Sunday, August 21, 2011

Homily for 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
21st Sunday
in Ordinary Time

Aug. 21, 2011
Matt 16: 13-20
St. Michael, Greenwich, Conn.

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (Matt 16: 17).

Jesus continues to travel with and instruct his disciples. Today he asks them who people think he is, then what they think. Simon Peter gives the correct answer, but he doesn’t advance to the next round. He has no idea what his answer means, as we’ll hear next week. Being the Messiah puts Jesus’ physical life in jeopardy, and the physical lives of all who follow him. But this is no game; the prize is eternal life.

We don’t know whether Simon Peter is speaking for the 12 or only for himself. What is clear is that he’s speaking under divine inspiration: “You’re blessed, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood hasn’t revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Probably without his realizing it, Simon has been granted revelation, an insight into divine truth. Jesus isn’t just any human being, not just any prophet. He’s the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God; still more, he’s “the Son of the living God” (16:16).

Jesus acknowledges the truth of what’s been revealed to Simon, and he recognizes the blessing that’s been granted to his outspoken disciple. God the Father has singularly chosen Simon, has blessed him with this insight, this revelation.

Not everyone’s favored like Simon. Not everyone’s granted the gift of faith, of knowing who Jesus is, of being chosen to be one of his followers, to encounter “the Son of the living God.”

At this point in the gospel, that faith and that blessing are rather limited. Maybe Simon speaks for all 12 apostles. The blessing is his alone as Jesus speaks it. But it’s no longer his alone. All who today recognize that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, have been favored by revelation from the heavenly Father and are blessed. God has chosen us, as much as he chose Simon Peter, to be blessed with the faith to know Jesus, to follow him, to belong to him, and—as the Gospel promises—to prevail even against death. This is a rare blessing, even today, calling for our gratitude as well as our efforts to be faithful.

How rare is this blessing? Consider that, by a very rough estimate, only 1 person in 6 of the world’s population is Christian in name, and even fewer in practice.

Jesus doesn’t stop with recognizing how his heavenly Father has blessed Simon son of Jonah. He builds upon the Father’s choice. “And so I say to you: you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” (16:18).

The 1st point in Jesus’ words here is that he gives Peter a new name, a new persona—as Abram became Abraham when he entered a new and special relationship with God (Gen 17:5); as Saul will become Paul when he becomes Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 13); as many religious take a new name when they become monks or nuns; as a newly elected Pope takes a new name. Simon son of Jonah’s new identity is “the Rock,” Kephas in Aramaic and Petros in Greek, the sturdy foundation on which Jesus will be able to build his Church, on which the whole community of Jesus’ disciples will rest firmly and securely. The faith that Peter speaks he will share and guarantee for all who follow Jesus.

St. Peter, holding keys, steers his ship, symbol of the Church
(main altar, St. Patrick's Cathedral, N.Y.C.)
The 2d point is that Jesus intends his teaching to last, to be preserved and followed in a permanent community. The word “church,” ekklesia in Matthew’s Greek, means a group of people who’ve been gathered together. Jesus is calling together a great assembly of people whose Rock will be Simon—Simon who’s received divine revelation and given voice to that revelation. This revelation isn’t private but communal. Being a disciple of Jesus is no private affair but a public one.

Nor does Jesus stop there in the charge or mission he gives to Peter: “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against” this community, this church. “Netherworld” is hades in Greek, the world of the dead. In biblical language, it’s where God’s enemies belong; it’s the world of the devil and his allies, malignant spirits and malignant human beings. An alternate English translation is hell.

Jesus is giving a rock-solid assurance that his eventual victory over death—his resurrection—will be shared with the community of his followers, with the faithful members of his Church. No earthly power—and, Lord knows, many have tried, including Roman emperors, Protestant reformers, Japanese shoguns, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and countless lesser tyrants—no earthly power will subdue or overcome Christ’s Church. Sin cannot defeat, conquer, crush, sink his Church; not even the sins of the Church’s own members, however many or terrible those sins may be—because Christ is stronger; he’s “the Son of the living God.”
Finally, Jesus will give to Simon Peter “the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” with the power to open and shut, to bind and to loose. Jesus is bestowing upon Peter real authority, an authority we often refer to in jest when we speak of Peter as the doorman at the pearly gates.

What is the nature of this authority Jesus gives to Peter? One commentator—a Protestant, incidentally—writes: “An authority has been given which extends from the work of Jesus…. This responsibility includes the making of decisions. Decisions on earth have to be made which have validity in heaven. . . . They may include decisions about the Christian way or about the life of the church.”* The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 553) is more specific: Peter has “authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church,” and “the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church”—an authority that Jesus gives generally to the apostles (Matt 18:18) but particularly to Peter; and only to Peter does he give the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

The Church’s authority to forgive sins offers to men and women in every age and all places the possibility of prevailing over the netherworld, over death. Victory over death can come only from the defeat of sin, the removal of sin, cleansing from sin.

Well and good that the sins we have committed be forgiven. Thank God! But teaching authority—the teaching of truth, the teaching of the authentic way of living as Jesus wishes—this is related to defeating sin. Followers of Jesus also want to avoid sin in the 1st place. Jesus pronounces “blessed those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:28); he compares the person who obeys his teachings to a wise man who builds his house on a solid rock foundation (Matt 7:24-25)—an image like what he says to Peter today. We need to know how to live virtuously. And for that, we’re assured by Jesus’ promise, Peter speaks authoritatively, opening heaven to those who listen to what Peter says on behalf of Christ’s Church, closing it to those who separate themselves from Peter and the Church. The Church, with Peter in the lead, teaches us what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s moral and what’s immoral, so that the gates of the netherworld might not prevail over us, so that the devil might not claim our lives and lead us into the realm of death.

If Peter died in 67 A.D., crucified upside down in Nero’s amphitheater on the Vatican hill, but “the gates of the netherworld,” the powers of hell, are not to prevail against Christ’s Church founded upon Peter, then somehow Peter must remain the Rock beneath this permanent community called the Church. Peter’s office as the keeper of the keys, as the guarantor of the apostolic faith Peter professed to Jesus, has indeed continued. The men who succeed Peter as bishops of Rome keep the keys to the kingdom of heaven; the man we call “Pope” is now the foundation Rock of the Church that Christ built on Peter. That’s why a million youths have welcomed Pope Benedict XVI in Madrid as if he were a rock star. He is a Rock star, with a capital “R”—Peter’s successor, the rock on which rests Christ’s Church, guiding us toward eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Fresco painting, above: St. Peter holding keys
Church of Quo Vadis, Rome

* Ivor Jones, “Matthew,” in Sowers & Reapers: A Companion to the Four Gospels and Acts, ed. John Parr (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), p. 94.

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