Friday, August 22, 2014

Homily: The 21st Sunday of the Year: 2014

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church

You will not be surprised to learn that I was one of those children who had a problem with authority. Probably still do. But I tried to grow up and the rest of the world seemed to revert to adolescence. In fact the problem I still have with authority is that it refuses to be authoritative.

The problem with that is once you remove authority all that is left is power.

The Gospel this Sunday is certainly one of the most disputed, if not the most disputed passage in the New Testament. Around the foundation of the Michelangelo’s great dome atop St. Peter’s Basilica, as if supporting not just the dome but the very institution of the papacy itself, are inscribed in large gold letters the words: "Tu es Petrus et super hanc Petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam: ‘Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church’.

In the 20th and 21st Centuries there have been an extraordinary number of great popes. Two, John XIII and John Paul II have been canonized. Both John Paul II were  Benedict XVI were extremely gifted theologians. Pope Francis may well end up being the most popular modern pope of all.

But in the 16th century there was a run of particularly bad popes. Julius II took his name from Julius Caesar, spent considerably more time on a horse defending papal territories than he did on his knees praying, and initiated the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica primarily to house his grand tomb according to the design of Michelangelo.  Leo X, the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, a Medici,   is best remembered for coming up with the idea of selling  indulgences to finance the competition of St. Peter, which was challenged by Martin Luther’s “95 Theses’. Paul III, like many of the 16th century popes, was good at taking care of his illegitimate children, not so good at taking care of the Church.   You get the idea.

For many Christians in the 16th century the Popes had ceased to be authoritative but they had not ceased to be powerful.

Fair enough. But what do you put in the Pope’s place? For the Protestants the Bible seemed to be the perfect answer. Sola Scriptura – ‘Scripture alone’ had authority. The only problem was that none of the Reformers could agree on what Scripture means. The Reformers burnt as many other Protestants at the stake as Roman Catholics; maybe more Protestants than the Roman Catholics burnt at the stake. They had power but not authority.

What is more: how do you settle disagreements about Scripture, besides putting folks to the torch? Well, first they said let the King decide. Not a very good idea, but still popular with Christians who get their theology from politicians. Then they said let’s vote on what we believe. Another spectacularly bad idea, the ultimate result of which is the Protestant churches voting to endorse the very things which the Reformers had objected to in the Popes in the first place.

However you interpret this Gospel, this much is certain:  it is about the authority in the Church and it is this authority, which at the root of the crisis in the Western Churches.

The first thing that must be said about the authority in the Church and the thing which must be kept constantly in mind is that it is a derived authority. The two signs of authentic authority which Jesus gives in his words to Peter are the signs of the rock and the keys and  both these images come from the Old Testament.

In the Psalms God is repeatedly called the ‘rock’ meaning He is the one alone who  is trustworthy, the one who can be depended upon unconditionally. “ My help comes from God, he alone is my rock.”.” The divine Word of God is perfectly trustworthy and this Word has become flesh. St Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:4, speaking of the Israelites in the wilderness, says "They drank from the spiritual rock which followed them—the rock was Christ."  

The remarkable thing is that Jesus allows Peter to share his own rockiness: “you are Peter” that is “Rocky” and upon this rock I will build my Church.” The Church must also participate in this rockiness, this quality of unconditional trustworthiness: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.” The reason that Jesus adds this promise is that there is no guarantee that authority will not get it wrong. Even Papal Infallibility is a very limited thing. Something which the Popes have used only twice. In fact  Peter very quickly tries to abandon his rockiness, when he refuses to accept that being “the Christ, the Son of the living God” entails suffering and death. He draw this sharp rebuke: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men." But this does not mean that his confession is untrustworthy: Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

This quality of rock-like trustworthiness can only be passed on by perfect faith, which comes by the grace of the Father, not by Peter’s own insight. Faith in God and in His Christ can only become rock hard faith through God and Christ himself. Such is the  foundation upon which Christ, not man, builds his Church.

The second sign of authentic ecclesiastical authority is the Keys, again something which can be given only by divine authority. The king’s servant cannot steal the keys  to the palace  but he can be given them. The ‘key of the House of David” is placed on the servant’s shoulders, like a cross, a burden of responsibility. Jesus assuredly had these words of Isaiah in mind, when he spoke to Peter: “when he opens, no one shall shut; when he closes, no one can open.” But in the first place it is Jesus who bears ‘the keys of David, who opens and no one can close, who shuts and no one can open” according to the Book of Revelation. The  keys to eternal life and to death.

Jesus gives these keys to Peter, something even more disturbing than the Rock. On Easter Evening he confers the same authority on all the apostles.  Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." This does not mean that the apostles are the ultimate authorities on who gets saved and who does not or that they can never be wrong. The purpose of the Keys is pastoral. In the first place the apostles and their successors are given the keys that they might continue the ministry of Jesus, the ministry of reconciliation, the forgiveness of sins,  that they might appropriate to Christians the fruits of  the redemption secured by the Cross of Jesus Christ.

In the second place, Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he sends shepherds, who must tend the sheep, heal their wounds of body and soul. But they must also like David have a club to ward off the wolf. The worst thing about the 16th Century popes was not that that they could not mind their own business but that this is all they did, letting the church go to hell in a hand basket. 

It is time that the Church grows up.

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church

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