August 21, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Isaiah 22:19-23) Reading II (Romans 11:33-36)
Gospel (St. Matthew 16:13-20)
In the readings today, we have certainly one of the most well-known of all the Gospel readings because of the simple line: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church. But there is much more in this particular Gospel that we need to be able to look at.
We are told, first of all, that Jesus brings His disciples up to the area of Caesarea Philippi. That area, which is at the base of Mount Hermon way up in the northern part of Israel, is the headwaters of the Jordan River. The Jordan River begins from underground springs due to the water that melts up on top of Mount Hermon and goes through the cracks in the mountain and then comes up through all of these springs in the ground. It is also a place where the pagans had shrines. Right there where the waters begin for the Jordan River, there is a cliff, a massive cliff. The pagans had built little niches in the cliff, and they had statues of all their little gods and goddesses. It was really a pantheon of sorts, that means “all the gods.” It was a place, therefore, where all of the pagan gods were all gathered in one place. This is where Jesus brings His disciples and then He looks at them and says, And who do you say that I am? They had to recognize that, regardless of what all the people said, He is God. Of course, it was Simon Peter who was able to make that profession, and Our Lord blessed him because this was not a recognition that was just human, but this was something that required divine revelation.
So we need to begin by asking ourselves the same question. Since we live in a neopagan society now, who do you say that Jesus Christ is? Number one, do you say that He is the Christ? “The Messiah,” “The Anointed One” is what that word means. Do you believe that He is the Savior of the world, and in particular the Savior of your own soul? Do you believe that He is God, the Second Person of the Trinity, Who through the divine condescension chose to come down in the depths of His humility and obedience to His heavenly Father to take flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and be born in the form of a human being?
If we are going to say that that is Who we believe He is – not just one of the prophets of old, not some false god, not anything other than Who He is, truly God and truly man – then we need to ask ourselves, “What are we doing with that?” It is one thing to know that He is God. So what? As Saint James says, Even the demons believe and they tremble. It is not enough just to know that He is God. If you know that He is God and you know that He died to save your soul then what are you doing about it? How are you changing your life to conform yourself to the mystery that you profess?
You see, this little question that Jesus asked His disciples He continues to ask us. I challenge you to go beyond your head and look into your heart. Look at Him right there in the Blessed Sacrament because right now He is saying to you: And who do you say that I am? Do not just give a flippant answer in your head, because we know you have been taught since you were a little kid, so you know in your head who you have been taught that He is – but in your heart, in your life, in the very depths of your being, who do you say that the Son of Man is?
We need to get the faith out of our heads in into our hearts. We need to have the objective knowledge but it needs to become subjective. If all we do is know the truth, we do not necessarily act upon it. We have to love the truth. The truth is a Person, so we can have a relationship, we can be in love with the truth in this case, not just know it. That question is critical for each and every one of us – Who do you say that the Son of Man is? – because the way we live our lives is going to depend upon how we answer that question. But the opposite is also true. We can look at the way we live our lives and everybody will be able to see how we have answered that question. Are we living a pagan life? Are we being just like everyone around us? Or are we living a life of faith in the Son of God, Who loved us and gave Himself for us? The lived-out reality of our lives is going to speak far louder than our words when it comes to the answering of this question.
Then Jesus goes on once this profession has been made and He looks at Saint Peter and says to him, You are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church. The word Peter means “rock.” The actual Greek word that means rock is petra, but the word Jesus uses here is petras. Petras is “a little rock,” “a stone.” That is because Jesus Himself is The Rock. If you look in the Old Testament, there is only one person who is ever called a rock, and that is God. So for Jesus to call Peter “the rock” is quite a statement; it tells us that he shares in the very authority of God Himself. This becomes evident in other places as well. Remember in the twenty-first chapter of Saint John, Jesus looks at Peter and says, Peter, do you love Me? When Peter acknowledges his love, He says, Feed My sheep, tend My lambs, and so on. Peter is the shepherd. But Jesus tells us in Saint John: I am the Good Shepherd. So Jesus is The Shepherd but Peter shares in the shepherding task of Our Lord.
Jesus is King of kings and He is Lord of lords. But what we have in the Gospel reading today is Our Lord giving to Saint Peter a share in His authority. The keys, as you see in the first reading from Isaiah, are the symbol of the prime minister. Just as in our military we can look upon the shoulder of an officer and we can tell the rank of that particular individual by looking at his shoulder rank, the symbol of his office, so it was in the ancient world. The man who wore two keys upon his shoulder was the prime minister. And as we see in the first reading, the keys indicate that he could open or close anything in the kingdom. The prime minister had the task of running the day-to-day life of the kingdom. The king had his own business that he had to take care of, so he entrusted the day-to-day duties to his prime minister (and that word means “the first among the ministers,” the highest of the persons in the kingdom). So Jesus is the King and Peter is the prime minister entrusted with the care of the day-to-day life of the kingdom of God, which is the Roman Catholic Church.
