Today’s is a Gospel of great reassurance, a morale booster of the first degree. For though the Church may seem to be in endless turmoil, She is still the handiwork of the Son of God. As He himself says, “I will build my Church.” The Church is not Peter’s and it’s not ours. It does not belong to the Pope or to any individual or group of individuals to do with as they please. On the contrary, we belong to the Church by the gift of Christ, by his calling. Peter, too, belongs to the Church but the Church belongs to no-one but Christ. It is not we who decide what the Church is or is to do or is to believe, but only Christ.
With good reason, though, we might wonder at Jesus’ choice of Peter as the foundation of the Church. He was a hot-headed, impulsive coward, after all. Then again, does not the Lord choose the weak to confound the strong? Jesus knew Peter very well, but wanted the power of God to be perfected in Peter’s weakness. Peter was not chosen because of his weaknesses in themselves, but because they gave God the opportunity to manifest his power. And that’s precisely what he did. Peter’s clear and unambiguous profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God came not by dint of his own intelligence or because he heard it from flesh and blood, but because God the Father gave him the power of the Holy Spirit to know it. Jesus would build his Church, then, on the power of the Spirit of the Father alive and active in Peter’s faith. Peter’s weakness was God’s chance.
So, our Gospel of reassurance is not founded on the sand of Peter’s weaknesses, but on the rock of his God-given strength of faith. The Church is built by God the Son on the Spirit’s gift to Peter from God the Father. The Church is therefore also the handiwork of the Trinity.
Mary’s faith enabled the Son of God to become the man Jesus and to carry out the work of redemption. Peter’s faith enabled Jesus the Christ to continue his work of redemption throughout history in and through his Church. Both Peter’s and Mary’s faiths were a gift of God which each of them freely received and obeyed. Mary’s faith continues in the Church in all who, by God’s grace, humbly and obediently let his Word mould and manage their lives. Peter’s faith continues in the Church through those who, by God’s will, have been called to carry the heavy onus of his office across the centuries.
So, we can have utter confidence that, despite the catastrophic failures of men and women of the Church of every age and mission, including Peter’s, these can never bring the Church to an end. Our confidence, though, should not make us presume or lead us to think we don’t have to work at being Church and doing what we can to keep her free from sin and fulfil her mission to all creation. On the contrary, our confidence should spur us on to make every effort and commitment to fulfil our Christian vocation, whatever it may be, to love the Church of Christ, to do battle inside her and in the face of the world, to keep her faithful, coherent and fit for God’s purpose. For how else if not through our active faith and witness and love for the Church is Christ building his Church? Jesus was clearly delighted when Peter professed his faith. Our profession and action of faith likewise bring joy to Christ and therefore to ourselves, for he is our Bridegroom and we are his Bride.
Jesus makes a series of promises which spell out further the reasons for our reassurance and confidence as the Church of Christ.
The first promise is precisely that Jesus himself will build his Church. The sense of this is that he will keep building his Church. If we look around at the Church in our own parishes, we could become despondent and think that the Church here and in the rest of the West is dying. We could recite a litany of the signs and causes for that, ranging from laziness to indifference to outright apostasy from the faith. Even so, we can’t be too quick to say that the Church will soon be dead in our lands. There are still plenty of signs of life and vitality, from charitable outreach to holiness of life to adult baptisms and vocations to marriage, religious life and holy orders. True, these seem minimal, almost like the mustard seed of the Gospel. But even if the Church in Scotland returns to the size of a mustard seed, it will still be alive and still have the promise of growth. Christ builds his Church in his way, according to his times and seasons. He can dramatically alter the course of events with the slightest turn of his hand. The Church is his, no-one else’s, and he will cherish and nurture his Bride as he knows best. Are we to lie down then and do nothing? Of course not. Our task always remains day by day to live out in fidelity our Catholic identity in worship, witness and works of charity. It is to rediscover the joy of the Gospel, as Pope Francis puts it so beautifully, and to reach out to others in all of the ways that our faith and moral tradition proclaim.
