A New Order
In this beautiful homily for 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Father Hanly looks at how Jesus, standing in the shadow of the great god Pan and the whole pagan world, establishes a new order, with a community of men and women who are one with Jesus.
Readings for Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
- First Reading: Isaiah 22:15, 19-23
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8
- Second Reading: Romans 11:33-36
- Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20
You probably don’t know this, but today’s Gospel is the turning point in the ministry of Jesus.
We have been following him all the way from the south, all the way from his own baptism, all the way up through Samaria, through Galilee, and now he’s at the top, the very top of Palestine.
He is there, and this is a very interesting area, because he brings them to a place that is noted historically as the place where devils are worshipped, or perhaps not quite as strong a language as that but certainly there was the shrine, the very popular shrine, to the Greek god Pan.
And the Greek god Pan was one of those kind of naughty gods, leading people astray all the time. And you see him very often in ancient pictures as playing a flute. And he used to play his flute to kind of entice good people away and into doing the kind of naughty things he was known for.
But it was a very serious god in many ways. And at the time of Jesus, his power had waned a bit, but there were still four great caves there in which Pan was worshipped. And above them was this very large outcrop of rock that would shade the area where the people used to come and sing and dance and revel and other things as well.
Why do I mention all this?
Because this is the place where Jesus suddenly stops and he says to his disciples — after they had journeyed and been in many places, large crowds following them, now they were all alone — and he says to them, “Who do people say that I am?”
And, of course, “Some say that you’re John the Baptist.” John the Baptist who was already dead having been beheaded by King Herod. “Some say that he has risen from the dead and you are John the Baptist. Others say you’re Jeremiah or some great prophet from the past.”
And then Jesus says to them,
“Who do you say that I am?”
And, of course, this is the main point, isn’t it?
We’re all sitting here. It doesn’t matter what Herod did or said to John the Baptist, or how he treated Jesus. None of this matters.
Because we all say to each other, “Yes, well, in his time this person did this and this person did that, and Peter did this and someone else did that,” but we’re not answering the question that Jesus is asking.
He’s saying, “Who do you say that I am?”
You. Not two centuries ago. Not even a hundred years ago. Not all the theologians and everybody else that we admire: St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas and all these wonderful people. It doesn’t matter what they said of Jesus. Because Jesus, today, here and now, says the same thing to us, “But who do you say that I am?”
And Peter, the lovely Peter who’s always in trouble, the impetuous Peter who a few weeks ago was saying to Jesus, “If it is you, Lord, let me come to you walking on water,” because Jesus had appeared on the edge of the sea.
And Jesus said to him, “Come,” and so he began to walk on water.
And then, all of a sudden, all his faith fell out of him: “What am I doing? I’m walking on water,” worried about this, that and other things, and he begins to sink. And he cries out, “Lord save me.”
And Jesus reaches out and holds him and lifts him up and brings this weak little man with a lot of bravado, into the boat and into safety.
This is Peter, who now says, standing in the shadow of the great god Pan and the whole pagan world,
“You are the Christ,
which means the Messiah, which means the Holy One, the Anointed One of God.
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And then Jesus, with great love, he understands. He understands two things.
The first thing he understands, of course, is Peter speaks the truth.
But the other thing he understands is the hour has come, for this is the first time that anyone has spoken those words: “I believe in you because you are the Son of God.”
And so Jesus says to him, “Peter.” Peter means rock. His real name or his given name is Simon. But the days of Simon are over, and the days of Peter the Rock begin.
And Jesus says to him, “Flesh and blood has not opened your heart to understand this thing, but my Father in heaven has graced you with this knowledge and understanding, and I say to you that from now on you will be known as the Rock, Peter the Rock.”
And then he tells them, “I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, whatever you judge in this world is judged in heaven.”
Peter must have been dumbfounded.
At the same time, we have to remember and think that it is what Jesus is saying is important to all of us.
Because if we stand up, and say to our hearts when he whispers, “And who do you say that I am?” and we say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” if we say that, then we make ourselves his disciples.
And in making us disciples, he teaches us that there are only two realities left in our lives, and the first reality is faith. It is an act of faith, the giving of ourselves to him, totally and completely. And the second thing, of course, is an act of love.
And this is what Jesus is finally establishing: a community of men and women, very ordinary, like Peter, full of weaknesses, very much a part of this life and open to the misfortunes and the difficulties and the pains of this life, but also open to share with God His own life and to become one with His Son, Jesus.
And in becoming one with His Son, Jesus, to be moved by him, to believe in him, to walk with him, to be one with him, above all others, above all the things that we might in our broken little hearts and broken little lives love and hate.
It is something of another order. It is the order of a new community.
For in that moment, in that place, in the paganism of the past, far from the Jewish arguments about this and that, theological reasons and the rest of it, Jesus has established one thing: the world is now changed, the world is new, the world is not the way it used to be.
It’s not the way it was, because God Himself has come down to heal us. And more than heal us, but to take possession of our arms and legs and our voices and the things we do and even our weaknesses, so that the world may finally begin to understand there are only two realities in life for any human being.
And he does it up there in the shadow of a pagan god to let us know that this is not something that is for the people of the past, even the wonders of the Jewish people who have given so much to the belief they brought back with them down to our own day, but all people, including them and including us and including the pagans who danced around that place of worship to the pagan god.
There’s only one reality left, and that is there is love and there is service and nothing else.
God loves us and He serves us. And He asks us to join with Him in loving and in serving each other.
And do we fail?
The Bible says a good person fails seven times a day. But we do not really fail fail, for to fail fail, as Mother Theresa says, is the great failure when you fall and you never get up again.
But Jesus is with us and each time we fall he lifts us up and says, “Come with me, for we have two purposes in life: one is to love and one is to serve.”
And perhaps, year after year, and century after century, people of each era and each day will begin to realise that this is what the world means in God’s eyes.
And what the world means in God’s eyes is the only world worth living in and rejoicing in — and even wiping tears along the way.
So today is, in a real sense, the beginning of Jesus.
And the next few weeks, he will be marching, not up into heaven, but down into the dark valleys, until he goes all the way to Jerusalem and all the way to accepting that his Father wants him to show his love and to show his service by giving up his life for the whole world.