If we have Jesus why should we bother about a church?
You sometimes hear this view expressed, especially when the Church has been accused of scandals such as child abuse or cover-ups by bishops. Is not a close relationship with Jesus enough? Is the Church with all its failings really necessary for our salvation?
In today's Gospel Jesus tells us that not only is a Church necessary but that we also need a human leader to direct it.
Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.
Jesus promises that his Church will be protected from the power of destructive evil, and then he gives to Peter, and we believe, to his successors, the power to govern, the keys which gives access to the kingdom of heaven. A power to bind and to loose. But how should we interpret this power?
Some understandings of it divide Christians into camps. On the triumphalist extreme there are some who see this passage from St Mathew as a guarantee that every word that comes from the pope's mouth is more or less infallible while, on the liberal wing, there are those who see the exercise of too much papal power as oppressive and stifling the initiative of local Churches.
The latter group insists that the Gospel passage today should have continued with the rest of the chapter and included the warning from Christ that Peter could not only be a rock but he could also become a scandal, that is, as soon as he started interpreting things from a worldly point of view. In fact he tells Peter to get out of his way:
Get behind me Satan! you are a stumbling stone in my path.
So why is this fallible Peter chosen? He is certainly presented as the first of the disciples but he is chosen to be the foundation rock of the Church not so much for the exercise of an absolute power but because he confesses the true faith about Jesus:
You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
It is Peter's confession of that revelation, given to him by the Father, which alone can be the foundation of Christ's Church.
But then what is the nature of the power of the keys which Peter is given? The first reading from Isaiah gives us a clue. The authority which is bestowed on the prime minister Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, gives him the power to give or refuse access to the king.
I place the keys of the house of David on his shoulder. Should he open, no one can close; should he close, no one shall open.
Keys still open and close doors. But they must be used with care. Unfortunately in the Church today extreme groups want to exclude their opponents from the Church and invite the Pope to use his keys to excommunicate them. But the power of the keys should be exercised more in keeping with the way we see Peter fulfilling his role in the rest of New Testament.
We know that there were groups which fought one another in the early church. The conservative party of James in Jerusalem insisted that Christians should be circumcised and practice the Jewish law, while Paul, founding local Churches in his Gentile mission territory, objected to the attempt to impose that same law. Each disapproved of the other.
In this situation we are shown how Peter acted as bridge between the two parties. He was the leader who kept the others in communion with the wider Church. Peter's keys were a symbol of unity, not to be used to shut the door in the face of one group but rather to open the door to both and invite them to be part of the Catholic Church.
Some people think that the individual free spirit of Jesus was restrained and confined by the building up of a church. The spirit, they say, should guide each of us without too much ecclesiastical bureaucracy getting in the way.
But the New Testament itself shows us that Jesus message would never have survived without Church institutions which could preserve it and protect it from heresy. The work of the spirit is always to build up the Church.
So we should not give just a grudging acceptance to the Church which Jesus himself willed but learn to love it. It is too easy to try to get other members of the Church excluded because they do not share our views.
Today especially we give God's thanks for the gift of Peter and his crucial role of guiding and maintaining the unity of the Catholic Church. Our Church needs to be constantly reformed because of the sinfulness of us, its members. But if we are to receive that salvation that Jesus willed for us, today we see how necessary are his Church and its Petrine ministry.