Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 25, 2002
St. Martin de Porres Church
(Based on Is 22:15, 19-23; Ps 138:1-2,2-3,6,8; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20)
When you reach a certain age -- alright, when you get to be my age -- you find that you remember some things from the past but can't remember how they were called.
I recall there was a TV program on which the host would address someone on the panel and give them a clue from the life of some famous person. The panel's job was to identify the person, using more and more hints from the host. It was kind of like the game we played as kids: "you're getting warm -- now you're getting colder. . ."
In today's Gospel we see an exchange like that between Jesus and his disciples. "Who am I?"
When I was growing up, this passage was brought up as a way to give Catholics certitude that we were right and the Protestants were wrong. You see, they believed in 'private interpretation' of Scripture, but we had the church -- and the pope! -- to give us the right answers. The text was used to prove, not only that the Lord would protect the church from failing but also that Peter was 'the first pope'. And even his infallibility. It was as if Matthew had said, "Oh, you need to defend the church against the Protestants? Well, I can include a story that will help you." (Remember, it's one of only two places in all the Gospels that the word 'church' appears. Jesus didn't preach church, he preached his Father's kingship.)
That way of looking at the passage put all the focus on what people thought the content of the promise was. It took the focus away from Jesus and what he was doing here. What's really going on here, and what we need to pray about, is Jesus' way of forming his disciples.
If it's about church structures, it's 'out there', at arm's length. Whereas the exchange with Peter brings it much closer to home. Because in a sense it's not just about the first disciples, it's about you and me; it's about Jesus' way of forming us.
He starts out the conversation by asking a question that is really about reputation. What are they saying about me? What's the buzz on the street?
It's the level of conversation we might have in the barbershop or at the laundromat. What are people saying about [mayor] Charley Luken, or [new city manager] Valerie Lemmie or [boycott organizer] Damon Lynch?
And there are a lot of different answers. It's like a public opinion poll. If Matthew were writing today, he might have written, "Well, 47% think you're Elijah; 15% think you're Jeremiah; 7% think you're one of those also-rans among the prophets. The rest are undecided; and the margin of error is ± 5 %."
But Jesus is dealing with disciples, and so he raises the ante: what do you believe? It's personal, it gets to the commitment question. What are you willing to stake your life on? It begins to pinch: as if Jesus were saying, "I don't want to hear about 'they', or 'everybody says'." The question is really: what have you experienced? What do I mean to you? We can't hide within the crowd, that game is over. It's a personal matter. Where do you stand? Where do I stand?
There is an irony in all this. In spite of Peter's profession and Jesus' acknowledgment of it, Peter doesn't really know what he is professing so clearly! Oh, he's got the words, the language: 'messiah', 'son of God'. He gets them from the Israelite tradition. But in that tradition the image behind the term 'messiah' was mainly that of a warrior/hero/savior/liberator. It was surrounded with glory.
In the passage that immediately follows the Gospel passage we read today, we hear how far off Peter was:
From then on Jesus [the Messiah] started to indicate to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly there at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and to be put to death, and raised up on the third day. At this, Peter took him aside to rebuke him. -- One of the most amazing lines in the Gospel: Peter telling Jesus he was wrong! -- "God forbid that any such thing ever happen to you!" Jesus turned on Peter and said, "Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are trying to make me trip and fall. You are not judging by God's standards but by man's."
Jesus is speaking of suffering and Peter says, "No way!"
Now the prophetic tradition did have images of a messiah who would suffer. Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke of a mysterious 'suffering servant'. But people, including Peter, didn't want to think about that part of the tradition.
I am reminded of something I might have mentioned here before; even if I have, it's worth repeating. Back in the 60's a Lutheran Gospel-singer wrote a song called "That's What I Don't Like About Jesus." In each verse he would describe some attitude of contemporary Christians, and then he would come in with a driving chorus: That's what I don't like about Jesus! In one verse a man expects God to less all his money-making; then "I read in the Gospel how Jesus says it's hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom -- and That's what I don't like about Jesus! In another the Christian says he's against all this drinking and partying in; and he reads that Jesus wined and dined, and That's what I don't like about Jesus! But then in the final verse the writer says it's easy to mock other people's ideas about Jesus, 'but then I read he climbed a hill and died, and That's what I don't like about Jesus!
We all have our own Jesus, the one we've grown comfortable with. Perhaps it's the Jesus who is meek and humble of heart, or the one who says his yoke it easy and his burden light. That's OK, it's where we are. But it isn't the full truth, with a capital T. Jesus doesn't blame Peter for having a limited sense of what kind of messiah he would be; he couldn't know the whole truth until after the experience of the Risen Christ. But what he does heap withering scorn on Peter for presuming to tell Jesus how it is to be done. In our second reading Paul asks "Who has known the mind of God? Or who has been his counselor?" Peter dares to give counsel to the Lord.
It's all about Jesus the master spiritual director, the master educator. He does the same thing at the last supper. Philip is excited because he thinks this is the big show, the big moment: "Lord, is this the time you will show us the Father?" Jesus says with some sadness and even frustration, "Philip, how long have you been with me and you still don't know that the one who sees me sees the Father?" He tries the same approach when Pilate asks, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Are you saying this on your own, or have others been telling you about me?" Pilate can't handle the question which would compel him to take a personal stance.
Jesus the spiritual director doesn't ask us to be where we're not ready to be. Peter answers from where he is, now. He is on a journey, as you and I are. There is more to learn. And he will ultimately learn the most from that greatest of teachers, personal failure and betrayal. He denies Christ and is brought to tears -- and he is finally converted and receives the strength to stake his life on the real Jesus, even to martyrdom.
Our God is patient. God is the Potter who is always experimenting, able to begin re-shaping the clay again. We have to grow in that same acceptance of ourselves -- but with honesty. We need to declare ourselves humbly, like the man who has asked the Lord for healing. When Jesus asks him if he believes, he says simply, "Lord, I do believe -- but help my unbelief. . . ."
In the crisis we face as a church because of the scandal of sexual misconduct of some of our priests and cover-up by some of our bishops, there are a lot of voices 'out there'. There is disillusionment, doubt, people saying they are leaving the church. I believe this can be a blessing, because it can make us ask ourselves what we really believe, what is the anchor of our faith, what's really important, what we can stake our lives on. Do we really put our faith in perfect priests, in all-wise bishops? But you, who do you say I am?
As we receive the Lord of life, the Lord who is Truth, the Lord whose way to the fullness of life is through betrayal and suffering and abandonment to death, let's ask for that kind of honest self-acceptance before our God: take me as I am, with my faith and my doubt, my hope and my darkness. Stay at my side the way you always have to this day, and lead me ever more deeply into the mystery of your totally free embrace of your creation.