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The Church's authority structure is founded on St. Peter, and her theology is based on St. Paul
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Monday, the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles, June 29, 2020
Acts 12:1-11, Psalm 33, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 17-18, Matthew 16:13-19


 

Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted

 

 

 

“He [Jesus] said to them [the apostles], ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ” (Matthew 16:15-20).

 

 

On this Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul we celebrate the foundation of the Church, for Jesus founded his Church on St. Peter, and St. Paul is its greatest preacher and theologian. The Church today still has the successor of St. Peter as its foundation and earthly head, even though Jesus Christ himself (1 Corinthians 3:11) and all of the apostles (Ephesians 2:20) are also the foundation of the Church. Nonetheless St. Peter is singled out by Jesus as the one on whom he would build his Church, and that is the reason why Jesus gave him the name Peter, meaning rock. To last, a building must have a foundation of rock, for otherwise the storms will destroy it. Jesus named Peter above all the other apostles as the rock on which his Church would be built.

 

 

Death itself would not prevail against the Church built on the rock of St. Peter, for Jesus says, “The powers of death shall not prevail against it [the Church]” (Matthew 16:18). This means that the Church with this constitution, with Peter as its head and foundation, would not be destroyed by Peter’s death nor by the death of his successor. And so it has been through two thousand years of Church history. When St. Peter died, his successor was chosen. And when that successor died, another was chosen, down to our present Pope Francis. The remains of St. Peter have actually been found in Rome underneath St. Peter’s Basilica, for he was its first bishop, and all of his successors down to the present have been bishops of Rome, even during the time when seven successive bishops of Rome were living in exile in Avignon, France, from 1309 to 1377. They were still known as the bishops of Rome, the successors of St. Peter, the first bishop of Rome.

 

 

Not only does Jesus say that he will build his Church on the rock of Peter, whose name, meaning rock, was given to him by Jesus, but Jesus doubles down and tells him that he will also give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven and that whatever he binds on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19). Believers in Jesus have always understood this right from the very beginning as special prerogatives that Jesus gave to St. Peter and his successors, who have been throughout history the bishops of Rome, the earthly heads of the Church. They would have special authority over the kingdom of God on earth, which is the Church. They would hold the keys of the kingdom. And they would have the power to make decisions, that is, to bind and to loose.

 

 

But we have rediscovered in our own day that the successor of St. Peter also has strict limits to his great powers. He cannot decree anything as authentic magisterium (official authentic Church teaching) that contradicts the Scriptures, especially the New Testament. Nor can he declare anything as authentic magisterium that contradicts the constant and unbroken Tradition of the Catholic Church’s doctrinal and moral teaching. If a pope should proclaim something that contradicts Scripture and Tradition. Theologians, cardinals, bishops, and even laypeople will rise up and correct him, as we have seen happen repeatedly during the present pontificate.

 

 

If the successor of Peter should declare that something which contradicts Scripture and Tradition is “authentic magisterium,” it would not thereby become authentic magisterium, for if it contradicts Scripture and Tradition, it lacks the quality of authentic magisterium, for authentic magisterium never contradicts Scripture and Tradition.

 

 

So Jesus gave St. Peter great powers, but these are great powers also have clear and powerful limitations that a Pope cannot exceed, and if he does, his teaching will simply be regarded as his own mistaken personal opinion, not the authoritative doctrinal and moral teaching of the successor of St. Peter. So this gives us the basic authority structure of the Church as founded on the rock which is St. Peter.

 

 

But today we also celebrate St. Paul, the Church’s greatest theologian. His theology of salvation is fundamental for the Church’s understanding of herself and of the gospel that she is to preach to the nations. St. Paul’s most important contribution is his magnificent doctrine of justification by faith, not by good moral works. Such a doctrine to the uninformed may seem to contradict common sense, but when looked at more deeply by reading his letters, one realizes the tremendous depth and beauty of this teaching. In fact, our own human experience teaches us that we cannot stand before God as justified on the basis of our own good works, good thoughts, good words, and good lives, as though we were perfect sinless beings that have never even had a bad thought.

