TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY OF THE YEAR - (August 24, 2008)
Isaiah 22:19-23 Romans 11:33-36 Matthew 16:13-20
Three Unavoidable Questions
Today's readings confront us with three questions:
- of God's existence,
- the divinity of Jesus and
- the divine authority of the Church.
There are three questions that no thinking person can avoid.
Everything depends on how one answers them. The three unavoidable questions are:
1) Does God exist?
2) Is Jesus God?
3) Did Jesus found the Church?
Today's Scripture readings address these questions. Regarding God's existence, St. Paul exclaims: "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his way!"
St. Paul knows that God is far beyond human reason. Still, in that same letter to the Romans, he explains that it is reasonable to believe in God. In fact, argues Paul, what is unreasonable is to deny God's existence: those who deny his existence have clouded their own thinking process. You can read Paul's argument for yourself. (You will find it in the first chapter of Romans.) What I want to underscore is that the gift of faith - while it transcends reason - does not ultimately go against reason. Faith completes reason, gives a new power to human understanding.
Now, if a person recognizes that God exists, then the second question follows: Is Jesus God? Today Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is. There are a lot of opinions. Some say that Jesus is a sage, a kind of guru who leads his followers to a new level of consciousness. Others say he is a good man, maybe the best of men, but still only a human being. Others say he was a great moral teacher like Socrates or Confucius.
But Jesus will have none of that. He looks each disciple in the eye and asks: "But, you, who do you say, that I am?" You have to answer that question for yourself, directly to Jesus. No one can force you. What you say to Jesus depends on your own heart. I can, however, tell you my answer: Jesus is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. In a few minutes I will invite you to make that profession of faith with me.
Before doing that, I would like to consider the third question: Did Jesus found the Church? In some way this is the most difficult question, because it demands so much. It is one thing to believe in God and in Jesus, but something else to believe in the divine authority of the Church. People can keep God and Jesus at arm's length - or at least try. It is not so easy with the Church. For better or worse, the Church has had a significant role in human history - and a considerable presence in the modern world.
I say "for better or worse" because the Church is composed of human beings with negative (as well as positive) tendencies. We readily admit the weakness and fallibility not only of little people like you and me, but also the top leaders in the Church. But the question is not whether the Church is composed on sinful human beings. Rather, we have to ask what Jesus meant he when told Simon Peter that he was the rock upon which he would build his Church.
Peter the Rock
There now follows a passage which will be the foundation for the authority given to the disciples and to Peter in particular in the post-Resurrection community. In response to Peter's declaration of faith, Jesus now says, "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church." In the English translation, the play on words here is lost. In the Greek, 'Peter' is Petros ()' and 'rock' is petra () while, in the Aramaic language which Jesus and his disciples normally spoke, both words would be represented by kepa. Hence, Peter is called Cephas in some New Testament letters. cf. for example, Galatians 2:11.
Peter is the rock, the foundation of the community which will carry the name and the authority of Jesus to the whole world. On him, together with his Apostolic companions as the faithful communicators of Jesus' life and message, will be built the Church, the ekklesia , the assembly of God's people. (In all of the four gospels, this word ekklesia appears only twice, here and in Matthew 18:17, "And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church [ekklesia]...").
And what happened to the keys that Jesus gave to Peter? Are they buried in his tomb under St. Peter's Basilica in Rome? I don't think so. We have an early list of popes. It says that - after Peter - a man named Linus received the keys with their power to open and close, loose and bind. After him, Cletus, then Clement and so on. Today Pope Benedict XVI holds those keys. It is not just an earthly power, but a divine authority. Jesus said, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.
Now, I know that there are many congregations more attractive and more dynamic than Catholic parishes. And I may as well admit it - the most attractive would be a new congregation composed of me and those think like me. It would be called the "church of Phil Bloom." Its doctrines would be the Bible verses that I - and those who agree with me - like the best.
The "church of me and mine" is tempting (sort of) but that is clearly not what Jesus had in mind. He did not say to look for a community where you feel most comfortable. He founded a Church with divine authority - the power of the keys. The keys do not lock us in. What they do is unlock our hearts. They open us to people who may not - at first - attract us. And, above all, the keys open vistas that the "church of Phil Bloom" could never imagine.
Today we consider a text that is crucial to the Church’s understanding of itself. The words of Jesus addressed to Peter, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.
I suppose this is one of the most famous puns in the whole of history, Peter meaning rock. But that aside, the claims that the Church has made based on those few words are very great indeed. And they have provoked a good deal of criticism and have been an obstacle to many.
The claims are these: that Jesus gives authority to Peter and his successors to lead the Church, that the Holy Spirit will keep the successors of Peter free from error in matters concerning faith and morals, and that being in communion with the successors of Peter (i.e. the Popes) is essential to being a member of the one true Church of God.
We must remember the context in which these words of Jesus arise; Peter has just made an extraordinary confession of faith in response to Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s reply, as we all know so well, is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus then declares that this extra-ordinary statement of faith was directly inspired by God the Father.
So clearly Peter is important, indeed vital, to the work that Jesus was to accomplish. It is clear also that leadership for the Church, for the followers of Jesus after he returned to his Father, was needed and it was the intention of Jesus that Peter should fulfil this role.
A special kind of leadership
The leadership of Peter and his successors is not one of coercion and political power but of example and service. As long as faith, hope, and love are strong in the community, it will survive and flourish. It is not just a matter of unquestioning obedience to the decrees of an institution, issued from some far-off headquarters.
Today we see in the pope the successor of Peter. He shares the same charism or gift of leadership, a leadership of service. Traditionally the popes have called themselves Servus servorum Dei, the 'servant of the servants of God'. The pope is not a dictator with absolute powers, as he is sometimes depicted. He is limited by the faith of the whole Church. He is not the originator of that faith; he does not decide what we should believe. Rather, he communicates to the Church at large what it already believes. He is the focal point of unity of that one faith, the unity in the Spirit. The pope is the servant of that one community united in one faith.
Point of unity
In a Church where there are now so many conflicting theologies and spiritualities, there has never been a greater need for a focal point not of uniformity but of Christian unity. "There is one body and one Spirit... there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, there is one God and Father of all, who is Lord of all, works through all and is in all..." (Ephesians 4:4-6) This is something which many of our Anglican and Lutheran brothers and sisters have become strongly aware of. It is something whose importance is so well realised by our Catholic brothers and sisters in China, scattered and cut off from each other as they are.
The pope is our point of reference, whom we must always take into account, as we search for new understandings of what it means to be a disciple of Christ in a constantly changing world. He is the shepherd that keeps us in fellowship with Christians everywhere but who must not stifle the creativity of the Spirit in living out the Gospel in such a huge variety of contexts. For we are simultaneously one Church and many churches. For us here in our own church, our concern will be to remain in close union with fellow-disciples everywhere while at the same time living a Christian life in a way that most effectively will bring the spirit of the Kingdom among us in these challenging times.
Who contests the authority of Peter contests also the authority of Jesus Christ. Who contests the authority of Christ contests also the authority of God. I cannot claim that I believe Jesus Christ and at the same time refuse the authority of Peter and his successors.
If Jesus tells Peter:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Who am I to deny His authority?