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The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 23, 2020

Click here to watch Father Ryan give this homily. The homily begins at 31:55.


    It’s hard, isn’t it, to escape politics these days! So, in the midst of two national political conventions and the seemingly endless lead-up to the election, it’s probably not surprising that politics came to mind as I reflected on today’s readings. Maybe you noticed that both the reading from Isaiah and the reading from Matthew’s gospel dealt with elections: election to high office, removal from office, fitness – or unfitness – for office, the handing over of power. Neither of the readings, of course, reflected the kind of world we live in today so we were happily spared the downside of democracy with its political infighting, petty partisanship, posturing, name-calling, fake news, and the search for leadership we can trust.

     Instead of all that, we got, in the readings, two very straightforward elections, two very straightforward conferrals of power: Eliakim, who succeeded the disgraced royal official, Shebna, received his mantle of power directly from God, and Peter got his power, his mission, directly from Jesus. No room for messy politics in either case!

     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 very 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 far more 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 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?”  We will never deal with a more important question than that one. Never!    Which brings me to a wonderful story about St. Peter that is legend, not gospel. Think of it as one of those things that should have happened even if it didn’t. During the Emperor Nero’s persecution, it seems that 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 met Jesus who was headed in the opposite direction – toward Rome.  In this story, unlike today’s gospel story, Peter, not Jesus, does the questioning: “Domine, quo vadis?” he asks. “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. 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 must answer many times over a lifetime. We answer it not so much with words as by the way we live our lives, by the values we espouse, the ethics we embrace, the justice we champion, the politics we profess, and the candidates and causes we choose to support. And, yes, it’s also a question we answer every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. Our answer to the question, if it’s courageous and if it costs us, will be our key to the kingdom of heaven!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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