The first reading this Sunday may seem like an obscure passage written by an archaic prophet, but at the time it was steeped in real economic and political concerns that threatened the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. A constant worry among the ancient Jews was the real danger posed by neighboring nation-states and imperial powers. For most of their history, the Israelite kingdoms had to contend with small, rival nations who competed for control of the commercial and agricultural resources in the eastern Mediterranean region. The principal enemies of the northern kingdom were Aram and Moab, while the southern kingdom of Judah principally competed with the Philistine city-states and Edom.
However, it was the rise of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires to the north that were of the most concern because of their aggressively expansionist policies. The Israelite kingdoms were sandwiched between Egypt and these two empires, whose joint goal was the conquest of Egypt to the south, as well as control over the trade routes between them. Egypt of course resisted, and the Israelite kingdoms were caught in the middle. To stave off war, Egypt tried to convince several vassal states of Assyria to revolt, forcing the political giant to focus its attention elsewhere.
The prophet Isaiah insists that Judah refuse such political machinations and instead trust God to protect the nation. Although Judah ultimately did not join the conspiracy against Assyria, which spared the city of Jerusalem, the ensuing revelry among its inhabitants angered Isaiah, who said their conspicuous consumption and disregard for the poor would result in God’s judgment. In particular, Isaiah blamed the king’s chief of staff, Shebna, and predicted his fall from power and replacement by another royal steward named Eliakim. The royal steward traditionally held the keys of the kingdom because he had the most powerful governmental position in Israel under the king.
In the gospel reading today, Jesus borrows this ancient feature of royal power when he says that Peter will be installed as the chief steward of God’s kingdom. He and his successors will possess the keys, so that “when he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open” (Is. 22:22). His teaching and juridical authority and ability to forgive or retain sins will allow him to “loose” and “bind” on earth with authority.
Throughout its history, the Church has derived its understanding of the papacy from this passage. The dogmatic constitution, Pastor Aeternus on the Church of Christ from the First Vatican Council in 1870 teaches and declares, “according to the testimony of the Gospel, that the primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church was immediately and directly promised to and conferred upon the blessed apostle Peter by Christ the Lord.”
In our postmodern, anti-institutional culture, power and authority are immediately suspect. In a confusing and relativistic world, however it is not a clear abdication of the power of free thinking to trust in the solid foundation of the authority of Peter and his successor popes on which Christ himself founded his Church.
During the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday, we pray for the Jewish people, “to whom the Lord our God spoke first, that he may grant them to advance in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant” and that “the people [God] first made [his] own may attain the fullness of redemption.” It is a beautiful prayer of hope and inclusion, that no person may ever be left without the salvation won for all humanity by Jesus Christ.
Since at least the early part of the third century, the doctrine has been that, outside the Church, there is no salvation (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus). In large part, the teaching rests on the words of Christ himself: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Because the Church was established by Christ (Matthew 16:18) who shows us the way to the Father, there can be no salvation outside the Church.
Recognizing that this teaching has been widely misunderstood, the worldwide college of bishops clarified its teaching during the Second Vatican Council in the document, Lumen Gentium (“LG”), otherwise known as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. As a result, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) now states more positively that “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC n. 846). Indeed, “[a]ll men are called to belong to the new People of God,” which is “present in all the nations of the earth” (LG 13).
While it is true that there is no salvation for those who knowingly reject the Church (CCC 846) and that salvation is most certain for those fully incorporated into her, nevertheless, “all people are related to the People of God” and therefore may be saved (LG 16). Non-Catholic Christians, for instance, are “in some real way joined to us in the Holy Spirit” (LG 15). Moreover, the Jews, “are a people most dear,” and “the plan of salvation also includes . . . the Moslems.” (Id.) “Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God . . . , since the Saviour wills all [people] to be saved.” (Id.) Those unaware of the message of Christ but who “nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience . . . too may achieve eternal salvation.” (Id.)
In the second reading today, Saint Paul firmly rejects the notion that God has rejected the Jews who did not accept Christ. Israel’s current unbelief is only temporary, he insists, and will last only until “the full number” of Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). In a poignant hope for his own people, Paul believes that, one day, “all Israel will be saved” by believing in the gospel (11:26).
We must always respect the religious traditions and beliefs of all people. However, as the People of God to whom the message of Christ has been entrusted, it is our sacred duty to pray for all those who do not yet believe in Christ and to work earnestly for their salvation.
