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The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 27, 2017


     Have you just about had it with politics these days? I know I have. They are wearying and they seem inescapable. I couldn’t even escape them in today’s readings because they brought to mind current headlines and op-eds – filled as they are with stories that expose the down side of our treasured democratic system – the hopeless divisions, the petty partisanship, the political stalemates, the name-calling, the absence of truth-telling, the entrenched extremism, the confusing and questionable leadership.

     But how does any of that connect with today’s readings? Well, both the reading from Isaiah and the reading from Matthew’s gospel dealt with issues related to those – issues like election to office, fitness for office, the handing on of power, and the exercise of office. The similarity ends there, however, because neither of the readings reflect the kind of world we live in today.  The world in which Isaiah was prophesying and the world of Jesus didn’t have to deal with the messiness of democracy. Eliakim, master of the palace in the reading from Isaiah, received his high office directly from God, and Peter got his directly from Jesus.  Not surprisingly, that eliminated a whole lot of problems!

     But, relax! That’s as much as I’m going to say about politics this morning. I’m just happy if I got your attention! I’m far more interested in talking about Peter than I am about politics - Peter, who, if you’ve been following the Sunday readings, enjoys a high profile in Matthew’s gospel.  Today, Peter gets the highest profile possible. In fact, it could be said that, when Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon, Son of Jonah,” he was pronouncing a ‘ninth Beatitude!’

     This particular passage from Matthew’s gospel is foundational for understanding the key role Peter was given among the Twelve, the pivotal role Jesus gave him for the leadership and building up of the Church. The entire passage bears exploring. It begins with Jesus putting two questions to his disciples. First, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The disciples answered that one well. They reported that people saw him as standing in the great tradition of the prophets (“some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets”). But Jesus’ follow-up question was far more personal and probing: “And you,” he said, “who do you say that I am?”

     Peter, ever the extrovert and, in this case, the inspired extrovert, was the one to answer the question: “You are the Christ,” he said, “the Son of the living God!”  And for that answer, this appealing, lovable, ever-so-human fisherman-turned-follower got his name changed from Simon to Peter, or Rock.  He became the rock on which Christ would build his Church.

     But Peter wasn’t always a rock, as you well know. It’s true that at one moment Peter could soar to the heights with inspired professions of faith like “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” and “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life!” and “Even though all desert you I will never desert you!” – Peter could soar to the heights but at the next moment he could sink to the depths.  In fact, in the verses which immediately follow today’s gospel reading, Jesus calls Peter a “Satan” and a stumbling block, and tells him to get out of his way, to get behind him!

     Peter will always be the perfect embodiment of the way God uses weak, flawed humans to achieve divine purposes.  Peter is not only the rock on which the Church is built, he is the also an image of the Church in all its humanness. So much of what Peter was, the Church is. And, of course, we are the Church….

     My friends, we should find it encouraging to see what Jesus was able to do through Peter despite his obvious flaws. Peter is a sign of hope for us all.  Like him, most of us live somewhere between absolutely affirming Jesus and deliberately denying him. Like him, too, we have to find an answer to that great question of Jesus: “And you, who do you say that I am?”  How we answer that question will make all the difference.

     There is a wonderful story about St. Peter that is more legend than gospel. It’s one of those things that should have happened if it didn’t. During the Emperor Nero’s persecution, Peter saw that he was in mortal danger and decided to get out of Rome while the getting was good.  As he fled from the city along the Appian Way he ran right into Jesus who was headed in the opposite direction – toward Rome.  In this story, unlike today’s gospel story, it is Peter who puts a question to Jesus: “Domine, quo vadis?” (“Where are you going, Lord?”), and Jesus answers, “I am going to Rome to be crucified.” Peter, chastened, turned on his heels and headed back to Rome.  To be crucified.

     Of course, my friends, that story exists only in legend. Peter may never have put that question to Jesus.  But today’s gospel question is anything but legend.  It is real – very real.  “You, who do you say that I am?”  It is a question we answer many times over a lifetime, a question we answer again and again by the way we live our lives: the values we espouse, the ethics we embrace, the justice we champion, the politics we profess, and the causes we support. It’s also a question we answer every time we come here to celebrate the Eucharist. And the answer we give to it will be our key to the kingdom of heaven!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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