HOMILY – AUGUST 27
We’ve gotten pretty familiar with the news, reporting that this or that Cabinet member or other administration official is out and someone else is in. This is not unusual in big business or big politics. AND, it’s not unusual in the big Bible! Shebna was the chief of staff of Hezekiah, the king of Judah about 300 years after King David, so about 700 B.C. But Shebna was a wicked, proud, and deceitful man who took advantage of his position for his own betterment and pleasure. Now, it’s bad enough if you get fired by your boss. Shebna got fired by God! God sends Isaiah the prophet to tell him off, to detail his sins and injustices, and to give him the results: “Hand over the keys, I’m giving them to somebody else!” Those are tough words, coming from God himself. Why would God get involved in the internal politics of this little mid-Eastern kingdom? Because THEY ARE GOD’S PEOPLE! And God’s not going to let them be so poorly served by someone who’s only in it for himself.
Turn to the Gospel, and we have Jesus handing over the keys to the Kingdom –not to the kingdom of Judah, not to the kingdom of Galilee, not to the Roman Empire, but to the Kingdom of GOD! Here is the Son of God, not TAKING AWAY the keys from a mere mortal, but GIVING THEM to a mere mortal. Sure, we call that mere mortal SAINT Peter today, but it wasn’t pretty getting him there. Peter was like the blowhard in a West Side bar, a big, burly Alpha male, quick to speak up, one extreme to the other, both feet in his mouth, and therefore no one really surprised when he fell flat on his face. Hard to walk OR talk when ya got both feet in there! But Jesus was able to see through all that bluster and recognize LEADERSHIP, combined with THE HEART OF A SHEPHERD. Simon, son of John, speaks up for the rest when Jesus asks, “Who do YOU say that I am?” and Simon says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It’s not the only time, by any means, when this Apostle will blurt out something that he does not entirely comprehend — but with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he gets it right!
When Jesus gives him a whole new name, Simon, son of John, becomes (in Aramaic and Hebrew) Kepha (pron. KAY-fuh) or in Greek Petros (pron. peh-TRAWSS), Peter. It will take a lot longer than that until he can be recognized as SAINT Peter! There are lots of sins and weaknesses yet to be purged and purified before the gates of the Kingdom of God can be opened for Peter himself. But he has the keys, given to him by God, for himself and for the rest of us. His commission is similar to the commission God gives to Eliakim (pron. eh-LEE-ah-kim) through Isaiah the prophet: “When he opens, no one shall shut. When he shuts, no one shall open.” With Peter, it’s, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” In both cases, it’s GOD, intervening in earthly affairs, handing over the power, all of it, to a chief of staff to carry on the work of the Kingdom. And why does God do it? Because in both cases, THEY ARE GOD’S PEOPLE. God has a divine design in mind, and proceeds at his own pace — always much too slow for US — to keep unfolding the events of salvation history.
Think of that. BECAUSE we are God’s people, God intervenes in our history, not necessarily at our beck and call, but to help us accomplish our purposes. And he does it THROUGH US. Through a conclave, through an ordination, through an appointment, through a transfer, through the loving and courageous witness of martyrs and husbands and wives and children. St. Paul tells us in the second reading, “How inscrutable are God’s judgments, how unsearchable his ways!” We might be prone to echo that sentiment when the Church, with its teaching, sanctifying, and governing authority, makes decisions we don’t particularly agree with or provides teachings we find difficult. Yet when a person already baptized in another Christian church makes a profession of faith in the Catholic Church, he or she adds this statement to the Nicene Creed: “I believe and profess ALL that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”
I recently heard a conversation between a lifelong Catholic lady and a man who converted to Catholicism as an adult. She was finding fault with some pretty basic and fundamental teachings and practices of the Church, and asked him what he thought. Without a moment’s hesitation he told her, “When I made my decision to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, she accepted me as a sinner in need. And I accepted her with all her human warts and foibles, because I trust Jesus and his Holy Spirit to guide the Church and keep her faithful to the truth and the path to life. When it’s challenging, I accept it because I know I need the challenge, not out of any blind faith.”
In a human way, we might disagree with the emphasis the Pope and the bishops give to this or that. We might suffer some consternation or doubt when they disagree among themselves, forgetting that with the news coverage we have today, it seems that no conversation can stay out of public notice for long. An important lesson I have treasured from my many years of study of Church history is one I found I share with my old friend Cardinal Dolan of New York. He says, “If anything, the grittiness, the awkwardness, the clumsiness, the dirt of the Church has only deepened my faith in the divine.” The English Catholic author Hilaire Belloc wrote, many decades ago, “After years of study I’ve come to reluctantly accept that the Roman Catholic Church must be divine, because no merely human institution governed by such imbecility could have survived a fortnight!” That’s not a doctrine of the Church, mind you, but it’s a good reason to take courage, as the Apostles did, in good times and in bad. As Peter said to Jesus on another occasion, when others were leaving because they literally couldn’t SWALLOW the teaching on the Eucharist, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life!” And the Church provides the context in which we learn to understand those words. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.