Today we celebrate the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter the apostle. This is a feast that commemorates Jesus giving the servant authority of the Church to Saint Peter, as we heard in today’s Gospel. This is a special day of prayer for the Pope, the successor of Saint Peter among us.
It’s important to remember that Saint Peter was not chosen because he was perfect, but instead because he was faithful. Even after he denied Jesus, he turned back and three times professed his love. That’s an important lesson for us, because we too may have failed our Lord time and time again, but he always gives us the opportunity to turn back, to be forgiven, to profess our love, and to be part of his mission once again.
In today’s Scripture, Saint Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, the One who comes in God’s name. Making that proclamation is the task of the Church in every place, and in every age. We disciples are called to faithfulness, just as Peter was; we are called to conversion, just as Peter was; and we are called to witness to the authority of Christ in every situation: in our Church, yes, but also in our workplaces and in our homes. With the Lord as our shepherd, there is nothing we shall want in any situation.
One of my jobs before I went to seminary was in the sales department of a computer supply company. In that job, they taught us that one of the first good rules of sales was never to ask a question to which you didn’t already know the answer. I think teachers get taught that principle as well. I can’t help but think that Jesus’ question to the disciples in today’s Gospel falls under that heading. Because Jesus certainly knew who he was. But, as often happens in our interactions with Jesus, there’s something more going on. And to figure out what that something more is, all you have to do is go back to the Gospels the last couple of weeks and see in them that Jesus is thirsting for people’s faith. He was thirsting for faith from Peter when he called him to walk on the water. He was quenched by the faith of the Canaanite woman last week as she persisted in her request that Jesus heal her daughter. And now he thirsts for the disciples’ faith – and ours too – as he asks us the 64 thousand dollar question: “Who do you say that I am?”
He actually starts with kind of a soft-ball question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they recount all the obvious and probably much-discussed options of the time. If there were bloggers and talk radio people and CNN in that first century, they too might have said “John the Baptist” or “Elijah” or “Jeremiah” or “one of the prophets.” So this is an easy question for the disciples to answer. But when he gets to the extra credit question, “But who do you say that I am?” there’s a lot more silence. And, as often happens with the disciples, it’s the impetuous Peter who blurts out the right answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Very good, Peter, you have been paying attention.
But here’s the thing: that answer is going to require much of Saint Peter. You see, his answer not just a liturgical formula or a scriptural title or even a profession of faith in the formal sense that Jesus is looking for here. He is looking for something that goes quite a bit deeper, something that comes from the heart, something integrated into Peter’s life. He is looking for faith not just spoken but faith lived, and that’s why Peter’s answer is so dangerous. If he is really convinced that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” then that conviction has to show itself in the way Peter lives. He can’t just believe that and keep it under his hat. If Jesus really is the One who is coming into the world, the Promised One of all generations, the salvation of the world, then Peter has to proclaim it from the rooftops. He has to be the rock on which Jesus will build his Church. And some people are just not going to want to go there.
So I’m very sorry to tell you all this, but we have all gathered here on a very dangerous Sunday. We too, you know, are being asked today, “But who do you say that I am?” And Jesus isn’t asking us just to recite the Creed, the Profession of Faith. That’s too easy; we do it all the time. He doesn’t want to know what you learned at Bible Study or what you read on Facebook. Those things are nice, but Jesus isn’t going for what’s in your head. Jesus is calling all of us today to dig deep, to really say what it is that we believe about him by the way that we act and the things that we do and the life that we live. It’s the dangerous question for us, too, because what we believe about Jesus has to show forth in action and not just word. Our life has to be a testament to our faith in God. And if we cannot answer that question out of our faith today, if we are not prepared to live the consequences of our belief, then we have a lot of thinking to do today.
Because if we really believe – really believe – that Jesus is who he says he is, then we cannot just sit on the news either. Like Peter, we are going to have to proclaim it in word and deed. In our homes, in our workplaces, in our schools, in our communities – we must be certain that everyone knows that we are Christians and that we are ready to live our faith. That doesn’t mean that we need to interject a faith lesson into every conversation or badger people with the Gospel. But it does mean that we have to live that Gospel. In St. Francis’s words, “Proclaim the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” People absolutely need to be able to tell by looking at our lives that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. If they can’t, then our faith is as tepid as the Pharisees’ and that’s certainly no cause for pride!