 

 

No such human being has ever existed or ever will exist, except Jesus, for he was God as well as man, and his mother, whom Catholics believe was preserved from all sin by a special favor of God, through the anticipated merits of her son’s death on the cross. For the rest of us there is really no hope to be justified before God by our own good life, good works, good thoughts, and good words. None of us makes the grade, when it comes to our works. God gave us in the Old Testament his moral law (the Ten Commandments) which shows us how he wants us to live, but, in fact, this law has had the effect of showing us just how impossible it is to justify ourselves by our good moral works, for no one has ever been able to perfectly keep God’s moral law in its fullest sense.

 

 

So what use to us, then, is a moral law that no one can sufficiently (that is, perfectly) keep in order to be able to justify himself thereby? St. Paul, our greatest theologian, tells us that the law not only shows us how God wants us to live, but it also shows us what failures we are and what sinners we are, for if there were no clearly revealed written law, we would not clearly know right from wrong, and so when we do something wrong, we would not clearly and fully know that we have sinned and failed. So the law helps us to clearly know that we are sinners.

 

 

God’s moral law is no good to us for justification, because it is impossible to justify ourselves by keeping it, but it is good for us in that it shows us that we are sinners, as St. Paul says, “No human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). But gaining knowledge of our sinfulness is tremendously important now that Christ has come, for he has come to redeem and to save us from our sins. But if we do not see ourselves as sinners and do not clearly know what actions, thoughts, and words are sins, then we are not properly disposed to seek Christ in order to be saved from our sins. So the law has a key function in our life as Christians, for it makes us aware of the truth that we are sinners incapable of justifying ourselves by our own good works, and so it makes us ready and eager to hear the gospel and receive it with faith, for the gospel was given to us by God to solve our sin problem.

 

 

The gospel is the good news that now at last God has given us a Savior to save us from our sins and to justify us before God, that is, to make us just and righteous before him. And how does Jesus the Savior do that? He does it by suffering our death penalty for our sins for us on the cross so that when we put our trusting faith in him and in his atoning death for our sins on the cross, God counts his death on the cross as suffering our personal death sentence for our sins for us, and so God can then in all justice, and without violating his nature as an all-just God, acquit us from our sins and declare us ungodly sinners henceforth righteous, reckoning to us his own righteousness (Romans 4:5).

 

 

St. Paul reveals to us that the righteousness of God, which has always eluded the human race, is now available apart from the law and from law keeping, which we have all failed to do to a sufficient degree to justify ourselves thereby. And this righteousness is the righteousness of God himself that comes to us through our faith in Jesus Christ to every one that believes in him.

 

 

Every human being needs this gift of righteousness, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NKJV). But now we are justified by God as a free gift “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith” (Romans 3:24-25 NKJV).

 

 

God set Jesus forth as a propitiation by his blood. This means that God sent Jesus to us to propitiate his [God’s] own justice by suffering our death sentence for our sins for us on the cross so that God, who is all just, can forgive us without violating his justice, since Christ was justly and duly punished in his flesh on the cross for the sins of the world (1 Corinthians 5:3; Romans 8:3-4; Isaiah 53:5-6; 1 Peter 2:24).

 

 

We can benefit from Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice when we know that he suffered our death penalty for our sins for us, and when we put our trusting faith in him and his propitiatory sacrifice on the cross for our salvation.

 

 

Once justified, we are then obliged and enabled by the grace of our justification to keep God’s normative biblically revealed moral law, by which we grow in sanctification, which will be rewarded proportionately on the last day (Matthew 16:27).

 

 

This then is a brief summary of St. Paul’s key doctrine of justification by faith, not by our good moral works.

 

 

With these two great saints, Peter and Paul, the Church has its foundation. St. Peter is the foundation of authority in the Church, and St. Paul is its theological foundation.

 

 

 

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