Sunday June 29, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
Reading I (Acts 12:1-11) Reading II (2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18)
Gospel (St. Matthew 16:13-19)
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus takes His disciples to a place called Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is a city way in the north of Israel. It is stationed at the foot of Mount Hermon. Mount Hermon is the place where the Jordan River begins. The snow on the top of the mountain melts and goes down through the crevices in the mountain underground and then comes up in hundreds and hundreds of little springs. But there is one particular spring there that is gushing and goes right underneath a cave. That place where Jesus took His disciples was also a pagan shrine. There is a huge cliff that is right there along the mountain, and the pagans had carved lots of niches into this cliff that was there. They had all their statues of their little false gods, and people would come from all over the place to be able to pay homage to their false gods.
And so in this place with many false gods, Jesus brings His disciples and asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” First, He asks, “Who do people say that I am?” and then asks His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” He brings them to this place to ask that question because the answer is really going to be precisely what occurs at that place. The answer was “Some people say you are John the Baptist, others Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” In other words, they did not recognize that He was God, but maybe they thought He was some sort of a false god just like all the statues in the niches that were there. Then He asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” And when Peter comes out with the truth and says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus proclaims him blessed and tells Peter that he did not understand this on his own, but rather he had received this revelation from God our heavenly Father.
What Jesus then tells Peter is very important. He says to him, “You are rock – You are Peter – and on this rock I will build My Church, and the jaws of hell will not prevail against it.” Now in order to understand that, we have to keep in mind that, first of all, there is only one person in the Old Testament who is ever called a rock. It is not the average name that we would give to our kids. Cephas is the Hebrew, Petra is the Greek, and that is where we get the name Peter from, but it means “a rock”. There is only one person in the Old Testament who is ever called a rock, and that is God. In the New Testament, other than Peter there is only one person, and that is Jesus. He is called the stumbling stone; He is called the cornerstone; He is called the capstone. And then there is Peter.
When we look at Peter elsewhere, we see that he is also a shepherd. Jesus tells Peter to feed His sheep and tend His lambs and so on. But Jesus, we are told, is the Good Shepherd. Peter also is given the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. The keys are the symbol of the prime minister, the man who would run the day-to-day life of the kingdom. Jesus is the King, in fact, King of kings and Lord of lords. But to Peter He has entrusted a share in that office of running the kingdom, the Church, the kingdom of God on earth. And so we see then that God is the Shepherd, God is the King, God is the Rock; but Peter is given a share in all three of these offices. Peter, needless to say, is not God. He proved that rather well on several occasions, if there was any question that anybody had. But the Lord gives him a share in His own work and in His own offices, giving to Peter a share in the very authority of the Lord Himself, so much so, and so clear that it is God Who is going to work through this man, that God makes Himself obedient to a human being. Consider that. He says to Peter, “Whatever you hold bound on earth will be held bound in Heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth will be declared loosed in Heaven.” God makes Himself obedient to a man, which makes it pretty evident that it is not Peter operating on his own; but rather, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter is going to be led in the decisions that he makes. The office of the prime minister is also one of succession, which is why we have an unbroken chain of succession from Peter to John Paul II.
But to get back to the point about the question and the importance of what Peter had said, Jesus then follows up by saying that the jaws of hell (or the gates of hell) will not prevail against the Church. As I mentioned earlier, there is a cave that is right there, a natural cave right in this cliff at Caesarea Philippi. In the time of Jesus, the cave had no floor. It does now because of an earthquake that filled it in, but at the time of Jesus there was no floor in this cave. There was rushing water, thousands of gallons of water per minute rushing through the floor of the cave. The ancients had tried to plumb the depths of the cave and could never find the bottom. Several people had fallen into the water and were never seen again. Therefore, the ancient people believed that this cave was the mouth of hell; it was the jaw of the netherworld; it was the place where there was no bottom. Right in front of the cave, about 10 or 20 yards, is a huge boulder about 10 feet in diameter, and if one stands back across from where the Jordan River comes out, it looks like the cave is a huge mouth that is about to devour this rock that is right in front of it. So as you look at it, the cave is to your left and all these little false shrines are to your right, and there is Jesus telling us very clearly that everything that is false is not of Him and that the devil seems to get along very well with all of the little false gods but the jaws of hell are only doing battle against one, and that is the rock that is right in front of the mouth of the cave.
