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The 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 27, 2023

Watch this homily! (Begins at 33:30)

    As I reflected on today’s readings, I couldn’t help but think about our rather dismal, dysfunctional national political landscape. Not the happiest or holiest of thoughts, to be sure (!), but since the readings from Isaiah and Matthew’s gospel both deal with removal from office, the conferral of high office, and the handing over of power to govern, I found myself comparing our nation’s endangered electoral processes with the clean and efficient way Eliakim, the royal official, was elected - and Peter, the apostle, too. Both received high office and were given the keys of power with dispatch and directness. Any way you look at it, our elections are a whole lot messier! 

     Don’t worry, though. I’m not going to talk election politics this morning, but I couldn’t resist the reference if for no other reason than I thought it might get your attention!

     What I do want is to zero in on St. Peter who, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, enjoys a high profile in Matthew’s gospel. In today’s passage, Peter gets the highest profile possible. In fact, it could be said that, in Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you, Simon, Son of Jonah,” Matthew has almost given us 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 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 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 know very well. 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 behind him, to get out of his way!

     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 look at Peter and see what Jesus was able to do through him with all his 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, that story exists only in legend. Peter probably never 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 in a lifetime, a question we answer every time we celebrate and receive the Eucharist. And the answer we give is our key to the kingdom of heaven!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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