Twenty-First Sunday: God Builds the Church

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 22:19-23; PS 138: 1-2, 2-3, 6, 8; ROM 11:33-36; MT 16:13-20

Our Sunday readings this week teach us about the presence of God within the Church.

The Gospel reading is Matthew’s great account of Peter’s confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”; “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. . . .  I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

There are many rich ways to approach this text.  I would like to focus on the words, “I will build.”  “I.”

***

Our reading from Isaiah gives a parallel.  “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.”  Clearly there is a parallel to when Jesus says to Peter in our Gospel, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom.”  Jesus is invoking this Old Testament parallel.

But the deeper parallel is not the keys.  The deeper parallel is “I.”

The reading begins with God speaking to the previous master of the palace.  “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.”  The authority belongs to God.  It is God who drives Shebna out.

Then, “I will summon my servant Eliakim. . . I will clothe him with your robe . . . .  I will place the key . . . .  I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot.”

The part about the peg is nice: God has full authority.  God is in charge of the House of David, so fully in command that he can make things fit perfectly.

It is this divine power that explains Eliakim’s authority: “when he opens, no one shall shut” – because behind Elikaim is God.

Even deeper, “He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.”  Eliakim can be a father only because of the power of God behind him.

***

So too Peter – and his successors, both the popes and even the bishops.

“I will build my church,” – I! – “and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  Peter is not stronger than the netherworld.  But God is.

“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  I hope it’s obvious that Peter has absolutely no power to affect this – unless God not only gives him the power, but upholds it, at every moment.  It is because God builds the Church that the Church has authority.

(The binding and loosing, by the way, is the root of the power of Confession – our penance is the “binding” part.  It is also the root of the power of Indulgences, and the works of penance that gain them.)

The Church is a work of God.  It is God whom we trust when the Church teaches, when the Church administers the sacraments, and when the Church gathers us together in unity.

***

Behind this is a deeper work of God.  “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus says, “but my heavenly Father.” See the way God works internally.  Just as God is able to give Peter the keys, so God is able to give Peter the faith.  God is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.  God illumines Peter so that Peter himself makes confession.

Even deeper, the conversation begins, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is.”  “Son of Man” is a phrase from the psalms.  It emphasizes that Jesus is man.  But Peter recognizes that Jesus is “Son of God.”  Among other things, the Incarnation shows just how intimate God is with his creation.

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Our reading from Romans takes us to the deepest theological roots of this intimacy.  The reading begins with the inscrutability of God’s judgments.  But it concludes, “Who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him and for him are all things.”

Our inability to “know the mind of the Lord” only underlines that he is absolutely before us.  He makes us, not we him.

God has absolute authority over his creation because he made it: it is from him, and through him, and for him.  It is altogether in his hands.  God can speak to us interiorly, and cause us to make an act of faith, because he is our maker.  God can establish a Church, and a Pope, and bishops and priests and sacraments, because Creation is altogether in his hands.  He can work through it because it exists through him.

Are there places where we overlook the Providence of God in our view of Church teaching, or the sacraments, or the fatherly discipline of the household of the Church?

eric.m.johnston

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