Saturday, August 27, 2011

Persevering Peter

"Quo vadis, Domine?"

 (Twenty-second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 28, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 16: 21-27.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-second Sunday 2011]

“Persevering Peter”

That’s the title of today’s homily: Persevering Peter.

Now when we think of Peter—and here I’m talking specifically about Peter before the Resurrection (in other words, the Peter we encounter during the earthly ministry of Jesus)—perseverance is probably not the first word that comes to mind.  Some words that do come to mind when describing the Peter we see during Jesus’ 3-year ministry (at least they come to my mind!) are words like: impulsive, weak, inconsistent, impatient, erratic and hot-headed.

But even back then he was also a man of perseverance—almost incredible perseverance.

Which is probably one of the biggest reasons why Jesus chose him to be the very first pope!

Can you imagine how frustrating and how discouraging it can be at times to be the spiritual leader of a worldwide community of faith that includes not only some of the greatest saints on the planet, but also some of the worst—some of the most reprehensible—sinners on the planet?

Obviously our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict, needs an immense amount of perseverance to lead the Church in the midst of those circumstances.

And so did Peter 2,000 years ago! 

Well, by the grace of God, the man had it—in great abundance—even before Jesus rose from the dead and anointed him with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  We see Peter exercising perseverance throughout the gospels, but especially in passages like the one we heard last Sunday and the one we heard this morning (these two texts from Matthew, chapter 16).  Recall, for a moment, what we were told last weekend in our gospel reading: Jesus was with his apostles at Caesarea Philippi and there he asked them a crucial question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter spoke up and gave his famous answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”; to which Jesus immediately responded, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.  And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Peter must have felt like a million bucks when Jesus said those words to him.  I know that’s how I would have felt!  I’m sure he didn’t fully understand what our Lord meant in telling him these things, but he knew it sounded pretty good—especially the part about having “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”

Well today’s gospel reading picks up where last week’s left off.  Jesus begins to teach his apostles that he will be a suffering Messiah, not a great earthly ruler like King David (which was the kind of Messiah the Jews were expecting at the time: someone who would get rid of the Romans and make Israel a great earthly nation again).

It was also the kind of Messiah Peter was expecting—which explains his reaction to this prophecy of our Lord about his suffering and death.  Peter says to him, in effect, “No way, Jesus!  That can’t possibly happen to you!  You’re the Messiah—you’re God’s anointed one—you’re gonna help us get rid of the Romans and become a great nation again!  You can’t suffer and die like that.”

Jesus immediately turns on Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Why, oh why, did he call Peter, “Satan”?

It’s because at that moment Peter was saying to Jesus exactly what Satan would have wanted him to say to Jesus!  Satan, you see, did not want our Lord to go to the cross on Good Friday, because he knew that if Jesus died on that cross his kingdom would be destroyed—since the sacrifice of Jesus would make it possible for every human person to avoid hell and go to heaven!

This, incidentally, was the constant and most serious temptation that Jesus faced during his time on this earth: the temptation to abandon the mission the Father had given him and forget about the cross.  It was the temptation Satan threw at him in the desert just before his earthly ministry began; it was the temptation that Satan presented to him through the mouth of Peter in this event at Caesarea Philippi; and it was the last temptation our Lord faced as he hung on the cross.  (No, the last temptation of Christ had nothing to do with Mary Magdalene.  Please tell that to film director Martin Scorsese!)

Coming back now, to Peter’s dialogue with Jesus: If you had been in Peter’s shoes that day, what would you have done?  How would you have responded?  Try to imagine this: Jesus, the Messiah, the only-begotten Son of the Father, doesn’t just reprimand you (that would have been bad enough!); he doesn’t simply tell you that you’re wrong—he actually goes so far as to call you “Satan”!

He equates you, in some way, with the devil himself!

I think most people, if they’re truly honest with themselves, would tell you that they would have been so undone—so completely devastated by these words of Jesus—that in all likelihood they would have walked away in despair and never come back.

I know I would have been tempted to respond in that way.

But Peter didn’t!  That’s what’s so amazing about him.

He didn’t throw in the towel; he didn’t despair.  In spite of the horrible feeling he must have had on the inside, he didn’t walk away like the rich young man did when Jesus challenged him to give up all his possessions.

Peter took the rebuke, and persevered.  He kept on following the Lord.

Peter’s perseverance was also evident at the end of the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6: Jesus told the people that he intended to give them his Body and Blood for their spiritual nourishment, and most of them freaked out!  Even a lot of our Lord’s disciples walked away.

But not Peter!  He persevered—as usual.  When Jesus said to his apostles, “Are you going to leave me, too?” Peter immediately responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe; we are convinced that you are God’s holy one.”

Even on Holy Thursday, after he denied the Lord 3 times, he didn’t give up!  Judas did, but Peter didn’t.  And let’s remember, their sins were both grave: both betrayed their Lord and Savior.  Judas despaired and hung himself, but Peter came back and repented.

He always did.

I mention all this today because there are many times in our lives when we can be tempted to give up on God and our Catholic faith: when a loved one dies suddenly and unexpectedly; when we come down with a serious disease (Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease—whatever it might be), when we’re praying for something for a long time and God doesn’t seem to be answering; when we find ourselves falling into the same sins over and over and over again.

In situations like these it would be good to say a prayer to St. Peter, asking for his special intercession so that we might receive from God the grace we need: the grace of perseverance—a grace that Peter had in such great abundance.

We need to pray because even persevering people can be tempted at times NOT to persevere!  Such was the case, apparently, even for Peter himself—at least on one occasion.

Some of you have probably heard the story.  It’s not found in the Bible, but in a very ancient Christian tradition.  The event happened during the terrible persecution of the Church under the Roman Emperor Nero.  Peter, of course, was Pope by then—the official leader of God’s New Testament people—but, in the midst of all the violence and confusion, he decided that enough was enough.  So he left the city.  He abandoned his post—and his flock—in fear, and fled from Rome on the famous Appian Way.

But as he was going along he ran into somebody—Jesus—walking in the opposite direction toward the city.  Peter said to him, “Quo vadis, Domine?” (“Where are you going, Lord?”)

Jesus answered, “I’m going to the city of Rome, to be crucified again.”

Peter got the message.  He turned around; he went back; and he courageously led the Church until he was martyred—crucified upside down—in that area now known as St. Peter’s Square.

People who persevere can sometimes be tempted—even strongly tempted—not to persevere.  But in the end, by the grace of God, they remain faithful.

Just like Peter.