The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time||August 21, 2005|
The Gospel lesson today is one that all of us are very familiar with. We've heard it many times. We've learned about it since our youth. It's a passage that, probably, most of us feel we understand very well also. We could give the meaning of it without hesitation. This is the passage that establishes the pope as the head of the church, because the pope is the successor of St. Peter to whom Jesus said, "You are Peter the rock and on this rock I will build my church." And then Jesus gave him the keys to the kingdom and so on. If you go into St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, you would see how this has been established very clearly. In the circle in the dome over the main alter in letters that must be five or ten feet high, it says clearly, "Tu es Petrus" and so on. "You are Peter and on you I have built my church." That's been the tradition for a long time, and it's a tradition that gives us a papacy or a pope that has what we call "supreme jurisdiction" in the church.
The pope is, in fact, according to church law, in charge of every parish in every country in the whole world. The pope is the pastor of this parish. He has jurisdiction over this parish, every parish, everywhere in the world. The pope appoints every bishop. The pope appoints every cardinal. The pope has the power to judge. For example, some of the cases, those terrible cases involving the clergy sex scandal, have been taken to Rome for the pope to judge. The pope makes law all by himself. When we want to change how to elect the pope, he decided it and that's it. That's the kind of jurisdiction that has come to be attached to the papacy. He's the supreme ruler, the supreme judge and supreme legislator.
But a surprising thing about this interpretation of this passage is that it was not the interpretation of this Gospel until the fourth century. I think this is significant. It was in the fourth century that the Roman Emporer Constantine granted approval to the church and then the church began to modeled itself on the Roman Empire. The pope became like the emperor who had supreme power in every area. He could legislate. He could rule. He could judge. He could appoint. He could dismiss. The pope became like that, and that was kind of , well, sanctified I guess you might say in the First Vatican Council. The First Vatican Council spoke about the supreme jurisdiction of the pope over the whole church in the whole world. But that was an incomplete council.
If you look into the scripture, you will see quickly why there were other interpretations of this passage. Just a couple of chapters later in Matthew's Gospel -- what we read today is from the 16th chapter -- but in the 18th chapter you hear Jesus saying to all the disciples, to the whole church gathered around him: "I say to you, whatever you bind on earth, heaven will keep bound; whatever you unbind on earth, heaven will keep unbound." It is the whole church that receives that jurisdiction. It's the whole community of disciples.
That is emphasized in a different way, but a very clear way in John's Gospel. At the end of that Gospel -- again a passage that we're very familiar with -- Jesus confers what we might call a role of leadership on Peter. It's that part where Jesus says, "Peter, do you love me?" He says, "Yes, I love you." Then he says, "Feed my lambs." Then: "Peter, do you love me?" "Yes, I love you." "Feed my sheep." Then a third time Jesus says, "Do you really love me?" and Peter gets upset, "Yes, Lord. You know it! I love you!" Jesus says, "Feed my sheep." Notice in that passage, Jesus was not talking about ruling. Peter was going to have a role of leadership, but it was the leadership of nurturing, of loving, of trying to draw people into life. That's what a real leader in the church is. It's done through the magnificent power of love and love alone. And Jesus insists, "They are my sheep. The church is my church." It's not the pope's church. It belongs to Jesus, and all of us are part of that church.
Other interpretations of today's passage give us a real clear direction on how we should respond, I think, to our readings this morning. One came in late in the Middle Ages; it is very good for us, but its not the one I want to concentrate. In that interpretation, people thought the rock that Jesus is talking about, the rock upon which he was building the church was himself. Jesus was the rock, Jesus was the cornerstone, as we hear in the Psalms, the one on whom the whole church depends.
An earlier, perhaps the first understanding of this passage, is that Peter is a type. Peter stands for every Christian. To every Christian, Jesus is saying, to every one of us, "You are rock and on this rock I build my church." Another interpretation that came about the same time in the Eastern church is that the rock Jesus was talking about is faith. It's the faith of the people, the faith of Peter, but the faith of every one of us upon which Jesus builds his church. That shows how important each of us is, how important it is that each of us takes in deeply this mystery that we reflected upon last week, if you remember, that Jesus is fully human and fully God. That's what Peter said to him, "You are the Christ, the messiah, the son of the living God." As messiah, Jesus was human; he was part of the family of David. Peter could discover that without any special revelation. Jesus had descended from David, and he was now the messiah and being revealed as the messiah. But it was even more important what Jesus said, "Blessed are you Simon Peter, because you also recognize that I am the son of God." That's the thing that only God could reveal.
