21st Sunday in Ordinary
A Homily - Cycle A - 2004-2005
First Reading - Isaiah 22:19-23
Responsorial Psalm - Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8
Second Reading - Romans 11:33-36
Gospel - Matthew 16:13-20
Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi 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 Messiah, 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 Messiah.
Today's Gospel is perhaps best understood within the context of the Gospels of the previous two Sundays. Two Sundays ago, we heard about the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000 - Jesus performs this incredible miracle, foreshadowing the Eucharist, so appropriate for us to ponder in this Year of the Eucharist. Last Sunday, we heard of Jesus walking on the water. We have to understand that after the Feeding of the 5,000, the sentiment going around at the time was that the Jews wanted to take Jesus and make Him king. When we hear about Jesus trying to break away from the crowd, it is not only so that He can take time to pray and also grieve over the death of John the Baptist - Jesus wants to avoid the crowds because His time had not yet come to lay down His life. In any case, Jesus was all the "buzz" around the Holy Land. There was a certain hype associated with Him - very few people were unaware of His ministry and His miracles. People were very curious to see what would become of Jesus - would He become the long-awaited Messiah who would rid the Jews of Roman rule?
And so, when Jesus takes the Twelve Apostles into Caesarea Philippi, He is taking them into Gentile territory, away from the "buzz." Very few of the Jews would follow them into Gentile territory because doing so would make the Jews ritually impure and they would have to perform all kinds of ceremonial washings for having stepped foot onto Gentile soil. So, Jesus takes the Twelve away from any influence of prejudice or hype and He asks them two simple questions. First, He asks them about public opinion - "Who do the people say the Son of Man is?" We have a Scriptural opinion poll - 33 percent say that Christ is John the Baptist; 33 percent say that He is Jeremiah and so forth and so on. Then, Jesus asks them a second question, "Who do you say that I am?" Simon bar Jonah, which means Simon son of Jonah, takes the lead. By God's grace, he gives the correct answer. Simon, whose name is now changed to Peter, meaning "rock," exclaims that Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ.
Note Jesus' response. Recall that in the first question, Jesus is asking for public opinion. In the second question, Jesus does not want public opinion - He wants to know what the Twelve think. When Peter gives His answer, Jesus does not say, "Very good, Peter - that's another very good opinion." Rather, He says, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father." Peter is not expressing simple his opinion. Instead, Peter is expressing revelation from God the Father Himself.
This is a moment of infused knowledge from God so that the other eleven could hear the truth about who Jesus is. This is a crucial fact because one of the challenges that priests face is that we have between 12-15 minutes to make an impression upon you every Sunday and we hope that you will take the message home with you and remember at least some of what we said until next Sunday. If you remember it even until only tomorrow, we've probably done a fairly good job. But the challenge that priests face is that for too many Catholics, we are just one of many talking heads out there - no different than Chris Matthews, Bill O'Reilly, Katie Couric or Joe Scarborough. We're just one of many competing voices - that we are just offering some opinion or spin or some subjective idea about the truth of the human person.
But today's Gospel reveals that through the Apostolic ministry of Peter, extended to the bishops and shared by priests, that we are not sharing merely opinion. Rather, we offer salvific truth. When Catholics understand preaching and their priests as being on par with talk show hosts, Catholics are just as easy to tune-out their priest as they are switching channels. Hence, priests can easily be written-off. So, one of the key points of today's Gospel is the fact that when Peter speaks, he does not simply offer his opinion or ideas about who Jesus is. Rather, Peter enunciates what the Father has given him to say and we are blessed for it.
In turn, Jesus changes Simon's name to Cephas (Greek) or Petrus (Latin), from where we get "Peter." In doing so, Christ establishes the Church on Peter's confession of faith and He establishes the Sacrament of Penance through the binding and loosing of sins. Similarly, this capacity to bind and loose sins is tied to the doctrine of indulgences - the partial or full remission of all temporal punishment (purgatory) due for sins already forgiven (in Confession). Lastly, Jesus establishes the doctrine of Papal Infallibility - that is what I would like to spend a few minutes on in our remaining time.