A rite of passage in the seventh grade of my college preparatory school in Atlanta was to learn how to dive. It was part of the rigorous P.E. class that had become legendary in school folklore. Each of us only had to dive into the pool one time. But it wasn’t just any dive; it was a high dive, backwards, with our eyes closed, into the deep end of the pool.
For weeks before D-day, I agonized over the requirement. Not only had I inherited my father’s severe fear of heights, I also was deathly afraid of miscalculating the trajectory of the dive and smacking into the surface of the water like a ton of bricks. I tried everything to get out of it, including talking to Coach Higgins about it and even calling in sick the day my name came up. But when I returned to school, Coach barked out my name just the same, and I was forced to climb the long steel ladder leading to certain death.
As I nervously edged my way down the endless length of the diving board, my stomach bunched into knots. I came to the end of the fluttering plank, turned around, took a deep breath, and then bolted like a spooked horse. I was the laughingstock of the class. Unlike Peter who tried to walk on water and then sunk, I never even dared to get wet at all.
On that day, I learned that fear is a powerful motivator, and I vowed never again to be seduced by it. As Nelson Mandela once said, “courage [is] not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” I also have come to realize that fear comes in all forms, including perhaps most significantly the fear of change.
As a community of faith, we are on a mission from God. We have a purpose, and God expects that purpose to be our driving force and single motivator in life. That purpose is to gather together in fellowship and prayer, mature and grow in faith, and then take what we have learned into ministry and mission, serving others and teaching them about Christ. Although like so many others we easily can fall into spiritual ruts, refusing to change, fearful of the high dive or drowning in uncharted waters, we are called to close our eyes and trust in God.
This Fall, we will take the plunge into new waters, and I urge you to take a risk and dive in with us. We will roll out our new Saint Brendan Small Bytes Program, so that you can learn more about your faith in easy-to-digest ways. We will launch our Small Group Experiences, so that you can share your faith and do life together with other Catholics in a relaxed, intimate setting. We are charting a new direction in our Faith Formation program for children, and inviting world-class speakers to address us on important topics of faith throughout this year.
Our theme for the year is Pray Together. Stay Together. Read more in the following articles, and take the free fall with us. Do not be afraid, for it is the Lord who commands us to “come to him on the water.”
Put yourself in the shoes of Jesus’ disciples, who witnessed firsthand his Transfiguration. Jesus had said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men,” and they left their nets, boats, and family to follow him. They listened to the Sermon on the Mount, watched him teach astonished crowds, and saw many healings and miracles. They followed him, as he “went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness” (Matthew 9:35). It must have seemed at that point that their decision to leave everything and accompany Jesus was a good one.
Then the narrative shifts. Jesus sends them out to preach that the “kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 10:7), but at the same time warns them about coming persecutions and the need to be courageous because he will be a cause of division. They will need to take up their crosses and lose their own lives for his sake.
Then he squares off with the Pharisees, who question his every move. They demand a sign from him to justify his authority. He speaks in parables because “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven . . . has not been granted” to an evil generation (Matthew 13:11). He was rejected by the people in his hometown, who “took offense at him” (Matthew 13:57). He then predicts his own passion and death, and reminds the disciples that they must pick up their crosses and follow the same path. “Whoever wishes to come after me,” he said, “must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). I wonder how many of the apostles, at that point, reconsidered the wisdom of their decision to follow Jesus.
After the Transfiguration, there would be more trouble. Jesus would predict his own passion and death two more times. More persecution would lie ahead. His authority would be questioned in Jerusalem. He would be tested by the Sadducees, and the Pharisees would plot against him. He would lament over the impending destruction of Jerusalem and face off against the Pharisees once again. Finally, one of his own would betray him, leading to his crucifixion and death.
The Transfiguration, which occurs roughly halfway through Matthew’s gospel, would be a kind of intermission for the disciples. It was intended to encourage them, like a coach who encourages his team during the halftime of a game. According to CSU coach, Gary Curneen, “the half-time team talk in a game can be the most vital 15 minutes for a coach on game day.” It is an opportunity to motivate, encourage, and make necessary adjustments for the second half.
Jesus came over to his cowering disciples, touched them, and said, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” This was Jesus’ halftime speech. This is what gave them courage to continue into the second-half of Jesus’ ministry. Whatever difficulties you face, crosses you are forced to carry, or deaths you must suffer, remember this message from our Lord. For no matter what fearsome roads lie ahead, it is the Lord who accompanies you, who drops everything to follow you. So, “rise, and do not be afraid.”
Father Roger Gustafson