One of my biggest personal strengths is that I’m what you might call a ‘visionary’: I think and see long-term, and big-picture. But if I let myself be carried away with what I envision, it’s easy for me to get lost in what ‘could be’, and that can lead to frustrations when the present doesn’t resemble the vision. That’s why it’s also one of my biggest weaknesses. To prevent this, I always have to remind myself that I’m not in charge, Jesus is. This is one of the reasons why I love today’s Gospel passage.
This scene between Jesus and Peter has become rather iconic for us as Catholics. I bet most of us here can quote at least part of these famous lines. And so it’s easy for us to get lost in the ‘big picture’ of what Jesus is saying to Peter and ignore that the true greatness of this passage lies not so much in the ‘big picture’, but in the small details of Jesus’ words.
In His response to Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus says, And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (Mt 16:18). Now this passage is most frequently used to explain Peter’s primacy or leadership of the Apostles and the beginnings of the Papacy. And it does this, but it also says so much more.
Notice how Jesus speaks of the Church as His Church? I will build my church (Mt 16:18). He didn’t call it Peter’s Church; He didn’t call it the Apostle’s Church; He didn’t give it to anyone. The Church belongs to Jesus (cf. Col 1:18)! It’s His Church, not Peter’s, not the Pope’s, not the Archbishop’s, not mine, not even yours or ours… It is Jesus’ Church! This is really important point: I wouldn’t be able to repeat it enough.
You see, in Baptism we were baptised not just into a community, but into Christ (cf. Rom 6:3; Gal 3:27). Through Baptism we belong to Jesus: He purchased us with His blood (cf. 1 Pet 1:18-19; 1 Cor 6:20). That’s why we often refer to the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’ (JPII, General Audience, Nov. 1991; cf. 1 Cor 12:27).
Our membership in the Church isn’t one of ownership, but one of participation: we don’t own the Church, rather we belong to her because we belong to Jesus. That means, then, that none of us own the Church — not even the Pope —, but all of us are children and servants of the Church. Jesus Christ is her Master, not us. This has been the guiding principle of all of the Church’s teachings: they’re not hers, they’re Christ’s teachings. How often we forget this detail!
But notice also how He’s not merely the ‘owner’ of the Church, He’s also her builder: I will build my church (Mt 16:18). We must never forget that the Church exists not because of what we say or do, but because Christ is building her up. The Church has existed almost 2000 years not because we’ve had great Popes, Bishops and Saints — anyone who’s read the history of the Church knows we’ve had some pretty terrible people over the centuries. But the Church has lasted so long because it’s Jesus who acts in and through her, despite sinful people. It’s Jesus and the Holy Spirit who build the Church; who make Saints in every age according to what’s needed; who lead and guide the Church; who build her, perfect her, expand her. We must never think that the Church depends on us; she depends, and must always depend, only on Jesus Christ. Our task as members of the Church is to make ourselves open and available for the Spirit to work in us; the rest will follow from this according to God’s plan.
And finally, notice how Jesus adds and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (Mt 16:18). No matter how bad things get in the world, no matter how confusing things get in the Church, not matter how wrong (or how mean) a Priest or a Bishop might be, the Church will never be lost, Hell will not prevail against her. The moment we think everything’s ‘going to Hell in a hand basket’ and that the Church is lost, pride and fear take over and we make Jesus out to be a liar, and we cause scandal and division in the Church — just look as how many different Christian groups there are.
The Church isn’t ours: she doesn’t belong to us, nor does her survival depend on you or me. The Church belongs to Jesus, who is her source of life and her guarantee. That’s why, my brothers and sisters, we must never loose hope, never despair. The Church doesn’t depend on mere mortals, but on Jesus Christ, who has conquered sin and death and sits at the right hand of the Father. We only need to trust in Him, and open our hearts so that the Spirit might work in us to build us up into holy members of His Church; that we might become living stones in that Church (cf. 1 Pet 2:4-5). Amen.