Deacon Cornell’s Homily


Isaiah 22:19-23
Romans 11:33-36
Matthew 16:13-20


August 24-25, 2002 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.” One of the commentators on this passage says that writers through the centuries have delighted in the fact that something as great and significant as the Church was founded with a pun! The pun is a little more obvious in Greek: You are Petros and upon this petra I will build my Church. In Aramaic, the language Jesus almost surely spoke these words in, it is even better because both words would be kepa.

“You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” Several times during the dialogue that took place at Eileen Snow’s sessions on the role of the faithful, Eileen responded to a question or expression of concern about the current crisis in the Church by citing this promise, or the similar one in the last verse of Matthew that Jesus would be with us until the end of time. And several times, I could almost feel a palpable wave of skepticism from several people. If the gates of hell are not to prevail against the rock why is all this happening to us now.

I would suggest that to understand that we have to look at what follows this short reading as well as doing a little work with what we have heard. Especially that last verse when Jesus orders the disciples to tell no one he is the Christ.

First of all, Jesus singles out Peter not because of anything that Peter has done to merit being singled out. He singles out Peter because the Father has chosen to reveal to Peter, the truth of who Jesus is. So Peter is not chosen because he is worthy; he is worthy because he has been chosen. The same is true of the Church built on this rock. The Church is not chosen by God to bring the message of God’s salvation to the world because the Church has somehow earned being chosen. The Church is worthy to bring the message of salvation to the world because God has chosen it for that purpose.

And Jesus does not make this statement about building his Church on this rock who is Peter thinking that Peter will never stumble or make a mistake. Just a few verses later, when Jesus makes his first prediction of his passion, it is Peter who tries to deny this reality, causing Jesus to call him Satan and to change his title of rock into stumbling block. But he still sticks with Peter. He sticks with Peter after seeing Peter run away in fear from the Garden of Gethsemane and deny Jesus three times. And Peter, with Jesus’ help, finally does live up to his chosen-ness but only as he is dying, nailed upside down to a cross in Rome.

So if we are hoping that when Jesus said he would found his Church upon this rock and the gates of hell would not prevail against it, he meant that the Church (and its members) would always say and do the right thing, we are bound to be scandalized and thrown into confusion by what is happening in the Church today.

Second, I always had a problem with the statement of Jesus that he “will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  To me that meant that Jesus was giving Peter and the Church the power to tell God (heaven) what to do. Why on earth or in heaven would he do that, knowing how unreliable human beings are? As I read this passage over and over again, and finally went to my interlinear translation of the Gospels, I saw a whole different way of understanding this passage. The Greek words that are translated here as “shall be bound in heaven” and “shall be loosed in heaven” are forms of the verb that imply past completion. The literal translation in my book was “shall be having been bound in heaven”, and “shall be having been loosed in heaven”. The sense I get from that is not Peter or his successors making a decision here on earth and that causes that to happen in heaven, but rather a promise that when Peter or his successors make a decision of importance here on earth, that Jesus will be there to guide that decision so that it is made in harmony with what is already true in heaven. It is not God letting the Church drive around wherever she wants and then saying that that was the right way, but Jesus promising to always be whispering the right directions in the Church’s ear. And then when the Church makes a wrong turn, staying right with her and giving her new directions to get back on track.

For me, the key to all of this is that “Messianic Secret” expressed in the last line of today’s reading. Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about him being the Christ because he knows that no one can even begin to understand who Jesus really is as the Christ, until they see him die on the cross. Without a deep understanding of the suffering and death on the cross, we cannot know who Jesus is. We cannot know who we are as Church until we understand the suffering part. As Church we are the sacrament of Christ on earth. In other words, we are called to make Christ visible, tangible, incarnate, here on earth. We cannot understand this call unless we understand that it is a call to suffering, as well as a call to resurrection.

I don’t pretend to understand God’s inscrutable judgments or unsearchable ways but I know that his word is always trustworthy. I know that because I have experienced it in my own life as well as in scripture and tradition.

Jesus said he will be with us always, and that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church built on the foundation of the rock he chose, chosen not because the rock is perfect or without sin, but worthy because Jesus chose him. I trust that. I also trust that in our current suffering we can be configured more closely to Christ whose body we are. I don’t like that but I trust that.

So as we approach this table of Eucharist, of thanksgiving, even if we are in pain or are confused or uncertain, let us give thanks to God for the promise of Jesus to be with us forever. And buoyed by that promise let us say with Paul, “To God be glory forever. Amen”

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