Every part of our Liturgy has consequences for us believers. “The Body of Christ.” When we hear that proclamation and respond with our “Amen,” we are saying “yes, that’s what I believe.” And if we believe that, if we are then filled with the Body of Christ by receiving Holy Communion, then we have made a statement that has consequences. If we truly become what we receive, then how does that change the way that we work, the way that we interact with others? “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life.” “Thanks be to God.” If we accept that command, then what? What does it mean to glorify the Lord with our life? Does it mean that we just do some kind of ministry here at Mass? Absolutely not. The first word in the command is “Go” and that means we have to love and serve the Lord in our daily lives, in our business negotiations, in our community meetings, in our interactions with peers or the way that we mentor those who work for us.
So if we really believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then our lives just became a whole lot more complicated. We may have to give up some of our habits and vices, we may have to make a concerted effort to be more aware of Christ in our daily lives, we may have to learn to treat other people as the Body of Christ. We may have to do all this preaching in a hostile environment, because sometimes people don’t want to hear the Good News, or even be in the presence of it. And this is dangerous, because if we really believe, then we have to preach anyway. Peter did, and it eventually led him to the cross. What will it require of us?
So I don’t know just how dangerous this will be for me or for you. I’m not even sure how we will all answer the question right now. But one thing is for sure, all of us sitting here today have the same one-question test that Peter and the disciples had. Who do you say that the Son of Man is?
There’s a lot of talk about water in these readings today, and when that happens, we know that it means the talk is really about baptism. We ourselves are the sick and lame man who needed Jesus’ help to get into the waters of Bethesda. The name “Bethesda” means “house of mercy” in Hebrew, and that, of course, is a symbol of the Church. We see the Church also in the temple in the first reading, from which waters flow which refresh and nourish the surrounding countryside. These, of course, again are the waters of baptism. Lent calls us to renew ourselves in baptism. We are called to enter, once again, those waters that heal our bodies and our souls. We are called to drink deep of the grace of God so that we can go forth and refresh the world.
But what really stands out in this Gospel is the mercy of Jesus. I think it’s summed up in one statement that maybe we might not catch as merciful at first: “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.” It’s hard to imagine being ill for thirty-eight years, but I’m pretty sure missing out on the kingdom of God would be that one, much worse, thing. There is mercy in being called to repentance, which renews us in our baptismal commitments and makes us fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.
Today we celebrate the feast of the dedication of the Cathedral of St. John Lateran in Rome. Most people think of St. Peter’s Basilica as the pope’s church, but that’s not true. As the Bishop of Rome, his Cathedral Church is the Lateran Cathedral, once dedicated to our Savior, but now named for St. John the Baptist. This site has served as the Cathedral church for the pope ever since the first structure was built in the late 300s. It served until the pope was moved to Avignon, and upon returning, it was found to have been destroyed. The present structure was commissioned in the 1600s and is one of the most massive churches in Rome. Because it is the parish church of the pope, it is in some ways considered to be the parish church for all Catholics. Today we celebrate the feast of its dedication on November 9, 324 by Pope St. Sylvester I.
The disagreement between Jesus and the Jews in the Gospel reading today showed what was really a difference of opinion on what Church is. The many services that were being offered outside the Temple were required for the sacrifice, so they supported the worship that went on there. In a sense then, they were legitimate enterprises. But Jesus came to bring about Church in a whole new way. His uncharacteristically violent reaction was frustration that those who should know better did not see what God really wanted in worship. He didn’t want birds or animals, he wanted people’s hearts so that he could re-create them anew.
Any feast like this is an opportunity for us to take a step back and look at this thing we call Church. The misunderstanding in the Gospel between Jesus and the Jews tells us that we cannot view Church as just a building. The reality of Church is brought to great perfection in the Body of Christ, and we see that because of Christ, the Church is a living, breathing thing that takes us in and out of time and space to be the body we were created to be. So today we celebrate Church; we peel back the Church’s many layers, touching and learning the concrete, living the experiential, asking for the intercession of the heavenly, and yearning to be caught up in the eternal. The Church is our Mother who has given us birth in the Spirit and who nurtures us toward eternal life.
