a peg in a sure spot

‘You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.’ I want to start and pretty much stay with the narrowest interpretation of today’s gospel (Mt 16:13-20), the one that the Catholic Church leans on, that is, that this gospel is mainly about the primacy of Peter, and therefore the primacy of the office that Peter’s successors enjoy. I have heard the interpretation that it is actually Peter’s faith that is the rock, not Peter himself, and maybe there is something to that too. But instead of either defending or deconstructing Peter’s primacy, I’m just going to assume it, but hopefully contextualize it a little bit.

I was really attracted by the phrase used in the reading from Isaiah coupled with this text (Is 22:19-23)[i]: through the mouth of the prophet the Lord God says of Eliakim son of Hilkiah (in a rather complicated diatribe against some guy named Shebna, the master of the palace) that he will dismiss him (Shebna) from his office, and instead make Eliakim ‘like a peg in a sure spot.’ What a marvelous description this is of someone. It made me think of my Dad. He was always like a peg in a sure spot. No matter what was going on in the world around us, my Dad was always steady.

What has so impressed me about the last few popes is not how they have exalted themselves, but the ways in which they diminished themselves. This is true especially in terms of our relationship with the other communions that are closest to ours, that have a sense of apostolic succession and are liturgical sacramental traditions––the Orthodox Communion and the Anglican Communion––but with whom we have some serious contention about the primacy of Peter. There are several stories told at San Gregorio. Having been the place from which Saint Gregory the Great sent Augustine off to evangelize the Angles, it’s also a place for many Anglican-Roman encounters. And of course our Don Innocenzo, who has been there for decades, has had a long history of involvement with the Orthodox church.

I was told that when Pope Paul VI met the Archbishop of Canterbury there, the pope gave the archbishop his episcopal ring. Now, popes (like presidents and other heads of state, like Jesus and other great teachers) know that every little nod or wink carries great significance. For a pope to give an episcopal ring to an Anglican archbishop––this was no small gesture. Most people took this as a public recognition of the apostolic succession of his episcopacy. And when John Paul II met the Archbishop of Canterbury at San Gregorio, he gave the archbishop as a gift a chalice! Again most folks understood this to be a public acknowledgement and honoring of the Anglican priesthood. Pope Benedict made great strides in reaching out especially to the Orthodox Church and, though it was controversial from the other side, saw to the creation of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in 2012, for those who were nurtured in the Anglican tradition. And our present Holy Father has a very good friendship with both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Our Don Emanuele said something once, I didn’t quite get the wording of it correct but the gist was, “We don’t wait for communion to happen. Comunione succede quando facciamo comunione––Communion happens when we make communion.” The most secure person makes the first step toward reconciliation.

Another one of those little gestures happened at the first World Day of Peace in Assisi, organized and led by Pope John Paul II in 1986, amid some controversy from more conservative elements in the church. The remarkable choreography of that day was that there were representatives of all the world’s religions sitting together in the piazza, with the pope in the middle, but the pope was not in a throne, not on a raised dais––just a plain old chair like everyone else had––prima intra pares. They may seem like a small thing to us, but everyone noticed. Only someone who is secure of his or her place in the world could do something like that. And talk about gesture that shook the world: almost the first public act we saw this present pope do was go to a prison and wash and kiss the feet of Christian and non-Christian young men and women prisoners. Only someone who is secure of his or her place in the world could pull off something like that.

I ran into this quote the other day in a news article: “The stronger leaders actually are, the less they need the stage-prop symbols of strength.”[ii] Maybe the same thing applies to church leaders; maybe this is why Jesus wanted his followers to avoid widened philacteries and places of honor (as we heard in the gospel reading yesterday): ‘The greatest among you will be the one who serve.’ On the other hand (what I finally figured out, too late to avoid getting beat up in high school) was that it’s actually the bullies who are the ones who are insecure. The stronger leaders actually are, the less they need the stage-prop symbols of strength. Whereas it may seem like the strong man is the one who can huff and puff and blow the house down, I was always taught that the bigger man (excuse the exclusive language; I went to an all-boys boarding school), the really stronger person is always the one who takes the first step toward reconciliation.

I was remembering the interview with Congressman John Lewis that we heard some months ago. He was speaking about his involvement in the non-violent protests in the early 1960s, the sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, and of course the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. As I listened I was just amazed, and I knew I would not have had the strength to do what these folks did. They did all kinds of training for nonviolent protests in which were taught to dress up, act politely, look your attacker in the eye, and never retaliate. And John Lewis, 60 years later, saying, “You can beat us, you can insult us, you can almost kill me, and I am still going to love you.” Now there’s strength; there’s a peg in a sure spot. It’s like Jesus standing before Pilate. Ronald Rolheiser said about that scene that Jesus, tied up, wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe, humiliated, beaten, standing before Pntius Pilate was the only free man in that room. Pilate says, ‘Do you not know that I have the power to release you or the power to crucify you?’ Jesus says, ‘You have no power over me!’ As Jesus had said earlier in the Gospel of John at the end of the discourse on the Good Shepherd, ‘I lay my life down in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.[iii] There’s real strength, like a peg in a sure spot.

