missiles from a U.S. drone aircraft.

"Bibi's granddaughter, 8-year-old Nabeela, ventured to where her grandmother had been picking vegetables earlier in the day. She says, 'I saw her shoes, found her body torn apart. It had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast. It was in pieces. We collected as many different parts from the field and wrapped them in a cloth.' "

Yes, and that's been going on for years now, where our missiles, fired from drones, are tearing people apart. It's just as brutal as the beheading of James Foley -- innocent people. It may be different because the one who commands that drone is sitting before a computer screen thousands of miles away but gives the command to fire the missile, and innocent people are killed just as brutally as James Foley was killed.

How can we continue to let that go on, and how can we say that we're going to respond to this terrible violence now of last week simply by bringing more violence into the situation? How can we do that if we're really going to listen to Jesus, who rejected violence, who said the only way we can overcome violence is to transform hatred and vengeance and violence by the fascinating power of love? It's the only way it can be done.

Just recently, Pope Francis spoke at a homily: "How many conflicts, how many wars have marked our history? Even today, we raise our hand against our brothers and sisters. We have perfected our weapons, but our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal. We continue to sew destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death."

That's the message that Jesus proclaims in the Gospel today when he accepts the faith of Peter, but then challenges Peter to "follow me; reject violence and killing." Bring about the transformation of our world into the reign of God only through the transforming power of love.

This is what Jesus did as he died on the cross. He reaches out in love to those putting him to death. And that's the spirit we must begin to develop within our own hearts, our own spirit, if we are going to be that rock, that faith upon which our church throughout the world is built, and will endure to bring about God's peace in its fullness at some point.

[Homily given at St. Philomena Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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