The river of God’s life flows forth from the Church to baptize and sanctify the whole world unto the One who created it all. The Church has its foundation in Christ, who also raises it up to eternity. Blessed are all those who find their life in its sanctuary.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of the Saint John Lateran Cathedral in Rome. That seems a little obscure to us, I know, but it’s an important feast for the Church because it is a celebration of Church and a reflection on what Church is. The Lateran Cathedral is the cathedral church for the Diocese of Rome. As bishop of the diocese, the Lateran Cathedral is the pope’s church. Because of that, Saint John Lateran is considered to be the mother church of the Catholic faithful. So it’s an important church, and it gives us cause to celebrate the Church as a whole, so this feast is celebrated throughout the world, and when it falls on Sunday, it takes the place of the Ordinary Time Sunday. So that’s why we’re celebrating the Dedication of Saint John Lateran today.
So let’s take a look at what Church (big “C”) is. The Church is a reality that is at the same time concrete and experiential and heavenly and eternal. The concrete structures of it are the nuts and bolts that make it work. The building itself, the parish staff, the rubrics of liturgy and the holy books, as well as teachings and dogma and sacraments – all of these are things we can touch, or learn or work with. But there is another layer, one more experiential. These include the people as a whole, on the way to holiness; the Word at work in believers; the effects of grace mediated through the sacraments; the Gospel lived out day by day and the love of God shown through Charity. And in yet another layer, the Church is not just here on earth. It’s in heaven, celebrated among the Communion of Saints and sung by the choirs of angels. And finally it is eternal, not just limited to our own puny ideas of time and space, but all wrapped up in the Mind of God who is ever-present, all-powerful and all-knowing. The Church is an incredible reality that has been pondered by people much more saintly and learned than I, and a reality that will be advanced and celebrated for ages yet to come.
The Scriptures today are a beautiful meditation on Church. The gospel is a little jarring, to be honest. Jesus has this famous dust-up with the temple merchants and officials. A lot of people find this disturbing, because it jars their view of Jesus as a peaceful man. For the record, I don’t think Jesus was about peace the way we think of peace. He was definitely more about zeal for the truth, for justice, and for proper worship of God, all of which is in play here. Those merchants were doing a necessary task, honestly. People needed to pay the temple tax, and they needed the proper coinage to do it, so there had to be money changers. People needed to make sacrifice, and they needed unblemished animals for it, so there had to be people selling animals. What didn’t need to happen was for these people to be taking advantage of the poor, and charging more than they should have. That was dishonest and unjust and Jesus was sick of it.
But even more than that, this whole dishonest structure was a view of Church that Jesus was saying was completely unnecessary now. The kingdom of God is at hand, we’ve been hearing that in the readings for months now, and so this unjust and corrupt view of Church needed to come to an end. So in his zeal for the real house of God, Jesus turns the old stuff upside-down. That’s what’s going on here. Saint Paul underscores the similar notion to the people of Corinth in today’s first reading. What is the Church? He says, “YOU are God’s building!” He and the Apostles have laid the foundation, and we are building it up, becoming a Temple of the Holy Spirit. There is an entirely new view of Church going on here, and it’s one that we should celebrate and have zeal for.
So today we celebrate Church; we peel back the Church’s many layers, touching and learning the concrete, living the experiential, asking for the intercession of the heavenly, and yearning to be caught up in the eternal. The Church is our Mother who has given us birth in the Spirit and who nurtures us toward eternal life. The river of God’s life flows forth from the Church to baptize and sanctify the whole world unto the One who created it all. The Church has its foundation in Christ, who also raises it up to eternity. Blessed are all those who find their life in its sanctuary.
In today’s Gospel, Peter and the others are asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” We heard this Gospel story just last weekend. Now, both Peter and Paul were committed to the truth about who Christ was. They had too much at stake. Having both messed up their estimation of who Jesus was earlier in their lives, they knew the danger of falling into the trap. So for them Jesus could never be just a brother, friend or role model – that was inadequate. And both of them proclaimed with all of their life straight through to their death that Jesus Christ is Lord. We too on this day must repent of the mediocrity we sometimes settle for in our relationship with Christ. He has to be Lord of our lives and we must proclaim him to be that Lord to our dying breath. We must never break faith with Saints Peter and Paul, who preserved that faith at considerable personal cost.
