Sermon for Trinity 11 – High Mass Sunday 27 August 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Trinity 11 (Confession of Peter)
There was a furore in a rural RC diocese in Australia a few years ago about the retreat style of a priest who was leading groups of final year students from school and university undergraduates. On Friday night, as he began the retreat, he would tell the young people that by the end of the weekend they should make a decision about their Christian faith. Given that these were all children of observant Catholic families, already communicants at Mass, the parents were not happy. In response to many complaints he insisted that at this stage of their lives these young people were confronted with all sorts of decisions about career, lifestyle, residence, studies, relationships. If their commitment to their faith was not presented to them as at least as important as those decisions, why should they take it as seriously. He argued that they had been given the basis of choice; now they should be trusted to make it (remembering, of course, that the door always remains open to those who reject what is offered, unlike many other life choices). The entire retreat was based on the question in today’s gospel – ‘who do you say that I am?’
There are two great themes in the gospels, both insufficiently reflected in the cliché Christianity of the media. One is the reversal of taboos, which we would probably call inclusion; we heard about that last week in the story of Jesus’ healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter. The other is recognition: acknowledging who Jesus is, and not just saying it but acting on it. This one is actually the gospel clincher. How we answer the question ‘who do you say I am’ is the key to whether or not we have become Christians as well as members of the Church.
The disciples, reflecting on their experiences with Jesus, offer various answers to the question, but it is Peter who says that Jesus is the revelation of God for the world. This is the great profession of faith, the foundation on which the church comes into being.
What was true then is true now. At some point, if we want our faith to move from being a code of law, a concept, a social construct, an aesthetic experience or a bundle of good ideas, toward something which informs who we are, we must take the faith of the church which has nurtured us and make it our own. In doing so, when we encounter Christ, we contribute to the re-founding of the church in our generation.
Matthew embeds Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God in the being of the church. To put that another way, in Matthew’s narrative the recognition of who Jesus is has special significance for who the Church is. (The only appearances of the word “church” in any of the Gospels are in Matt. 16:18 and 18:17.)
What can be said about the church from this text?
First, the church is rooted in the confession of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God. What makes Peter and the church so special is nothing inherent in either, not their brilliance or their faithfulness, not their cunning or their courage. Almost in his next breath Peter shows himself guilty of such gross misunderstanding that Jesus calls him “Satan” (16:22–23), and the church proves no more insightful than Peter. And yet both remain special. They draw their distinctiveness from the recognition of Jesus.
What’s more, the insight about Jesus comes as an event of divine revelation. The passage makes it very clear that Peter does not reason his way to the acknowledgment of who Jesus is. Sound logic could never arrive at the conclusion that this one destined for the cross was acting out his proper role as Son of God. Such knowledge comes only as a divine gift. Grace comes before, and leads to, theological orthodoxy.
Second the church is entrusted with the keys to God’s reign, symbolizing the ultimate victory over death. The graphic verbs “bind” and “loose” (16:19) tantalize. Whatever their origin, they conjure up the notions of restraining this person or freeing that person, of forbidding this action or permitting that action. They describe the functions of “keys” in excluding or admitting people to God’s reign. Since they are backed with the authority of heaven, they are not functions to be taken lightly. Peter initially carries the “keys,” but in the light of Matt. 18:18 (a passage about church discipline, where the same binding and losing power is conferred on all who are listening) the keys are democratized and given to the whole church: Peter’s faith, and the charism of alternative leadership, is not his alone. Pope Francis seems to have noticed.
The “keys” become weapons of war in the struggle with the forces of death. Death is a powerful antagonist, with an array of tactics, mocking and intimidating the reality of life, but death fights with one hand tied behind its back. It has no access to the rule of God. Whatever the church binds, death cannot loosen, and whatever the church loosens, death cannot bind. Death is destined to lose, because its opponent has been given the decisive weapon. And it is Peter’s forceful and direct speaking of what he sees, his ‘confession’ or public ‘recognition’ which elicits this good news.
It is good to remember that we might be the only face of Christianity that another person encounters. The way in which we bind them or set them free in that encounter will be the measure by which they judge whether the church is the face of Christ now, and whether they can find a home with us.
On the Feast of the Assumption Fr Richard Peers urged us love the Lord as Mary did, and does. It all hinges on that great question, ‘who do you say that I am?’ How we answer that question reveals whether Christ is an idea of which we patronisingly approve, or the object of our passion.