To Peter, then, is entrusted these keys. Now we could say, “But Peter died, so what about it?” Again, look at the first reading and you will see, as makes perfect sense, that the office of the prime minister is an office of succession. When someone is either deposed from that position or they die or retire, the keys are taken from the shoulders of that person and they are placed upon the shoulder of the successor. Today we have the 265th successor of Saint Peter, an unbroken chain of successors who sit upon the throne of Peter to run the day-to-day life of the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus is the King, but He has shared the authority of His office as king with the Holy Father. Jesus is The Shepherd, but He has shared once again the authority of His office with the Pope. The word pastor means “shepherd.” Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but the Holy Father is the pastor of the entire world. We see this authority, this sharing in God’s own authority, being the rock, being the shepherd, being the prime minister.
Then Jesus goes on, and we use different interpretations of the words, but He basically says not only that He is going to found His Church on the rock who is Saint Peter, but that the jaws of hell will never prevail against it. At the end of this particular cliff I was telling you about, where all the niches of the pagan gods were, there is a cave and the water coming down from the top of the mountain rushes underneath the cave. In the ancient world, there was no floor in that cave. The ancients had tried to plumb the depths of the cave by putting a rock on a rope and dropping it in, and they never found the bottom. Two people are known to have fallen into that particular cave and they were never seen again. Caught up in the water that was rushing through, of course, they would simply be pulled underneath by the current. But because they could not plumb the depths and these people had fallen in and they have never been seen, the people of old believed that that may have been the mouth to hell, that that was the opening on earth to the netherworld. Right in front of that cave, probably about twenty yards right in front of it, is a huge boulder that is about ten yards in diameter. If you stand across where the Jordan comes out and you align yourself accordingly, it looks like the cave is a huge mouth that is about to devour this boulder standing right in front of it. So there we have the jaws of hell and a rock right in front of it. This is the place where Jesus took His disciples to be able to say, You are the rock, and the jaws of hell are never going to prevail against My church.
That is a guarantee. This came from the mouth of God Himself. We know that no matter what happens, and we know that things are going to get pretty bad pretty quickly here, the jaws of hell will not prevail. We have the guarantee of Our Lord Himself. So now it comes right back to us. Once again, we need to look at our faith. And that profession of who Jesus is, first of all, because if we believe that He is the Son of God and He is the one who has founded the papacy on Saint Peter and his successors then that tells us this is not just a human institution. It is a divine institution and it is the only place where the fullness of truth is going to be found. So we can have the absolute certainty that as long as we remain united to the Vicar of Christ, the Holy Father in Rome, and as long as we remain faithful to the fullness of the teaching of the Church, that the jaws of hell will never prevail against us. That is quite a guarantee. It is a guarantee of eternal life, provided that we live what we profess.
As the Church prepares herself for a severe persecution, many are going to flee because they do not believe in their heart the reality of what Our Lord has given us. If we would ask, “Why would God allow His Church to be persecuted,” notice that He did not tell Peter that the jaws of hell would stay a mile away. He did not say, “The jaws of hell won’t even clamp down on you.” He said that they will not prevail. So there is going to be a battle. It is a battle for souls. It is a battle for your soul, as well as that of every other human being on the face of the earth. We have some choices to make. Are we going to remain faithful to Jesus? We have everything given to us to be able to guarantee it, provided that we choose it. When things got difficult, we notice that the disciples who were with Our Lord for those three years suddenly abandoned Him. We realize that we could do the same unless we are fully united to Our Lord, unless we love Him so much that we would not abandon Him no matter how bad it gets. If all we do is have the truth in our heads, we are going to run. But if we have the love in our hearts, we will remain faithful.
And so we come all the way back around: Who do you say that the Son of Man is? Ask that question in the depths of your soul and do not just give a quick answer. When you receive Holy Communion today, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Mary, is going to be right there inside of you. He is going to look at you and He is going to say to you individually, Who do you say that I am? With Our Lord in you right after Holy Communion, take some time and look seriously at that question. Make the answer with your whole being because the way you live your life in this world and where you will spend eternity is dependent upon your answer. It is not just a flippant answer that we can say, “Because I have been taught since I was a little kid, I know what the answer is.” We do know the answer; the question is, do we believe it? Who do you say that the Church of Jesus Christ is? Who do you say that the Vicar of Christ is? Who do you say that the Son of Man is?
***As it is rare for Father Altier to have a recorded homily on a Saturday, we would like to bring your attention to the fact that there was a homily posted yesterday, August 20. Please see August calendar.***
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.