Friday, November 18, 2011

"And Thus We Came to Rome" (Acts 28:14)

Today's reading at Mass from the conclusion of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 28:11-16, 30-31), on this annual memorial of the Dedication of St. Peter's Basilica on the Vatican Hill and St. Paul's Outside the Walls on the Via Ostiense, reads like a travel narrative, describing how Paul finally arrived in Rome. Of course, the whole book of Acts is itself a travel narrative - not just of Paul's (and others') journeys and adventures in the service of the gospel, but the journey of the gospel itself as it travels outward from Jerusalem. Just as Luke's Gospel began in Jerusalem (with Zechariah sacrificing in the Temple and seeing an angel), so too Luke's second volume, Acts, began in Jerusalem (with Jesus's ascension from the Mount of Olives and the apostles's daily prayer in the Temple). But, whereas Luke's Gospel also ended in Jerusalem, Acts recounts the steady, seeming inexorable expansion of the apostolic community outward from Jerusalem, outward finally all the way to the capital of the world, Rome. And thus we came to Rome (Acts 28:14) is not, therefore, just some historical anecdote but a thematic summary of the history of the apostolic Church - and the mission of the Church in every age and era.
Today's Gospel account (Matthew 14:22-33) of Peter walking toward Jesus on the water, only to become frightened and begin to sink and then be rescued by Jesus' outstretched hand, always reminds me of those cartoons I used to watch on Saturday mornings as a boy, in which the character would run off a cliff and keep going until suddenly he looks down and realizes he is walking on air, whereupon he immediately begins to fall. Peter had no trouble walking on the water while he was focused on Jesus. Once he focused on himself, however, his precarious situation started to sink him. Fortunately, Jesus was still there, and Peter could call out to him - refocus - and be saved. That's an unsubtle metaphor for the mission and life of the Church, precariously tossed about by the waves and apparently even beginning to sink, but saved by it focus on the object of its faith, Jesus. The apostles' ministry outward to the world - and Peter's particular ministry as the apostles' leader and spokesman - could never succeed (or even make sense) on the basis of themselves but could only succeed by remaining faithful to Jesus whose witnesses they were commissioned to be. So too the Church succeeds not by human prowess but by fidelity to to the witness of its founding apostles and to the mission entrusted by Christ to the Church through those great apostles.
And so the gospel came to Rome, as from Rome it continues to go out to all the world.
Homily for the Memorial of the Dedication of the Basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 18, 2011.

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