A Homily for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who has entrusted the apostles with the true faith. Amen.
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God…”
Once more we have one of those stories that, were this a modern piece of cinema, would end like all other bio-pics. The film score would swell. A title card would appear on the screen, reading something like, “Saint Peter became the first Bishop of Rome. To this day, he has been succeeded by two hundred sixty-five popes who lead the world’s one billion Catholic faithful.” To be honest, there might actually be a movie that ends this way. (And it’s worth noting, this is roughly how the movie about Luther ended, too.)
Today’s passage plays a big role in Roman Catholic ecclesiology – that is to say, theology about the nature and leadership of the Church. Francis, as the current Bishop of Rome and Pope, is the heir to Saint Peter, a line of succession that spans nearly two thousand years. The papal coat of arms features two “keys to the kingdom,” Saint Peter’s emblem, a reminder that Christ gave him all authority to bind and loose.
But we cannot understand Peter’s confession today without keeping in mind what happens next: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Peter doesn’t handle the news well; instead, he takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. And in an instant, he goes from being the Simon the Rock, the one with authority, to being called Satan, a stumbling block, not focused on the Kingdom of God but on earthly power.
This is the pattern for Peter: he gets it, and then he screws it up. He gets out of the boat, but then he sinks. He understands who Jesus is – the Messiah – but tries to bend the Messiah to his own understanding. On that final night, he’ll promises to never abandon Jesus, and then he’ll deny him three times before the cock crows. Even after the Resurrection, according to Saint John’s Gospel, as Jesus sits by the cooking fire forgiving him, Peter looks askance at John, the Beloved Disciple, with envy and suspicion.
And papal history is full of sordid characters and scandals who are the heirs to this less holy side of Peter’s personality. Where Peter had doubts and flaws, some of his successors would have been more at home with Herod and Pilate than the disciples. Their hunger for wealth and power divided the Church time and time again.
But we need not look far into the distant past or for especially vile characters to understand this point. Pope Francis has been open about his own doubt in this fallen world, in the face of death and disease. And it’s not just popes in Rome who have their doubts. From within the walls of his monastic cell, Martin Luther wrestled mightily with the question of God’s goodness, fearing for his own salvation. Every bishop, pastor, and deacon has lived this out – because Peter’s story is the story of all Christians, whether the Bishop of Rome, or a German monk in Wittenberg, the pastor a small church in middle Georgia, or a baptized member of the Faithful who worships in the pew (or in front of a screen).
We have all been called into ministry in various forms and in divers places, but we all face the same struggle: to trust in God as we walk along the face of the deep or confront the reality of suffering and death.
So often, we want to put the burden on ourselves: that we are the ones who can heal, who can walk on water, that we can tell Jesus who he needs to be. We boldly proclaim that we will never forsake him.
But then the healing doesn’t come, we begin to sink, the call of the Gospel challenges the way we see the world, and we deny Christ. Our bold proclamations are overcome by our sinful deeds and inaction. And we begin to doubt.
But whatever doubt we have, Christ gives us more faith still.
And so, as Pope Francis reminds us, when we doubt, we ought to trust in Jesus: “He is the only one who is totally faithful.”
Because Jesus is the one who is totally faithful, we can boldly confess that he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And when we begin to doubt that, we can still turn to Christ and cry out, “Lord, save me.”