Sunday, August 21, 2011

Only the Church shall overcome the gates of hell

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 21st, 2011
Matthew 16:13-20

And so 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.

Now I don’t normally mention movies in a homily, but something from a popular movie from a few years ago strikes me as quite applicable to our Gospel today. I am thinking of the family movie called “The Sandlot”, it is one with which I am sure most of you are familiar.
The movie “The Sandlot” is about a group of young boys who play pick-up games of baseball throughout the summer in the local sandlot. One of the boys, who is called “Smalls” is new to town, but he is welcomed into this little band of brothers and learns all about baseball, friendship, and loyalty.
There is a certain point in the movie where the boys run out of baseballs and this new kid “Smalls” says that he will go to his house and get an extra ball. He brings this baseball back and promptly hits his first homerun, the ball sailing over the fence into a sort-of junk yard which is watched over by a guard-dog.
It is only at this point that the boys realize that this was no ordinary baseball. The ball had been signed by Babe Ruth! “Smalls” did understand the significance of this fact, he didn’t even know who Babe Ruth was – he says, “Who is SHE?!” It is only when the other boys impress upon him the true value of the ball, the fact that it is so rare and precious, that he really comes to understand that they have to get that ball back. And so the movie progresses into a delightful and funny tale about trying to outsmart that old guard-dog.

What strikes me about this little story is that the boy didn’t recognize the value of that ball because he didn’t realize just how rare it was. He didn’t know how precious the ball was, so he ended up losing it through negligence.
Perhaps we can see here a little analogy for the way that we often think of the Church. Do we recognize just how unique and precious a gift the Church is to the world and to all of us individually?

Christ today states that he will found his Church upon Simon, and he names him “Peter” which means “Rock”. Then our Savior tells him, “Upon this rock – that is, upon you, Simon Peter – I will build my Church.” Here our Lord gives his people the promise of the Church which will be solidly established upon Peter and his successors, the Popes.
But what is the next line? “And the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

“The gates of the netherworld shall never prevail against the Church.” Perhaps we miss Christ’s point: The gates of the netherworld WILL prevail against every other entity. The gates of the hell will overcome every society, every nation, every ideology and philosophy; but they shall not prevail against the Church.
When Jesus tells us that the Church will withstand the gates of hell and will persevere until the end of time, he is saying that the Church alone will stand the trials of this life and pass over into life eternal.
It is not that the Church is one entity, one being, one religion among the many others against which the gates of hell will not prevail. No! The Church alone – and none other, excepting insofar as it is within the Church – the Church alone will overcome the gates of the netherworld.

And now we begin to recognize something of the great value of the gift Christ gave us when he founded the Church. This is a most precious and rare gift, it is one of a kind and there is no other church in which we may find salvation.
But what is more, consider the love with which Christ said these words to Peter! When our Savior says that the gates of hell shall never prevail against his Church it is as though he is telling us, “The powers of hell and the prince of demons will overcome this world and all who hope in the world, but I do not want you to be overcome, I do not what you to fall. Come, then, I shall establish my Church upon Peter as my solid Rock – I will make him to be strong in me, so that you may be saved. I promise you, I swear by it, the Church will never fall and she will never be overcome. Come, then, and find rest for yourselves.

And yet, the Church is still human as well. Certainly, there are mistakes and even the priests and bishops (indeed, even the Pope) can sometimes upset us. However, we have to trust in Christ’s words – the Church will never be overcome by the gates of hell, she will never fall and she will never be led astray. 
This is why it is so sad that people will sometimes leave the Church because they are upset about something in the moment. It is sad because it is a type of despair, it is as though they are saying that hell has prevailed against the Church. But Christ promised us that this would never happen!

Christ our Savior looks upon the world and he sees that all are on the verge of falling, so many have gone astray. He looks upon his Bride, the Church, and he sees that many of her members are imperfect and weak. But he always looks upon us with love and with a desire to draw us back.
This is why he gave us the Church in the first place – not because we are already perfect and well established, but because we are weak and ready to fall (indeed, we have all fallen many times). And so our Savior established the Church as a refuge and resting place, she is the solid foundation and fortress wherein we shall find protection unto life everlasting.