The Keys & Who Christ Is, 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time (A), August 22, 1999

Fr. Roger J. Landry
SS. Peter & Paul Parish, Fall River, MA
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 22, 1999
Is 22:19-23; Rom 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

We can break today’s Gospel down into three parts, each of which is very important for a Christian of the 20th century:

(1) Jesus’ questioning;
(2) Peter’s response;
(3) Jesus’ reply to Peter.

We will focus briefly on each of these three parts.

First, Jesus’ questioning: Jesus asks the same two questions in every age. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say that I am.” Who do people say that Jesus is today? If we took a poll of the crowd at last week’s Fall River Celebrates America, probably the most popular response we would have heard would have been similar to the one the Israelites were giving two-thousand years ago. The Israelites said he was a prophet like John the Baptist, or Elijah: in other words a good, holy man — but only a good, holy man. As a priest today, I hear similar responses all the time. Jesus was a very good man. He gave a good philosophy of life. He taught compassion and kindness. He encouraged people to love. A great guy. Probably even a saint. But too many people stop here. They admire Jesus, but Jesus didn’t come and die for people’s approval or admiration. Jesus was much, much more — and if he weren’t well, then, he was none of these things. Jesus was either who he said he was — the Son of God made man — or, as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen used to say, the greatest liar of all time. Jesus could not have been a good man if he were the worst fraud in history. You see, Jesus, claimed to be the Son of God, and if he weren’t the Son of God, then simply everything about him would be part of that great lie. Jesus was not merely a good man — he was either who he said he was — the God-man — or he was a bad man, a great and terrible deceiver. Jesus challenges us to be honest about this. He wants more than our admiration. He wants us to recognize him for who he is — our Redeemer, our Messiah, the One who came to save us — and come to him for the love he wants to give us.

Hence he was not satisfied with the response of the Israelites. After he heard the results of the disciples’ poll of the Israelites, he then turned to his closest disciples — as he turns to you today and to me — and asks “Who do you say that I am?” Who do you say that I am? This is the most important question we will ever have to answer. This is the one question on the final exam of life. Who is Christ? Christians give two types of answers today. The first come from those who know about Jesus. They’ll repeat Peter’s words, that Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Second person of the Blessed Trinity. This is good, very good in fact, but it’s only a start. Jesus wants more than a theoretical answer. He wants a lived answer. He wants people to know more than about him. He wants people to know him personally. The second group of Christians certainly know about Jesus but they have come to know Jesus as a friend through prayer; they have come to know Him as the Good Shepherd bringing them back into the fold through confession; they have come to know him as their spiritual food in the Eucharist; they have come to know him as their chief confidant in prayer; and they have come to know him as the Way, the Truth and the Life in their daily life, at home, at school or work, on Sundays and on Mondays and on every day of the week. Jesus is here in our midst. If he became visible in front of us right now, so that we could see and hear him, and if he asked us this very same question — Who do you say I am? — how would we answer? If he were to ask our friends, family, fellow friends what answer we give in daily life, would they say we live up to that statement?

When all the other disciples fell silent, Simon son of John stood up and confessed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, and then added something that couldn’t have been guess-work, or hope, but had to be a revelation, because nothing in the Old Testament had prepared the Jews for the second reality Peter confessed: “You are the Son of the Living God.” Jesus was not only the Messiah, whom the prophets foretold would come to save Israel. They always thought the Messiah would merely be a man, a descendent of King David. Jesus was more, and God the Father revealed this to Simon, and thereby revealed Simon to Jesus. “Flesh and blood hasn’t revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven,” Jesus replied. Then he changed Simon’s name and gave him his own authority: “I tell you, that you are Kephas, and on this rock, on you, I will build my Church and the gates of Hell won’t prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. What you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven and loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Jesus made Peter his vicar, his authoritative proxy, his definitive ambassador, to act in his name. In the first reading, we meet Elikim, whom the king made his vicar, gave his authority, gave the key of the House of David to him; if he opened the door, no one could shut it; and if he closed it, no one could open it. The Lord drove him like a peg into a firm place. Eliakim had the keys of the kingdom of Israel and had the king’s ring, to seal and approve everything in his name. This is what Christ has done with Peter. Making him the rock on whom he has built his one and only Church. Peter received those keys and has passed them down to his successors, right down until his 263rd successor, Pope John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II retains those keys. The pope is Christ’s vicar, with the power to act in Christ’s name. Hence although he is human, his mission is divine and supernatural. His office has been blessed with the gift of the Holy Spirit to lead him, and through him the Church, into all truth and prevent it from erring. The reverence that Catholics ought to give the Pope is not based on the Pope’s talents, or goodness, or any human thing. It’s based on Christ, the Son of the Living God, who came from heaven, founded one Church on Peter and the Petrine Office, to whom he gave the keys of the kingdom and promised that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against the Church. Too often today Catholics and those in society treat the Pope differently. I remember when I traveled to Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day. Hundreds of thousands of young people came. It was a great event. But as reporters started to poll the crowd to ask the young people why they had traveled such distances to see the Pope, the most common responses were that the Pope is a great man. Speaks 12 languages fluently. He’s kind of like everyone’s benevolent grandfather. He promotes the dignity of women and the most powerless among us. Again — all very good things. But then they’d say statements like, “But I don’t agree with him on everything. He’s a good man, but he’s wrong on contraception or on women’s ordination or on several other issues.” The same phenomena happened in January when the Pope was in St. Louis. People admire him as a person, but that is not what makes John Paul II great. He’s great because he is the Vicar of Christ on earth, he speaks and acts in Christ’s name. In other words, he speaks and acts with Christ’s authority. Many people today, particularly in America, think that the Church is supposed to be a society of independent thinkers. Many Protestant churches have gone this path and they’re all dying or dead. No. The Church, on the other hand, has the great gift of the papacy, so that Christians can look with confidence and get authoritative teaching. Doubt can be removed, because Christ removed the doubt when he gave Peter and his successors the commission to hold the keys. The Pope is the visible head of the one and only Church Christ founded. And the Catholic faith is based on what they passed down to us, in Scripture, in tradition, and in the lived example.

“Who do you say that I am?” The Church is ultimately comprised of those who say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Those who really mean this trust the Lord and trust in his way of doing things. They might not know why Jesus did what he did, but they trust that when he acted, he knew what he was doing. Christ founded the papacy, he built the Church on the Rock, Peter, and his successors, and made the Pope the visible head of the Mystical Body which is the Church. So when the Pope teaches authoritatively on faith and morals, in Christ’s name, we believe, because we believe in Christ, who founded the Church on the Papacy and promised to be with it always. And this truth will ultimately set us free.

Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus’ giving his disciples strict orders not to tell anyone that he was the Christ, because the people of Jesus’ time ultimately were not ready to receive Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But after his death and resurrection, this command is no longer valid. Christians today receive the commission at the end of every Mass, to go out into the world, to love and to serve the Lord, the spread the Great News of who Jesus is, and what he has done to save us, dying, rising and founding a Church which keeps his presence real and alive through the sacraments and through their love for him and for each other. This is a message the world so much needs to hear. We rejoice at this Mass that one among us, our brother Jay, has responded wholeheartedly to that call of the Lord to spread his Gospel and enter formation for the priesthood. Jay, we thank you for your witness, and we promise you our prayers. As we heard in the responsorial psalm, the Lord’s love is eternal, and he never discards the work of his hands. May he bring that good work he has begun in you to completion, so that you, one day, might have that greatest of all joys, the ability to give the very Son of the Living God to these your friends and extended family here at SS. Peter & Paul. May God bless you, Jay, and, through you, bless us all.