Just Announced: Philippians Sermon Series

Summary: To find out more about how to find and offer our gifts, our charisms, we should only consider Luther and Peter.

Solemnity of Ss Peter & Paul 2014

Come, Holy Spirit

Five hundred and four years ago, a young priest from Germany made a pilgrimage on behalf of his religious community to Rome. He was poorly matched to the priesthood. He had been studying rhetoric and preparing to become a lawyer when his excessive scrupulosity and a scary incident in a storm caused him to make a rash vow to become a monk. His time as a religious did not bring him peace. He studied theology and scripture without any philosophical underpinnings. He was ignorant of the greatest Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas. And so when he found the clergy in Rome to be at its lowest ebb in history, corrupt and impious, his faith was shaken to its very core. He began to confuse personal moral corruption with church-wide doctrinal error. Within a decade he had begun a revolution that ultimately tore much of Europe away from the Faith. His name, of course, was Martin Luther.

Luther had been given uncommon gifts, charisms, at his baptism, confirmation and ordination. He was a preacher and a writer who could dazzle and motivate, even though his theology was riddled with nonsense. He used those powerful divine gifts to tear the Church apart. Five centuries later, we are still contending with the toxic fallout from that nuclear bomb.

All of us are charismatic in this sense. We are all given special gifts that empower us to build up the kingdom of God on earth. What we do with those gifts, won by Jesus Christ on the cross, is our decision. Let’s look at the scene painted in today’s Gospel.

The backdrop is the massive stone called Mount Hermon, right on the border between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. There was a pagan shrine there in Jesus’s day, built over a huge sinkhole that the locals called “the gate of Hades.” Jesus and His disciples were there one day, as St. Matthew tells the tale, and He was questioning them about an informal survey they had taken. We’d probably call it listening to the local gossip.

But before we hear two-thousand year-old gossip, let’s ask about how pious Jews talk–both then and now. The second commandment tells them and us not to use the name of the Lord in vain. Well, we–and they–are only human. Perhaps we don’t respect the name of God enough. Just think of the number of times people text “OMG.” I fear that the name “Jesus Christ” may be used more in exclamations than in prayer. And substitutes like “O my gosh” or “by golly” are pretty easy to decode, aren’t they? Let’s face it–there’s as much ignorance and misuse of the second commandment as there is of the second amendment.

So a pious Jew–then and now–just doesn’t use the name of God at all. Many orthodox Jews will say “Hashem”, which is a Hebrew word meaning “name” whenever referring to God. You can’t misuse a name you don’t ever say. But in the first century, Jews frequently would pronounce a blessing when they could not avoid using the words “Adonai” in Hebrew or “Kyrios” or “Theos” in Greek. We can see this all over St. Paul’s letters. For example, in Romans, he writes “of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, be blessed for ever. Amen.” (9:5) You can’t be abusing the name of our Lord when you are pronouncing a blessing or prayer with that precious Name. So let me suggest, in passing, that when somebody says in your presence, “O Lord” or “Jesus Christ,” just add “have mercy.” That becomes a serious prayer and a light rebuke all at once. Anyway, in the first century, in verbal communication, if you had to say the word “God,” you always added something like “blessed is He.”

Now let’s return to the foot of Mount Hermon, close to the pagan shrine over the gate to hell. Jesus wants to hear the gossip about Himself. What is the popular opinion about His identity. There are many: some say He’s John the Baptist come back to life, because He isn’t afraid to call a sin a sin, and is a great preacher. We know old King Herod was deathly afraid of that. Others say Jesus is Elijah or another prophet come back from the dead. But Jesus is just prepping them for the big question. And it’s the biggest question in our life, too. He turns to the Twelve and his other followers and asks “who do YOU say that I am?”

It’s important that Simon give the answer, and the Holy Spirit inspires him to do just that, and to say it exactly right. We can guess Peter’s exact words, because he was a pious Jew: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God, blessed is He. Jesus then picks up on this profession of faith: blessed are YOU, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Jesus is not finished. Since Simon has acknowledged Jesus’s true identity, Jesus now gives Simon his: 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, [which means Rock] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16: 15-19)

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