Sunday, September 3, 2017

Thinking as God Does

Today’s gospel reading [Matthew 16:21-27] is a direct continuation of last week’s [Matthew 16:13-20] and should really be read in conjunction with it. Last Sunday, we heard how Jesus took his disciples into Gentile territory, to the region at the foot of Mount Hermon near Roman city of Caesarea Philippi and the shrine to the pagan god Pan near the source of the Jordan river. It was there that Jesus asked his disciples, “who do you say that I am?” To that, the leader of the 12, Simon Peter, replied, correctly, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus, in turn, praised Peter for his answer, made possible for him by divine guidance (“flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father”), and gave him what we now call the power of the keys - hence the image of the crossed keys on the Pope’s coat of arms. But, as we just heard, the story then continues with Jesus’ first prediction of his forthcoming passion and death. And how does the newly appointed Pope Peter respond this time? He rebukes Jesus, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” So this time, instead of praising Peter, Jesus rebukes him and even calls him Satan! “You are not thinking as God does,” Jesus says to him, “but as human beings do.”

We are – or ought to be – familiar by now with this aspect of Simon Peter’s character. His heart belongs to Jesus, who inspires him to say and do the right thing. But, notwithstanding his heart being in the right place, he often thinks as human beings do, which is hardly totally surprising, since he is, of course, a human being, as all of us are

And yet this is the person Jesus put in charge of his Church, investing the otherwise ordinary and wrong-thinking Simon with the uniquely special office of Peter, the rock upon which Christ’s Church will be built – an office that continues in the Church in the office of Peter’s successor, the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. As Peter spoke for all the disciples, so the Pope, as Peter’s successor, speaks for the Church. In more formal language, we say that, by virtue of his office, the Pope possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church (CIC 331).

But, in every age the office of Peter must be filled by another Simon. Today it is Jorge Bergoglio. Before him it was Joseph Ratzinger, before him Karol Woitiyla, etc. - in human terms all very different individuals with different personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, this one wise in one way, that one in another. Yet, strange as it may seem, in this weird world we live in today, this celebrity culture with its obsession with personalities, the point is not Simon the person but Peter the office. In establishing Peter as the rock upon which Christ’s Church will be built, Jesus provided the papal office for the Church to unite us across time and space, secure in our common faith. At the Last Supper, Jesus commanded Peter to confirm and strengthen the rest of us in that faith, which the Pope continues to do when he teaches doctrine formally and officially, so that the entire Church may adhere unfailingly to the truth that has been revealed.

And where does faithfully adhering to the truth take us? Truth, after all, is often inconvenient., it may even hurt our feelings!

All summer, we have been making our way, Sunday-by-Sunday, through Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the passage we just head [Romans 12:1-2], Paul’s well-argued doctrinal teaching turns into exhortation - how to live here and now. I urge you, by the mercies of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.

Thanks to what God’s mercy has accomplished on our behalf, we can now be different people from whoever we would otherwise have been, living differently from how we would otherwise have lived, differently from the pagan world Peter could see everywhere around him when he responded to Jesus, whose death and resurrection have revealed the truth about life and how to live it. Peter’s mission would be to guide and guard Jesus’ Church from Simon’s own very human impulse – our impulse – to resist being transformed by the truth of who Jesus is, to resist the perennial challenge to be transformed by him ourselves and so to transform the world.

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, September 3, 2017.

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