21st Sun [A] 2002

Fr. Charles Irvin

Isaiah 22:19-23; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20

The gospel account you just heard proclaimed is a rich lode of mining materials for homilies. We could use it to talk about Peter the first pope, and his successor popes and their roles in the Church. We could talk about the power to forgive sins and deal with the question “Why do I have to go to a priest to confess my sins and receive God’s forgiveness?” Or I could share thoughts with you about the character and behavior of Simon Peter, a fascinating subject in himself.

Nevertheless I’d rather talk about power; specifically about powers God has given you and given to me along with you. But, in order to do so, I must first paint the backdrop in which the subject has some context.

Today’s first reading, from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, presents us with God’s conferral of power upon Eliakim, complete with an investiture ceremony with robe and sash. God’s word to the prophet: “I place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; should he open, no one shall close, should he close, no one shall open.”

Keys have always been given to chief stewards and heads servant staffs. The next time you’re in a fancy hotel, notice the uniform of the concierge. Many times the concierge wears a symbol of keys on his or her jacket lapels. If you badly need something, go to the concierge and you’ll get it. He or she has been given power.

The next contextual consideration has to do with whether or not we need intermediaries. This raises subconscious hackles within us, particularly as independent, self-sufficient Americans. We’re more than uncomfortable when we must depend upon others to get what we need and want. It’s a struggle for us, a struggle that begins when we’re teenagers. In a world of bookstores crammed with “Do It Yourself” books, we avoid intermediaries. We claim we can do it ourselves, thank you very much. Do we need intermediaries between ourselves and God?

Observe now that there is a distinction between power and authority. Someone who has power does not necessarily have authority, and someone who has authority does not necessarily have power. The distinction is obviously simple and clear… but editorialists, opinion columnists and general societal commentators often miss the distinction and confuse the two points. The failure to distinguish between them has caused us as Americans a whole lot of grief. Indeed is the cause of hatred in the hearts of many toward us.

But I digress. The relationship between power and authority is better dealt with in a different homily than this one. Suffice it to say in the context of today’s scripture passages Jesus is giving Peter and the other apostles both authority and power, his authority and his power. In today’s gospel, taken from Matthew’s sixteenth chapter, we hear of the conferral of the power of the keys upon St. Peter. Two chapters later, in chapter eighteen, we find Jesus saying to the entire college of apostles: “I tell you solemnly, whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven. The context for thatconcommitantcommissioning is very interesting. Dealing with it would require yet another homily. But in case you’re interested, go to Matthew’s gospel, chapter 18, verse 18 and spend some time thinking about it, paying attention to the scriptural context in which you find it.

To return now to our main theme, Jesus is making it clear that we have not been given auto-salvation. By ourselves we cannot save ourselves. Salvation is simply not a “do it yourself” program. We are given salvation, rather, by belonging to a community, a communion. Just as in the Old Testament one was saved by belonging to the Chosen People, so also in the New Dispensation we find salvation by belonging to the family of Christ Jesus, with his Father and his mother our Father and our mother. Salvation comes to us in the Family of Faith. The way we treat our selves, the way we treat other members of the family, and the way we treat anyone, for that matter, loads the program into our on-board, internal computer. Running that program we find the necessary ways to salvation. We cannot write the program successfully, only God can. We need to use his program… ours won’t work.

Simon bar Jona, Simon son of Jona, was created by God and then re-created, re-formed by Christ Jesus into Peter. Peter was commissioned by Christ, not by us. So also the Church. Many mistakenly think of the Church as a voluntary association of like-minded individuals incorporated by humans into the institutional Church, much perhaps like the International Red Cross. That’s wrong-headed. The Church was formed and established by God and given to us by God in Christ. Just as humans constructed the Tower of Babel according to human plans and specifications, and it collapsed, so also the Church would have long ago collapsed if it was established and sustained by humans alone. The fact that it has survived, and survived its clergy, is clear proof that it is God’s work back when it began and remains so until now.

Power is given us by God, and it comes in many forms. Knowledge is power. You don’t create knowledge; it is given to you when you seek it from others. That’s why you’re here at the University of Michigan. If you created knowledge all by yourself you wouldn’t need to go to school, you wouldn’t need to read and study materials written by others. But when you acquire knowledge you have power.

Love is full of power… true love, that is. And friendship gives a certain kind of power. A friend has power to influence you as perhaps few others can, even members of your own family.

But real power, lasting power, the kind of power Jesus is talking about and teaches us to acquire is something that comes to you when you serve others. If you want your superior or your boss or your professional colleagues to really respect you and follow your ideas, show them how you can help them solve their problems. Serve their highest and best interests. If you want your own business to succeed then truly serve your customers. If you think I’m wrong then pay attention to why most businesses fail. Most of the time it’s because they haven’t served their customers well.

Three times Jesus told Peter: “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” Over and over again Jesus showed Peter and the others how to serve the highest and best in the people they would encounter. “He who would be first among you must serve the rest.”

Finally, I put before you the supreme paradox of Christianity, namely the fact that the almighty, all powerful God of the universe comes to us in utter powerlessness. He is born among us in poverty, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manager in a state of dependency. He dies among us hanging naked, in absolute poverty, immobilized on a cross, emptied of all power. And yet today he is the most powerful and arresting figure in human history, exerting God’s powerful influence over the world 2,000 years later.

And those words to Peter? They are Christ’s words of commissioning to you! For to you (and to the likes of me, vessel of clay that I am) he has given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Take them and use them to unlock the secrets of life… and live lives now filled with the power of God.

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”