It must have seemed typical of the arrogance and disrespect of the Gentiles that the pagan city of Caesarea Philippi was named after two men -- Caesar Augustus, and Philip, the pagan son of Herod the Great -- who claimed the Lordship that belongs only to God, especially there, in the Promised Land. And most distressing that the very source of the Jordan was polluted by the blood of pagan sacrifices.
Here in this pagan land Jesus and his disciples have a very Jewish conversation. The names we hear -- Elijah, Jeremiah, the Prophets -- look to the glory days of Israel's past, and express the hopes of many in Israel that the golden age might be re-established, when the overthrow of the pagan empire might at last allow a true return from Babylonian exile.
But Saint Peter recognises that in Jesus we see something more than the hope of a return to a golden age. Jesus is the future, not the past. 'The Christ, the Son of the living God' represents in his person the true, final Israel, the fulfilment of Israel. All of the history of God's people, both good times and bad, had been pointing to this moment in history when the Son of God walked among his people as a man, to create around himself the Messianic community.
Matthew's Gospel makes it very clear that Jesus, and the Messianic community he builds around himself, is neither replacing Israel nor going back to Israel's past but fulfilling Israel. That's why he records Jesus's remarks about not removing one jot or tittle from the Law; that's why the Christian community is described in terms that belong to Israel: a house built on a rock, a bride, a vineyard, a household with a steward who holds the keys This is the Israel that Jesus re-creates as he walks with his disciples in these Gentile lands.
This is appropriate because the fulfilment of Israel means that every human person is drawn into membership of the People of God. Everyone is to be united, with one another and with God, through the saving work of Christ, in God's loving purpose of redemption, when the Father answer Christ's prayer that 'they may all be one'.
And this is the community which we call the Church. The community built of Peter's confession is called to be both sign and reality of this purpose of God for all people. Where the Church is visibly united, where it is holy, catholic and apostolic, then it is not just a sign but a sacrament of the unity in Christ of all humanity which is God's purpose for us.
Now the Church can only be that efficacious sign if it remains firmly founded on faith that Jesus of Nazareth, who had this conversation with his friends 2000 years ago, is truly the Son of the Living God; and that he has established a community of friends who are, by their communion with him, adopted sons and daughters of God. The life of the Church must be constantly re-invigorated by her recognition of this breathtaking reality.
That means we must share with Saint Paul a 'road to Damascus' experience. Not once, but constantly. We must live lives of constant conversion and re-conversion. Before Saul met Christ on the road to Damascus, he considered the breathtaking claims of Jesus and his followers to be a scandal and a disgrace, and utterly dangerous. Afterwards, Paul became convinced that they may be all these things, but they are also true -- and that changes everything. Paul's life was utterly transformed when his encounter with the risen Christ proved that God's plan for future of humanity was made present in this man Jesus.
No other faith than this can give life to the Church, can make her the efficacious sign of our future. But this faith must be preached, with urgency and passion and courage. Saints Peter and Paul in their different ways showed this courage, this passion, this urgency, even to the shedding of their blood in Rome. A conversation with Peter in the hostile countryside of Galilee, a manifestation to Paul on a dusty road in Syria, led these men to take the truth of the Gospel and force it down the throat of the pagan world.
We too must seek out the heart of our modern pagan world and show it the truth: show it by passionately preaching the truth of Christ's identity; show it too by manifesting the unity of our community of love, that unity of the one Body of Christ which symbolises and brings about the perfect unity of humanity in Christ which is our common destiny.