Pope Francis summed up pretty well what he thinks the office of Peter is for, in a speech that he gave to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy about the “leprosy of careerism in the church.” Mind you, he was speaking no doubt to clerics, but this equally applies to us. He said that we have to “be prepared to integrate all our own views of the Church––however legitimate they may be––into the horizon of Peter’s gaze.” And we have to integrate every personal idea or opinion about the Church––however legitimate they may be––into Peter’s specific mission. What is Peter’s gaze? Peter’s gaze is the “pastoral charity that embraces the whole world and wishes to be present… in those all-too-often forgotten places where the needs of the Church and of humanity are the greatest,” not on the seats of honor. And what is Peters’ mission? Peter’s mission is to be “at the service of the communion and unity of Christ’s flock.”[iv] To be at the service of communion and unity: that’s the mission of Peter. This is one among many reasons why I like to use the 2nd Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation especially in our day and age. We pray in it that the God would make of the Church, “a sign of unity and an instrument of peace for all people.” Like a peg in a sure place, no matter what else is going on in the world, the Church of Christ is a sign of unity and an instrument of peace for all people.

James Hillman wrote that, “If we don’t disturb the mind’s familiar concepts of power, we can hardly be smart when using it.” This is a warning of what happens if we don’t convert our idea of what real power is. Please note that three verses later in this very same chapter Jesus calls Peter “Satan”! “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church,” and then––BAM!––“You’re Satan!” Jesus also says, “You are a rock!” and then two minutes later he says to Peter, “You’re a stumbling block!” If we don’t all our mind’s familiar concepts of power to be converted, we’re not gonna be smart when we exercise it. In like manner two verses after the Lord has said, through the prophet Isaiah that he will fasten Eliakim son of Hilkiah like a peg in a secure place, and hang on him the whole weight of the ancestral house, we hear that that same peg that was fastened in a secure place will give way, will be cut down and fall, and the load that was on it will perish.[v] Even so, not very long after this, as Matthew recounts it, we see Peter weeping bitterly at the sound of the cock crowing after having three times renounced even knowing Jesus. Peter again is a stumbling stone, and we have built our church too many times upon that instead, the stumbling stone of Peter saving his own skin, the stumbling stone of taking the easier, softer way, of denying Jesus and, especially, trying to avoid the cross. Ah, maybe it’s true that it is actually Peter’s faith that is the rock, not Peter himself! We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.[vi]

When we are grafted onto the vine, which is the Body of Christ, we are set like a peg in a sure spot. When we rely not on our own strength but on the power of the Spirit, we’re like a peg in a secure spot. When we remove ourselves from the cross of Christ, from the rock which is Christ, from the vine which is Christ (and we the branches) then we become a stumbling stone, and even the church and the community of believers can be and oftentimes in history has been a stumbling stone rather than a foundation. Fr. Bede Griffiths used an ironic interesting phrase for this––that the church, and even community, can then become a “positive obstacle.” It’s like what Walker Percy calls a “putative good”: it looks good but it’s not. And to use another stone reference, Jesus tells us what to do with ourselves if that ever happens: take another kind of rock––a millstone––… I don’t have to finish that sentence.

There’s a challenge in today’s gospel. It’s not just about Peter; it challenges us to be prepared to integrate all our own views of the Church––however legitimate they may be––into the “horizon of Peter’s gaze,” a pastoral charity that embraces the whole world and wishes to be present in those all-too-often forgotten places where the needs of humanity are the greatest. There’s a challenge to convert every personal idea or opinion that we might have of the Church––however legitimate they may be––into Peter’s specific mission to be at the service of communion and unity. May God make of the Church, our community and each of us like a peg in a sure place––“a sign of unity and an instrument of peace for all God’s people.”


27 august 17


[i] Liturgical side note: the other verses from the first reading are the ones used for the O antiphon December 20th. The “Key of David” who opens and closes without anyone contesting it… It’s used in Advent referring to the Christ, but here it seems to point toward Peter and the authority of the church––”what you bind on earth is bound in heaven, what you declare loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.”

[ii] It goes along with what is called the “chicken-hawk principle.” A chicken hawk is a person who strongly supports war or other military action, yet who actively avoids or avoided military service when of age.

[iii] Jn 10:17-18.

[iv] The Church of Mercy, 116.

[v] Is 22:23-25.

[vi] 2 Cor 4:7.

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