Monday, June 30, 2014

You are the Christ; You are Peter

St. Peter
This gospel passage we have today is the climax of the first half of Matthew's gospel. Everything so far in Matthew's gospel has been leading up to this, and everything that follows is playing the implications of this important conversation, all the way until the cross and resurrection.

So we need to look closely at this whole conversation between Jesus and Peter. To understand the conversation, we first need to understand where they were at. The first line of the gospel tells us they were at Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was a Roman town, not a Jewish town, so when Jesus and his disciples went there they were away from the questions and the prying eyes of the Jewish authorities. So it is in this context, away from the prying eyes and questioning Jewish authorities, that Jesus could ask straightforward "Who do people say that I am?" The disciples report the variety of opinions, but then Peter's voice rises above the others with an answer that could only have come from God, and he says "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

St. Paul
Now, this answer too has implications based on the location that we miss. In the Roman town of Caesarea Philippi, there was a temple in honor of Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus was a Roman emperor who given himself the title "son of god," because his father, Julius Caesar, had been declared a god by the Roman Senate after his death. So this town, Caesarea Philippi, had a temple to the son of a dead god. So when Peter says "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God," it is a declaration against the gods of this world. When Peter declares Jesus to be the Son of the Living God, he is saying "You, Jesus, stand completely above and apart from the fake, dead gods of this world. You are the only person in who I can stake my hope."

Peter couldn't declare Jesus to be the Christ, the only Son of the only Living God, without also saying that he, Peter, is a disciple of this Christ. You can't say to Jesus "You are the Christ, the Messiah, the only hope for the world" without also meaning "You are my Christ, you are my Messiah, you are my only hope." So Peter's declaration that Jesus is the Christ is also a declaration of Peter's position of discipleship. Despite Peter's own weakness, he knows that Jesus is the one to follow, the one to who will lead him to eternal life.

And if Peter's answer had a lot of implications tied up in it, then Jesus' response has even more. First off, Jesus refers to Peter as Simon son of Jonah. Now, at other places in the gospels Peter is referred to as son of John. It seems that Peter's dad was actually John, so according to some scholars, calling him "son of Jonah" here is a reference to the prophet Jonah, who was sent to preach repentance to Nineveh, the center of the gentile, pagan, world of his own day. We know in Peter's life he ended up preaching in Rome, which as the center of the Roman Empire was the center of the gentile, pagan of Peter's day. The prophet Jonah converted many. Similarly, Peter converted many. Jesus is setting Peter on a path to be pivotal like Jonah was pivotal.

And then Jesus gives him a new name, Peter instead of Simon, and a new identity. Peter is now going to be the rock of Jesus' new Church. Jesus wants to use weak human instruments to bring about this new plan, the weaker the better so that God's glory might shine through. So he went looking for the weakest human he could find, and he found Peter, and made him the strong cornerstone of this new Church. This is one of our strongest biblical proof-texts for the papacy, and time and time again throughout history, the pope and bishops have shown just how weak human weakness can be. But also throughout history, the weakness of men has allowed the strength of God to shine through brilliantly. We humans have done everything we can to destroy the Church, and she wouldn't be standing today if God himself wasn't behind the whole thing, leading and strengthening her.

But Jesus didn't just establish Peter as the rock of this new Church, look at the power he gave to Peter. "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Jesus gave Peter power to change heaven by his actions on earth. This power is now entrusted to priests in the Sacrament of Confession. When your sins are forgiven by Jesus working through his priests in the Sacrament of Confession, all of heaven is changed. When you are loosed from your sins on earth, they are loosed in heaven as well. My friends, if you haven't been in a while, go to confession. It doesn't matter how long it's been, it doesn't matter if you forgot how, it doesn't matter what your sins are, go and receive this beautiful sacrament. If you forgot how, or if you're scared, just tell the priest that, and he'll happily help you through it. If you have ever had a bad experience in confession, from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry. Please, let's make it better.

"Tu es Petrus," in the dome of St. Peter's Basilica
So what's the final take-away of this whole conversation between Jesus and Peter, of these meaningful phrases "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" and "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church"? The one thing to take away from this conversation between Jesus and Peter, if you take nothing else, is that the Catholic Church is Jesus' will for the world, and it is Jesus' will for you. The world would tell you that you can be Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, atheist, or whatever, and it's really no big deal, as long as we all play nicely. The world would tell you that Jesus is just one option among many. The world would like to water down Peter's confession, so that maybe Jesus can be just one option among many. The world would like to water down Jesus' establishment of Peter as the rock, so that maybe there could be other rocks as well.

We are here for a variety of reasons. Many of us are here every single Sunday, and maybe more often, because we have found a family and a home here. Many of us are here maybe every other Sunday, or perhaps less often, and when we come we're not sure why. I get that. The Catholic Church is kind of a strange and unique phenomenon in the world. But through this strange pattern of life and traditions we see in the Church, through the baptisms and weddings, funerals and first communions, Christmas trees and Easter lilies, we work out our salvation. This one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is indeed God's will for you and for me. So in spite of all the humanness of the Church, always hold in your heart that this Church is established by Jesus on Peter's confession. Stick with Peter. Stick with the rock that Christ established, and say with Peter the rock "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Monday, June 23, 2014

My Response to the Gift

The first time I concelebrated the Eucharist

Two weeks ago we celebrated Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and enabled them to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world. Last week we celebrated Trinity Sunday, where we celebrated God revealed as a loving Trinity of persons. This week we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, which means Body of Christ in Latin, and we pay special honor to Jesus giving himself to us in the Eucharist as our spiritual and physical food.