Perhaps Saints Peter and Paul can inspire our own apostolic zeal. Then, as we bear witness to the fact that Jesus is Lord of our lives and of all the earth, we can bring a banal world to relevance. Perhaps in our renewed apostolic zeal we can bring justice to the oppressed, right judgment to the wayward, love to the forgotten and the lonely, truth to a society that settles for relativism, and faith to a world that has lost sight of anything worth believing in. One might say that that is the Church’s mission, but actually the mission is what is of primary importance. And so we believe that the apostolic mission has a Church, and it’s time for the Church to be released from its chains and burst forth to give witness in the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Our diocese this weekend is celebrating the Mass for the Election of a Bishop, praying for the prompt appointment of our next bishop. So I did a brief homily on what a bishop is and does, followed by a talk about (sigh) money. You get just the first thing here!
As you may know, our diocese has not had a bishop since early December, when Bishop Sartain became the archbishop of Seattle. Since then, Bishop Siegel, our auxiliary bishop, was named the diocesan administrator. He can keep the diocese running, but can’t really make any substantive changes. So at this time, we are waiting for Rome to select a new bishop for us, and today we celebrate a special Mass for the Election of a Bishop, praying that the Holy Spirit would help Pope Benedict find us a man who is holy, and loving to his people and clergy.
Bishops were selected in the Church pretty early on, during the time the original Apostles were dying off. These successors to the Apostles helped to ensure that the faith was handed down to us as the Lord intended it. They administrate the Sacraments and see to it that the diocese and its parishes live and witness to the Gospel message in the present time.
Candidates for the office of Bishop have to be priests. When there is a vacancy in a diocese such as ours, it can be filled by a man who is already a bishop somewhere else, or by a priest of our diocese or even of another diocese. Names for these candidates are submitted to Rome through the Papal Nuncio, who in the United States is Archbishop Pietro Sambi. These candidates are examined very closely, and without their knowing, I might add. If the person selected is already a bishop, he is installed in the diocese within a short period of time. If he is a priest, he is ordained or consecrated as a bishop, which automatically installs him as the bishop of the diocese.
The diocese of Joliet in Illinois was erected in December of 1948, carved out of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the diocese of Rockford, and the diocese of Peoria. Since then we have had four bishops. Bishop Martin McNamara, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, served from the erection of the diocese until his death in 1966. Bishop Romeo Blanchette, a priest and auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Joliet, served from 1966 until 1979. Bishop Joseph Imesch, an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Detroit, served from 1979 until his retirement in 2006. Bishop Peter Sartain, who was bishop of Little Rock, served from 2006 until this past December.
And so we continue to wait for word of who our next bishop will be. We are a rather large diocese, of around 700,000 Catholics spread over seven counties. Popular opinion suggests that that means we won’t have to wait very long. Our prayer is that the Holy Spirit would inspire all those involved in the decision so that we have a wonderful bishop who can serve us and help us move our diocese forward in spreading the Gospel to the people of our seven counties.
Today we’re gathered on what is, for us, the eve of the Ascension. While the reading that we have in today’s Gospel is from John’s account of the eve of the Passion, the words could well have been spoken to the Apostles on the eve of the Ascension too. Jesus speaks of leaving the world and going back to the Father, this time until he returns in glory. The Twelve had to be broken hearted all over again. They had lost their friend and Lord briefly to death, but had been encouraged by him as he appeared to them after the Ascension, and now he is preparing to leave again.
But the truth of it is that nothing will happen with the fledgling Church until he does leave. Only then will the Father send the Holy Spirit to be with the Church until the end of time, giving the early disciples and us later disciples the grace and strength to go forward and proclaim the kingdom and call the world to repentance and grace. If God’s purpose is to be advanced on this earth, then Jesus has to return to the Father. If the Spirit does not descend, the Church would not be born. If the Church were not born, the Gospel would be but an obscure footnote in the history of the world.
The Good News for us is that the Holy Spirit continues to work among us today, as often as we call on him. “Ask and you will receive,” Jesus says, and so we ask and receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the glory and praise of God. We disciples, we friends of Jesus, can count on his blessing, the rich gift of the Holy Spirit, the great witness of the Church. Our lives are enriched by our faith and our discipleship. What we do here on earth, what we suffer in our lives, what we celebrate — all this will bear fruit for the glory of God.