Now it is interesting even in that context to look at the other two readings that we have: Peter, who is thrown into prison, and we are told that the gates opened all by themselves; and Paul telling us that he was saved from the mouth of the lion so that he could preach the Gospel. We see even on the natural level the way that this statement of Jesus is fulfilled in the lives of His saints, that the gates and the jaws do not prevail against His Church, even though both Peter and Paul were ultimately martyred. In Saint John’s Gospel, when Jesus told Peter how he was going to be martyred, Saint John makes the statement that Jesus said this to tell Peter the means by which he would glorify God in his death. And so it was not that the jaws of hell finally prevailed against Peter, but rather it was the ultimate act of love and it was Peter’s ultimate triumph over the powers of hell. The same is true of Saint Paul, who tells us that it was now the time for his departure. He had been poured out as a libation; there was nothing left. He had run the race, he had fought the fight, he had kept the faith.
Many non-Catholics like to look at that passage and the passage that follows immediately after with Saint Paul telling us that what awaits him now is a crown of righteousness that the Lord will give to him. They say, “See! Saint Paul knew that he was going to be saved.” At the time of his death Saint Paul knew he was going to be saved. If you look at his Letter to the Philippians in Chapter 3, Saint Paul says, “I pummel my body lest after having preached to others I myself might be lost.” Saint Paul was not running around confident of his salvation, but rather it is Saint Paul himself who says, “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” That does not sound like a man who says, “As long as you believe that Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior you’re in! You can do anything you want; you’re going straight to Heaven!” Saint Paul would be the first to condemn such an idea. But by the end of his life, after he had been stoned, beaten, whipped, shipwrecked, and all kinds of other things that he lays out for us in 2 Corinthians, then he can say that he has kept the faith, he has fought the fight, he has run the race. He was faithful to the Lord.
When we look at our own selves, we have to admit that many Catholics have been badly, badly affected by this Protestant idea that as long as you believe in Jesus there is no suffering. “Jesus did it all for you. As long as you believe in Jesus, the only reason you would suffer is because God is angry at you. You must have sinned; you must have done something really bad for God to be so angry that you would have to suffer.” Now I simply point out to you our two saints for today and ask the simple question: Is glorifying God in one’s death because God is angry at you? Is being thrown in prison and having an angel sent to release you (only after he had been there for a while and it was the day before trial – it is not that Peter was thrown into prison and minutes later God released him) because God is angry at you? I do not think so. This is the same Peter who tells us that we should rejoice whenever we suffer because it helps our faith to grow. Peter did not say, “If you’re suffering, it’s because God hates you.” Rather, it is because God loves you.
What God promised even to His Church was not “As long as you are the Church that I have founded, the new people of God, the new Israel, you are free from all suffering because I am the foundation of this Church.” No, all that He promised the Church is that the jaws of hell would not prevail. He did not say that the Church would not suffer or would not be persecuted. In fact, He told us precisely and explicitly that that would happen. “If they hate you it is because they hated Me first. Men will persecute you, they will manhandle you, and they will drag you into court. Rejoice on that day.” That is what we have to be doing. Saint Peter himself tells us that when we suffer for doing what is right it is then that the Holy Spirit in His fullness has descended upon us.
The Church is Jesus Christ and the Church will be crucified. The Church must undergo the Passion and the death in order to enter into the Resurrection. We, as members of the Church, have to share in the Passion and death of Our Lord as well. We must understand that is what is required of us. It is not optional for a Christian person whether or not they want to suffer. If you can look at Jesus Christ when He asks you the question that He asked Saint Peter – “Who do you say that I am?” – if you can respond, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” then not only does Jesus pronounce you blessed but He is going to give to you a share in His own life, in His own suffering, in His own death. It is by this means that you will glorify Him, and with Saint Paul we will be able to say, “God has stood by me through all of the sufferings.”
God will not abandon you. It feels like it sometimes. Jesus, from the Cross, even intoned Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” God never abandoned Him; He was God. How could God abandon Himself? But it feels that way. That is when our faith is being tested, and that is when we have to rise to the challenge. Not alone, because we cannot, but with the help of God, with the grace of God, Who stands by us through every suffering and every trial to free us so that we will be able to continue to proclaim the Gospel by our words and by our actions.
When we consider the two saints whom we celebrate today, that is the example that they give to us. It is also the teaching that they give to us very clearly in their letters, Saint Paul even stating in one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture: “I make up in my body for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church.” This is not a man who thought that suffering was a punishment from God, but a man who recognized that suffering was the means by which we will glorify God. The Lord looks at each one of us today, and, in the midst of our neopagan society with all the false gods that are being held up before us, He says, “Who do people say that I am?” We can say, “Some people say that you’re a nice guy. Some people say that you’re a prophet. Some people say that you are an ascended master. Some say you are a guru.” “And you,” He will say, “who do you say that I am?” The answer that you give to Jesus Christ is the answer that will define your life. Consider your answer. Consider what it means for you, and then with your whole heart and soul and strength answer Him clearly: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.