One of the great liberating aspects of being Catholic - ask converts - is that we know that if we are following the teachings of the Church, which enunciates the mind of Christ, that we have the security of knowing that we are doing God's will, insofar as we are following what the Church teaches in matters of faith and morals. We don't have to make it up as we go along. We have the assurance of knowing that for 2,000 years the Church has continued to proclaim the mind of God into the world through the Pope and the bishops in union with him when they teach in matters of faith and morals. Notice that the Pope does not give us prognostications on how the Redskins will do this year - that's not his area of competency. The Pope may very well be a Redskins fan but that doesn't matter. He does not claim to be without error on such matters. And his competency has nothing to do with how many advanced degrees he holds. His competency has everything to do with being the Vicar of Christ - the visible representative of Christ on earth and the fact that Christ gave Peter and his successors this gift of teaching without error.
Many will criticize us and say that Papal Infallibility is a very convenient doctrine - you say that you teach without error and so it's true. How convenient! Not so! It is not our opinion that we are infallible - infallibility is a gift from Christ and he gives it to Peter when He assures our first Pope that the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against the Church. We have seen over time that the gates of the netherworld don't come in the forms of foreign governments, like Napoleon or Hitler. Rather, the gates of hell are something more subtle and yet more deadly - error from within. Napoleon and Hitler declared that they would destroy the Church. Pius XII told Hitler that if 2,000 years of struggles within the Church - corrupt bishops and priests, heresies, rebellious laity - have not toppled the Church, how could tanks? And think of the consequences if the Church had been teaching in error all these years? How many souls would be lost?
So, what we as Catholics believe is not subjective opinion - rather, it is objective truth - the truth about ourselves, God and our relationship with Him. I'll give you an example on a practical level. There is a parish whose sanctuary is mostly devoid of statuary or religious images. In fact, until recently, the Cross wasn't a Crucifix - it was a resurrecifix. The dominant liturgical art in the sanctuary are non-descript quilts that hang from the rafters. The designs on the quilts usually depict some non-descript nature scene or two hands clasping each other. The theology of the quilt is very simple: rather than "impose" any preconceived notions about the saints or God, the worshipper has the capacity to invent and decide who they want God to be for them. In effect, that means that every parishioner is their own Pope, since everyone gets to decide who Jesus is to them. In such a model, the Pope is no more credible an interpreter of God's word than the typical parishioner inventing their idea of who God is.
Another example: right now, it is very fashionable to wear the yellow Lance Armstrong, Fight Cancer bracelet. Its predecessor was the WWJD? bracelet - the What Would Jesus Do? bracelet. This bracelet is problematic because the wearer can answer the question on the bracelet with no reference at all to the Tradition or the teachings of the Church and thus become, once again, their own Pope. It's entirely too subjective, just like the quilts.
And so, when we hear Christ ask us, "Who do you say that I am,?" that answer has to be given within the context of the Tradition - an objective standard, not merely our subjective musings. Tradition has already shown us who Jesus is. The answers are objective - we are tasked with plugging into that reality - not making it up for ourselves. Making it up as you wish claims a gift given only the Pope and his successors, not even to me, your priest. I only collaborate with the gift given to the Pope and bishops. We must be guarded about how quickly we set ourselves up as an authoritative interpreters of the Scripture, when there is a 2,000 year Tradition that must be accounted for. Instead, we should revel and rejoice in the fact that we have been given this tremendous gift of objective teaching given us by the Pope.
To close, I offer an image that illustrates how damaging this subjectivity can be when the human person fails to submit their intellect and will to the objective truths of the Faith. If my friend Mark and I are sitting on a airplane on the tarmac at Dulles and the plane is bound for Los Angeles by Mary REALLY believes in his heart of hearts that it's going to Seattle, IT'S STILL GOING TO LA, regardless of what Mark FEELS. When we disembark 5 hours later on the West Coast, we won't be in Seattle, even if Mark REALLY, REALLY thinks we will. This is how the Church teaches in matters of faith and morals - she is without error and we have the consolation of knowing that her teachings are sure and absolutely certain.
As we continue with this Mass we do well to ponder this great Petrine ministry, which has been on display in Cologne in these last days. Who, by the way, could throw a party like this? More than 1 million youth are gathered around Peter and sitting at his feet, listening. Why? Because the youth are tired of subjectivity, of making up God, like those quilts invite us to do. They want to grasp onto objective truth, as difficult as it is, because they know that it will set them free. Let us follow the example of our young people in this regard, who so willingly submit their intellect and will and want to follow Christ, made known to us through His Vicar on earth.
Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and forever!
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