25 August 2008

Never Forsaken

21st Sunday OT: Is 22.19-23; Rom 11.33-36; Matt 16.13-20
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

We say to the Lord this morning: “Lord, your love is eternal; do not forsake the work of your hands.” We do not say this because we believe that the Lord might forsake us. We do not say this because we doubt that we are the Lord’s handiwork. Nor do we say this because we believe that the Lord’s love is limited by the timepieces of His creation. We say “Lord, your love is eternal” because—though we know that this is true—we must hear it said with our own tongues for only by tasting the words will we come to live the truth that we speak! We beg the Lord, “Lord, do not forsake the work of your hands”—though we know He would never forsake His promise to us—we beg because we must feel the steel of His promise in our mouths, the cold, metallic resolve of the ordering Word, the First Breath, the finality of our Lord’s enduring guarantee. What we know, we pray: “We give thanks to you, O Lord, with all our heart, for you have heard the Words of our mouths”—the Word You Yourself placed on our tongues “because of Your kindness and your truth!” What we know, we pray: “When he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.” Peter opens his mouth to say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” and when he shuts his mouth, the Lord opens his own to say, “Blessed are you…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And so, we are loved forever. And so, we are never forsaken.

We should celebrate on this twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time, the teaching office of the Church, embodied in and employed by he who sits in Peter’s Chair. After all, our Lord says to Peter that he is the rock of the Church, the foundation stone of the Body that will grow into history and produce the great saints (and sinners!) of our western civilization. Our Lord is not speaking metaphorically or symbolically when he says that he will be with us always. His promise to abide with us to the end is best understood as a promise to found, concretely and in perpetuity, a living organism; a breathing, growing entity capable of bringing to it constituent members the stuff of everlasting life, all that which nourishes, cherishes, and sustains holiness and hope. At the head of this Mystical Body is Christ himself, drawing all parts and pieces of creation to him, elements known to the Body and some unknown, seducing and attracting any and all who will perk up an ear to hear the gospel of mercy, or blink open a blearied eye to peek at the glory Christ reveals—the invitation to come to the feasting table is a broadcast not a telegraph, made on an open-mic not a secured line, directed to the milling crowds and not just the favored few, to bring all who will come and not only those who fit.

And all those who come in answer to our Lord’s open-handed, open-hearted broadcast of “come-one, come-all” flavor the Body with a distinctive diversity, an exciting assortment of faces, tongues, customs, rhythms, textures, and for this catholicity we are deeply grateful. As we watch the Lord’s face multiply in his Church, we see him come more sharply into focus as he reveals himself through his creatures. Each beautiful face exposes Beauty Himself. So, it is no wonder at all that we are tempted to celebrate this abundant diversity as a good end in itself, to raise up this bounty of variety and make it the point of the Church, the purpose of Christ’s Body in the world. But if we succumb to this temptation—to glorify the human diversity of the Church for the sake of diversity—we overlook entirely that which attracts and binds the diversity of the Church: the emphatic YES of each beautiful face, each rhythmic tongue, each soul, seduced and delivered to the perfecting love of Christ. It is the commitment of our YES to Christ that unites us as a Church, not the variety of our packaging, not the impermanent assortment of skin and hair and speech but our willed participation in the permanent unity of love, Love Himself.

How difficult would it be for us as creatures of body and soul to live together in the unity of Love Himself without a Body to ground our common spirit? In other words, given what we know to be the case about ourselves as sinful persons, how difficult would it be for us to live together without a concrete expression of God’s love for us? Surely, we have the historical events of the Passion and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday. But none of us now were there then. We have the witness of scripture, the eyewitness accounts of what happened at the moment when the Father revealed His enduring love for us on the cross. Yes, of course, and surely scripture lives with us, but it with US that scripture lives. Our committed YES to the love of Christ is certainly given the gravity of history and the excitement of scripture, but concretely how do we live day-to-day with our YES? How do we make history now? How do we make scripture alive now? If our history is to be more than tall-tales and our scripture more than those tall-tales written down, there must be a living tradition, that is, a breathing, growing body of “that which is handed on.” That Body is the Church and the Church is where our committed YES is held in trust, unpacked in its fullness, suited up, put to work, and elaborated to be handed-on to the next set of beautiful faces and rhythmic tongues.

In handing Peter the keys to the kingdom, Christ not only makes Peter and his successors stewards of the heavenly household, he also founds the rock-bottom slab of the Church, the Body to be energized at Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Christ establishes, institutes; he plants and provides nourishment and care for his emerging Body. At the proclamation made by Peter that Jesus is the only Son of the Living God, Christ reveals that the Father Himself has made Peter privy to what has until now been a secret. And now that the disciples know, and now that Peter has been confirmed in his office, Jesus assures his friends that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against [my church]. Do you hear the psalmist singing, “Lord, your love is eternal”? Do you hear Isaiah prophesying, “When he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open”?

Christ’s promise to be with us forever is not a symbol or a sign or a metaphor. His promise is a Church. Founded on Peter and the revelation the Father Himself gave to Peter. Binding and loosing, the Church, through the office of Peter, teaches the faith; that is, what it is to believe and what we are to believe. We know our God’s love is everlasting. And so, we are loved forever. And so, we are never forsaken.