What a blessing it is for every one of us. We're here because God has revealed to us that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah, but also that Jesus is the son of God. We know Jesus as son of God and son of Mary. Our responsibility is to keep on deepening that faith, to hold it firmly, strengthen it, knowing that Jesus is messiah and son of God.
It is interesting and encouraging, I think, that this is one of the things that, obviously, is very important to Pope Benedict. In the homily that he gave at the conclave before he was elected*, he focused on the call to all Christians to become adults, true adults in the faith. He says, "We are called beyond the infancy in faith characterized by being swept along by every wind of teaching." He describes the foundation of a mature adult faith, but he does not mention anything about doctrinal orthodoxy or submission to the magisterium. He simply called for a faith deeply rooted in friendship with Jesus: "It is this faith and only this which creates unity and takes form in love." Pope Benedict is urging us not to judge others as not being worthy of being Christian and so on, not to rule people out, but rather to draw in and to build unity, because we build unity on our faith in Jesus who is son of God and son of Mary. And it becomes a very mature faith.
Well, that is something we have to keep deepening, keep praying for, blessing God for the gift that we have it, thanking God and asking God to deepen that faith within us, building our relationship with Jesus as our brother but also as the son of God in power. When we do this, we also will begin to realize that this gives us a responsibility.
As we become deeply rooted in faith in Jesus, as we come to know Jesus as son of God and the Messiah, the Christ, then we will also hear Jesus telling us what he told Peter as recorded in the Gospel of John. After he had told Peter, "Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep. Take a role of leadership," he said, "Follow me." Follow me. And he describes to Peter how in fact he will be put to death as a martyr. Just as Jesus was walking, going to Jerusalem to be tortured and crucified so was Peter. Jesus says, "Follow me." Jesus says to everyone of us, "Follow me. Once you have recognized me as son of God and as Messiah, son of Mary then you must follow me and carry on my work in the world."
If we all accept the fact that the church is built on the faith that we have within us then we will understand very clearly what is spoken to us in the Second Vatican Council, which completed the work of the first council. Where the first council concentrated on the pope as the head of the church, the second council concentrated on the whole people of God. And I remind you of this: the Second Vatican Council talking about the church says, "Everything which has been said so far concerning the people of God applies equally to the laity, religious and clergy. All are endowed with charisms for the upbuilding of the church. All share in the three fold office of Christ -- priestly, prophetical and royal. Among all the people of God, there is true equality, genuine freedom, a profound dignity, a global responsibility, a sense of vocation and a personal union with Jesus and his mission."
We are asked, if we really accept what this Gospel is telling us today-- that the church is built on our faith, on our understanding of Jesus as Messiah and son of God -- we are being asked now to follow Jesus, to follow Jesus to carry out his mission in the world. I might remind us of something that comes from the first lesson today: The reason that Shebna was removed from office was because he failed to truly trust in God and to follow where God was leading. What Shebna wanted to do, and Isaiah had preached against this, was enter into an alliance and carry out a war against the Assyrian power which was threatening the chosen people. Instead of trusting in God, he wanted to trust in human power, in arms, and do to war. Isaiah rebuked him, and he lost his office. He was failing to follow God and to follow the covenant that the people had entered into. Well, the same thing is true for us. If we are going to follow Jesus, we have to live according to the way of Jesus. We have to reject violence and hatred and war and hatred of enemy and so on. We have to follow his way in order to carry out his mission, in order to bring his peace and his love, his kingdom into our world.
Today as we reflect on our scriptures, I hope that each of us will pray for a deeper understanding and awareness of Jesus as son of God and son of Mary. Make that the foundation of our faith, and then our faith will be the rock on which our church will be built. We'll continue to grow and spread the word of Jesus in the world. If each of us carries out our task, responds and follows Jesus, the work of Jesus will finally be done. We will have the reign of God present in our world. We pray that that will happen through the efforts of every one of us and become a deeply believing person, a rock on which the church can be built.
In the name of father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(*Editor's Note: The full text of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's homily at the opening of the conclave is available in the Special Documents section of NCRonline.org: Conclave Homily, April 18, 2005.)
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