The second promise of Jesus is that the gates of the underworld will never hold out against his Church. I emphasize his Church because his Church is not necessarily the Church we want to build according to our chosen theological or ideological criteria of whatever kind. The reference to the gates of the underworld means that the powers of death will never imprison the Church, cannot claim victory over her or defeat her. That is because the life of the Church is neither merely nor solely the human life or activity and plans of her members. Her life is the Lord and Giver of Life himself, the Spirit of the Risen Christ. Death cannot engulf eternal life. The Church breathes with the eternal life of God, which we receive through Word and Sacrament. But the external forms of the Church which come and go with history, especially forms which have come more from human pride and vainglory than from the humility of the Cross, these will die the death, and thankfully so. The Church does need external forms, like the soul and the body need skin and clothing, but She is not to be identified with these. It is what constitutes her core which will endure and will resist the onslaughts of death. What is that core? It is the living Word of God, the Sacraments of eternal life and their power to create within and among those who believe and are baptised the communion of life and love in God.
The third promise is that Jesus will give to Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. These are the keys of the warehouse of the Church, the food and drink of Word and Sacrament. They symbolise the authority given to Peter to unfold the Word of God, to define its true meaning and understanding in the light of the Spirit, to apply it to the varied problems and epochs of human life and history and to prevent any impurities from sullying the truth and splendour of the doctrine of Christ. It is likewise for Peter to guard and guide the sacramental life of the Church, to ensure that the worship of God is in accordance with the will of Christ and so for the glory of the Father, to make sure that the Sacraments are celebrated in the right way, at the right time, under the right conditions for the right people. In this ministry of the keys, Peter fulfils the commission that the Lord gives him at the end of John’s Gospel: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these others? Yes, Lord, you know I love you. Then, feed my sheep, look after my flock.”
The fourth promise is closely tied to the third. Peter is told that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. What Jesus is not saying here is that heaven will fall in line with Peter’s decisions! That would certainly finish the Church off. It would have been better if the translation of this promise had been rendered as: whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven, will have been bound in heaven. What Jesus is promising Peter is the assistance of the same Spirit of the Father who had inspired his profession of faith. It will be the light to know if something novel being proposed is consistent with that faith or is not. Here, Peter is the shepherd who guards his flock by guarding the correct understanding and application of the truth.
With these promises, Jesus is boosting our confidence even further since, although he will leave the earth at his ascension, we are fully guaranteed that in and through Peter, Jesus himself will be at work, the Spirit will be at work and therefore the eternal Father will also be at work. That is why the Church, against all the many and devastating odds, has endured thus far and will endure to the end of time and into eternity itself.
The Church is most certainly an institution, but a divine one. The Church has a visible head on earth, but he is divinely appointed. The Church has real power, but it is divine real power. Membership of the Church consists in saying yes to a divine power, the Sacrament of Baptism. Growth and strength in the Church comes through the divine power of confirmation, Eucharist, confession and anointing of the sick. The principal structures of service and authority in the Church come through the divine power of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Matrimony and Holy Orders. The Charter or manifesto of the Church is the divine Gospel whose ever fuller understanding across the centuries is the work of the divine Spirit. The three main activities of the Church are divine worship, witness and works of charity, all of them rooted in Christ and drawing their power and efficacy from the Holy Spirit.
My dear friends, what a gift and privilege it is for us to have been called by divine grace to be members of the Church which Christ has founded and continues to build on Peter! While there is certainly much in our world of great value and dignity and beauty; while there are many wise and good men and women whose gifts and skills astonish and delight us and have much to tell us; while, too, there are many signs of decay and dissolution and crises of institutions as fundamental as marriage and the family, to mention but two: the Church of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, built on Peter and guided today by his Successor, is our surest hope and guide, our strong refuge and support and the home in which we can find divine healing and peace for our souls. But it is not a place of retreat or withdrawal from our beautiful and complex world. No, it is where we are refreshed at the springs of salvation to go forth and witness to Christ. The world will not destroy the Church, but the Church is sent to bring the salvation of Christ to the world. So, let the reassurance which today’s Gospel gives us also inspire us to do our part, however great or small, to bring Christ to our world and to bring our world to Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God.