You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church

Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday of Year A

by Fr. Tommy Lane

The visit of Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, to this country this Spring (2008) was such a blessing to us. He came to give us hope, to remind us that Christ is our Hope. The office and ministry of Our Holy Father, the Pope, goes right back to Jesus, and was founded by Jesus, as we heard in our Gospel today,

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt 16:17-19)

Simon’s name was changed to Peter by Jesus to signify his new vocation; “Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Kepha” (which is translated Peter).” (John 1:42). In the Scriptures when a person’s name is changed it signifies a new vocation. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Hoshea becomes Joshua and Simon becomes Peter and there are many other name changes in the Scriptures.

Peter’s name has great meaning. In Aramaic, the language spoken in Palestine at the time of Jesus, the name “Peter” and the word “rock” were the same word, Kepha. So Jesus would have said, “You are Kepha and on this Kepha I will build my Church.” Of course Jesus is the foundation stone on which the Church is founded but the Pope is the visible human head of the Church on earth, an office and vocation founded by Jesus to guide the Church, “You are Kepha and on this Kepha I will build my Church.”

On many other occasions in Scripture we see Jesus giving precedence to Peter. Above all we think of Jesus’ appearance to the apostles by the Sea of Galilee when he asked Peter if he loved him and commanded him to look after the flock of the Church:

Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” (Jesus) said to him, “Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17)

During the Last Supper we read in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus spoke to Peter about his future role,

Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-32)

We see the unique role and vocation of Peter among the other apostles, Peter is to strengthen the brothers. Whenever the Gospels list the apostles they always put Peter’s name first to signify his vocation as head of the Church. Again and again in the Acts of the Apostles we see that it is Peter who has the role of leadership in the Church. It was Peter who decided that Judas had to be replaced (Acts 1:15-26). It was Peter who preached at Pentecost.

Jesus also gives Peter the authority to make decisions for the Church as we heard in today’s Gospel,

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt 16:19)

This is because Jesus would leave no detailed blueprint for the Church; instead Peter would have to make decisions for the good ordering of the Church as the Church expanded. So in Acts 6, the College of Bishops, the Twelve Apostles acting together in unity, decided to institute the Order of Deacons. Peter and his successors would have to bind and loose many things on earth over the course of the next twenty centuries for the good ordering of the Church.

We believe the Popes have been given a special charism or grace, Infallibility. Infallibility means that when Our Holy Father, the Pope, teaches on matters of faith or morals he is prevented from teaching error. It is a grace for his teaching, and does not mean that the Pope is sinless. Even when there have been immoral Popes their teaching was preserved from error. When the Pope teaches ex cathedra (from the chair) he enjoys infallibility. This refers to those extremely rare occasions when the Pope exercises his authority as our Supreme Shepherd. Only twice has a Pope issued an ex cathedra statement:

  • The Immaculate Conception of Our Lady proclaimed in 1854 (confirmed by Our Lady in her appearance in Lourdes four years later in 1858 when she announced herself as “I am the Immaculate Conception”).

  • The Assumption of Our Lady Body and Soul into heaven proclaimed in 1950.

No individual bishop enjoys infallibility but when the bishops of the whole world act in unity with the Pope such as during the ecumenical councils, similar to the unity of the College of Bishops or Twelve Apostles in Acts 6, they enjoy infallibility.

Jesus is the foundation stone on which the Church is founded but Our Holy Father, the Pope, is the visible human head of the Church on earth, an office and vocation founded by Jesus to guide the Church, “You are Kepha and on this Kepha I will build my Church.” Wouldn’t it be good to read more Papal teaching to nourish our souls?

I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt 16:18-19)

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered in a parish in Maryland near where I have joined the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More homilies for the Twenty-First Sunday Year A

You are the Christ, the Son of the living God

Jesus was different from the expected Messiah - we take our values from Jesus

Related Homilies: Peter grew to consider suffering for Jesus an honor

stories about the Pope