“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” Matthew 16:18
As a priest, I often hear people saying, “I believe in God, but I don’t “do” Church.” This is a typical objection often raised against the Church; maybe you have heard similar ones, or you yourself may hold a certain degree of sympathy for it – for example, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t “do” Church” or, for the more protestant among us, “Jesus is my personal saviour, I don’t need the Church.”
“I don’t “do” Church.” The more common form of this apathy towards the Church has its origins in the flawed ways we think about Jesus and about the Church herself. We may often consider of Jesus as a wonderworker and as a philanthropist, rather than as God-made-flesh; we may consider him as an ancient rebel, rather than the Messiah sent by God. Likewise, we may think of the Church as an alien institution, as a useless add-on to the gospel, rather than the extension of Christ’s ministry in the world; we may think of the Church as an organization run by out-of-touch people in St Albans, or London, or Rome, rather than our collective name a Christians. But when we start thinking in this way, when we reduce Jesus to a revolutionary hippy do-gooder and the Church to a bureaucratic exercise, we inevitably tend to lose touch about their true and mutual importance in the life of a Christian. As Jesus gets safely tamed into the box of notable characters of ancient history, and the Church gets relegated to be an irrelevant exercise for likeminded people, we inevitably struggle to find ways to answer those who say, “I don’t “do” Church.”
Yet, todays’ celebration of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul should make us question these assumptions about Jesus and his Church, whether we hold to them or not. In the brief dialogue between Peter and Jesus we read truth of Christianity in a nutshell. First, Peter, moved by God, recognises and declares Jesus for what he really is; the Son of God, the Saviour, not an ancient prophet or a rebel. Consequently, Jesus establishes the Church as the community of all those, who like Peter, affirm that he is Son of God and Saviour.
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” – here we have in plain speech Jesus’ plan for spreading the Kingdom of God; a diverse group of people form every background, and ethnicity, led by the ministry of the Apostles, and gathered around the faith expressed by Peter. So we see that this gospel passage should reframe any wrong assumptions we might have about Jesus or his Church. According to the gospel Jesus actually does “do” Church.
Yet, people who say, “I don’t do Church” may come to this conclusion, not because of flawed ideas about the gospel, but because the Church herself appears divided and the subject of tragic scandals – in these instances it’s almost normal that people would fall away or run a mile. We may project impossibly high standards on church institutions, and expect the “Church” – this removed, alien company – to be outstanding in morality, and blameless in her investments and stewardship. If any of our expectations are not met, we quickly become disengaged and end up saying, “I don’t do Church.” Having said this, I think today’s celebration has something to say about this too. Look at Peter. Although he has his shining moment in this story, he nonetheless betrays Jesus quite dramatically on Good Friday. Peter is far from being a blameless character. So, how can someone like him be trusted to lead the people of God? – we might ask. To find an answer to this, we must look at Peter not through our own eyes and impossible double standards, but through the eyes of Jesus – the eyes of the one who despite knowing how badly he is going to be betrayed, still takes a chance on Peter.
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” – Jesus knows Peter’s failings, but he still takes a chance on him. Likewise, later on Jesus takes a chance on Paul, whom he calls from being the fiercest enemy of the Church to become one of her greatest Apostles. In short, Jesus knows few Church members will betray him in appalling ways at certain times, yet he still places his trust in them – he still places his trust in us.
Even if we often hear people saying, “I don’t “do” Church” it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus himself does. Jesus actually does “do” Church – he wanted her, he established her, and he guides her through his Apostles. In fact he trusts the Church – you, me, and the entire people of God – to bring his salvation to all. This is a pretty big endorsement from someone who never ceases to believe in us despite our many failings. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” – Take these words of Jesus with you this morning. Read them slowly and let them sink into your heart, and as you do this, perhaps after Mass or during the week, I invite you to look at the Church afresh, not through disengagement and impossible double standards, but through the eyes of Jesus.