This feast came out of a movement in the 12th century to have a feast outside of Lent to celebrate our love of the Eucharist. We already celebrate the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, but we also celebrate on that day the institution of the priesthood, the washing of the feet, and the agony in the garden. Today's feast is just about the Eucharist.

But this day isn't about celebrating the Eucharist as a something thats pretty cool. When we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, we shouldn't just say "Hey, the Eucharist is pretty neat." Based on the readings today, we should thank God for this Eucharist because this Eucharist is our entry into eternal life.

This feast is about remembering, looking backward, and it's about looking forward, because the Eucharist is a timeless thing. So do me a favor, think back on your life, and think of a time when you knew God was with you, and think of a time when it God let you struggle.

That's what Moses is instructing the Israelites in the first reading. The first reading is from the Book of Deuteronomy, which is Moses' last words to the Israelites at the end of the desert wanderings, before they go into the Promised Land. In this reading, he is exhorting the Israelites to remember what God has done for them in the past, and by remembering, to trust God in the future. The Israelites had a terrible problem with forgetfulness. Time and time again, they forgot the great things God had done for them and how much he loves. And what happens when you forget? It's more than the idea that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. No, the problem throughout Israel's history is that when they forgot God and the deeds of God, then they turned their back on him and what he was calling them to be, and they turned to other gods. So Moses's final exhortation is to remember The Lord, and specifically here he is telling them to remember the gift of manna in the desert.

Jesus is invoking this memory of manna, but saying that he offers something better. He is saying that people still died after that bread from heaven, but not after my bread from heaven,the true bread from heaven. Jesus is explaining exactly what his future sacrifice will entail, and he is explaining what the Eucharist will mean.

This gospel passage is set in the midst of a much longer discourse between Jesus and this anonymous group referred to as "the Jews," and it is found in the sixth chapter of John's gospel. If you've never read John 6, then make that something to do this next week. Once you read John 6, it's easy to see that John believes in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. So Jesus is trying to convince the Jews of the importance of the gift that he will offer when he offers himself on the cross, and he uses strong language to do so. For the Jews, saying that you had to eat his flesh and drink his blood immediately went against their understanding of ritual cleanliness, and even today that still strikes us as difficult.

What he is giving us is a promise when he says "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you." It's phrased negatively, but contained in it is a promise that if you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will have life within you. We say the Eucharist contains the Body and Blood, the Soul and Divinity, of Jesus. Those four words sum up everything about Jesus, so the Eucharist contains everything. In the Eucharist Jesus is giving us all of himself.

A gift from Jesus this great requires an appropriate response, and so we need to consider two aspects of how we respond to Jesus. We need to consider how we respond to Jesus present in the Eucharist, and we need to consider how we respond to Jesus present in others.

When you receive a gift so great that you can never adequately repay it, you respond with grateful acceptance. But here's an important aspect to consider: if you are going to accept a great gift, you have to accept it on the terms that the giver gives it. So when it comes to the Eucharist, when Jesus says "my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink," and when we learn the teaching of Jesus' Church that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus, then we cannot say, "Well, to me the Eucharist is a symbol of Jesus," because it's not up to me to define what the Eucharist is. That would be to abuse the gift. I forget the numbers, but according to polls I've heard there are a startling number of Catholics who only believe the Eucharist is a symbol, and not the reality of Jesus. When Jesus says "This is my body" they say "No, it's not" and when he says "This is my blood" they say, "Nah, it's only a symbol." My friends, we have to take Jesus at his word when he gives us this gift, and don't cheapen the mystery by trying to bring it down to terms I can understand.

The altar of St. Mary's in Cheyenne

The other aspect we need to consider of our response to this gift is how we treat each other. St. Paul helps us out here. The bread is the one body of the one Lord, and the cup is the one blood of the one Lord, so we who eat and drink it are one. That thought drags me out of a "me and Jesus" mentality. I can't come to Mass with blinders on because I'm here for my "me and Jesus" time. Now, there is certainly an element of personal time at mass, but we can't neglect the community either. And our liturgy reflects it. When I say "Lift up your hearts," you say "we lift them up The Lord." It is a communal thing. But then when I say "Behold the Lamb of God," you say, "Lord, I am not worthy." It's returned to the personal, and not the communal nature, of this relationship. These things in our liturgy are not accidental, but reflect the deeper reality that we simultaneously worship God as a community and as individuals. So when I come to Mass I have to have a deep and abiding concern for everyone else here with me, and for those who are absent.

So whenever we approach the altar, reflect on the magnitude of this gift. There is nothing better, there could be nothing better, than this act of God that saves us from our sins. And reflect on your own response to it. Do I have the proper faith in God, and the proper love towards my fellow Christians, that this gift calls for?