The Rock of Peter
Twenty-First Sunday of the Year. Is 22:19-23; Ps 138:1-2.2-3.6.8; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20
Today's readings present us with two parallel texts about the papacy, the office of the successor of St Peter. In the Gospel, Peter publicly acknowledges Jesus to be the Christ, the ‘Son of the living God’. In reply, Jesus makes three promises. First he says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” Second, Jesus promises to give Peter ‘the keys to the kingdom of heaven’. Third, he promises that whatever he binds on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever he looses on earth shall be loosed in heaven. In the First Reading, which parallels the Gospel, God promises to fix Eliakim ‘like a peg in a sure spot’, to give him the key of the king's palace, and to give him the power to open and to shut. So in both readings we are presented with three important characteristics of this unique office bestowed on Peter and prefigured by Eliakim in the Old Testament: first, he will be stable like a rock or a peg in a sure spot; second, he will possess the key to the king's palace or the kingdom of heaven; third, he will have the power of judging, of binding and loosing, opening and shutting. It is these characteristics I would like to examine briefly in today's homily.
First, Peter is described as the rock upon which Christ will build his Church. Rock is, of course, a good foundation because it will not shift like sand when the rain and the floods come. This characteristic of being rock-like does not mean that either Peter or his successors will not weaken or sin personally. In the exercise of the office, however, the papacy will be a firm foundation for the Church. The Old Testament describes this characteristic as a kind of ‘anchor point’, a ‘peg in a sure spot’. To appreciate how important and necessary this office is, history has taught us that every alternative foundation for Christianity fails sooner or later. Protestant Christianity, for example, tries to rely on Scripture alone as the anchor point, but the many ways in which Scripture can be interpreted leads Protestant communities to fragment and often to be swept away by passing cultural fashions. There are now between 8,000 and 33,000 different Protestant congregations in the world precisely because Protestantism lacks a firm, unifying foundation. The Orthodox churches and Anglican communion have tried to rely on a Christian state as an ‘anchor point’, but Christian states frequently fail or apostatize. There is, for example, no more Christian emperor in Constantinople, there is no more Czar in Russia and in the modern world the English state frequently legislates against the natural law. So by trying to rely on a Christian state, Orthodoxy and Anglicanism also lack a firm foundation. The only ‘anchor point’ that will hold firm in every storm is the rock of Peter. This is why, as early as the second Christian century, St Irenaeus affirms that it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with the Church of Rome, on account of its ‘preeminent authority’ and its continuous ‘apostolic tradition’. Indeed, the list of Popes read in the First Eucharistic Prayer, “Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus,” is a list from St. Irenaeus of the first successors of St. Peter, a list that has continued on through twenty centuries to Pope Benedict XVI. Amid all the conflicts and turmoil of history, Christ has maintained the ministry of Peter, and Christ is still building his Church on this foundation.
Second, Peter is described as possessing the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The task of a key is, of course, to open a door, a door that leads in this case to the king's palace, the kingdom of heaven. Now a key is quite an intricate object, and only the precise shape of a particular key will open a particular door. What does this symbol mean? One possible interpretation is rooted in the complexity of the ways in which we sin. Human sin is like a kind of dark, tangled jungle. To unlock the door of the prison, to open the door to heaven, sins have to be identified either to be avoided or to be Confessed and forgiven. So the Church needs complex legislation to unlock the door, a complexity that will increase as human beings invent new ways of sinning. To give an example that might be amusing today, Pope Gregory IX had to declare officially that it is forbidden to Baptize using beer. Now this might seem a ridiculous law to have to make, but this law exists simply because some persons in the thirteenth century were stupid enough to try Baptizing using beer. Human beings sin in many ways, and the Church has to legislate in many ways to unlock the door of the prison. This is way, when people say that they find the Catholic Church too complicated, they fail to recognize that this complexity arises because sin is complicated. In our own age, for example, the Church continues to have to legislate on new situations concerning abortion, contraception, euthanasia and so on. In this dark, tangled jungle of sin, the office of Peter has the keys to unlock the door of the prison, to open the way to true happiness.
Third, Peter is described as having the power of binding and loosing, of opening and shutting. This power refers principally to judgments about the forgiveness of sins. While we are still alive, we can be forgiven even the most grave sins. We do, however, have to be repentant, to have a firm resolve to turn away from sin. Sometimes a person can seek forgiveness and Communion without repentance. In such cases it can be helpful to exclude such persons from full Communion with the Church, to make their situation clear so that they will seek true repentance. An important example in this country is that of politicians wishing to take Communion in our churches, while continuing to give public support to abortion. In truth, Communion under such circumstances would do them harm rather than good. So sometimes the office of Peter has to bind and to shut, even though, in most circumstances, the office of Peter looses and opens. Both actions, binding and loosing, have the goal of salvation.
So the office of Peter, today exercised by Pope Benedict XVI, is a firm foundation for the Church, possessing the power of keys, and the power of binding and loosing. All this has been given by Christ for one purpose, that is, to bring us into his kingdom. May the most Holy Trinity bless and protect our Holy Father, and, under the guidance of his gentle authority, bring us all safely to heaven.
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St Ambrose Church, St Louis, 24th August 2008
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