The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time August 27, 2017
Isaiah 22, 19-23 + Psalm 138 + Romans 11, 33-36 + Matthew 16, 13-20
St. Peter and St William Churches, Naples, FL
Many of you may identify with this memory I still have. I recall very clearly the day my retirement arrived. I reached into my pocket and handed over the keys to the church of St Mark in Norman, Oklahoma. I remember handing them to the deacon not knowing what to say except, “Thank you.” The only key left in my pocket was my car key, and believe me, I used it immediately. When I eventually wound up here at St Peter and Father “G” gave me some keys, I was very reluctant to accept them. Something about those little pieces of metal carries a sense of duty and obligation far more than the privilege of having them. While “keys” may capture the imagination of artists who give us images of this Gospel passage, they are not the focus, and for that matter, neither is Peter. Jesus is. It is the place that tells us this fact.
This town called “Caesarea Philippi” is not really called that through its history. It is actually called: “Panion.” Civic leaders at that particular time renamed it after the two “top-dogs” of those days: The Roman Emperor and the local kinglet of Galilee, Philip the Tetrarch. It was a way of getting favors and possibly some money out of the rulers. It would be like calling Naples: “Trump-Scot”! The very name suggests ambition, power, and prestige. Built on top of a huge rock cliff it was an ancient sacred place set aside for the god, “Pan”. The name “pan” suggests everything. It is also worth thinking too about the fact that springs came out of that cliff, and they were the beginnings of the Jordan River. Having this incident take place there at the bottom of that big rock with the waters flowing out to form the Jordan says almost as much as the words. Picture it in your mind. Imagine it.
There is a confrontation going on here, and Peter is being asked to make a choice, a choice between Jesus and all this worldly power symbolized by Caesarea Philippi and any other god that might be tempting or alluring. We proclaim this Gospel today because Peter is not the only person who must make this choice. If Peter was the only one upon whom this church was being built, it would have died with him. Anyone who claims Jesus as their Messiah and the Son of the Living God becomes part of that rock upon which this church is built. It is built upon the faith of all the Apostles, the ancient Fathers of the Church who succeeded them, the martyrs of every age, the quiet little people who have passed on their faith to countless generations. People like Francis from Assisi, Ignatius, Elizabeth Seeton, countless missionaries, Mother Theresa, the men and women who brought the faith to this continent, and you and me. The church is still being built upon the rock of our faith. It’s not just about Peter. This Gospel and these powerful words of Jesus today are spoken to you and me. We have the keys. We have the power to bind and loose. With that power, we can set people free, restore what is broken, and bring the peace of forgiveness.
It’s only possible however after we make the choice that Peter is asked to make. Pan is not confined to that ancient shrine. Pan is still around this world in all manner of disguises with all sorts of names: Ambition, Power, Supremacy, Privilege, Wealth, Sex are just a few of the names that can describe this pagan god that still tempts and teases us. Jesus suggests that the time of the rock of Pan is over, and we must proclaim that today.
I always find it consoling that Jesus chose Peter from among the twelve for this moment. From this impulsive, unschooled, self-preserving fisherman, God raises up the rafters of a church that will see twenty centuries and more. It is not because Peter is great, but because God is. That is what this is about: what God can do with us. Not much can be built on flesh, as frail and uncertain as human beings are. But through the Holy Spirit, which gives the church its breath, the reign of God keeps on coming on earth as it is in heaven.