Ask any good Jew in Jesus’ day where the center of his faith was located and he would tell you without hesitation, “The Temple in Jerusalem.”
The Temple was a massive structure constructed of huge stones and adorned with gold and precious gems. Taking over forty years to build, it could be seen for miles around.
It was the center of the Jewish faith because it represented God’s dwelling place on earth. The Lord in all His glory lived in the Temple and could be found there. It was there that sacrifices were made in atonement for sin and all the feast days were observed.
The Temple was situated in a very significant location in the city. It was built on the highest point, Mount Moriah. It was on that mountain that Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, before the angel stopped him and gave him a ram to slaughter instead. Mount Moriah was the rock on which God tested Abraham’s faith. So, quite literally, the Temple in Jerusalem was built on the rock of Abraham and his faith.
In today’s gospel, we read about another rock, Peter. Jesus is testing the disciples’ faith in Him. Do they really understand who He is and why He came to earth? Are they willing to proclaim it boldly to others? “Who do you say that I am?”, Jesus asks. And in no uncertain terms, Peter stands up and replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus, for his part, proclaims him to be blessed for he received that knowledge directly from God. And He declared that He would build His Church on the rock of Peter and his declaration of faith.
To any Jew, the implication would have been clear. Just as the Temple was built on the rock of Abraham’s faith, so now Jesus’ Church was built on the rock of Peter and his faith. Jesus’ intention was to create a new Israel with the twelve apostles representing the twelve tribes of Israel. And the Church would be the new Temple. However, this Church would not be built of massive stones and adorned with gold. Instead it would be a spiritual Temple built of faithful people and adorned with virtue and holiness. It would not be located in Jerusalem or in any other city. Rather, it would stretch out to cover and embrace the whole world.
There are some who claim that Jesus never intended to institute a Church. They say that He was merely a good man teaching people that all they needed was to love each other. They say it was His disciples who started the Church on their own after His death. But nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus says specifically to the apostles, “I will build my Church.” The Church was founded by Jesus Himself and is built up by Him to spread the good news of God’s love throughout all the world, to extend the blessings of salvation to all people, to heal the brokenhearted and to feed the poor. The Church founded by Jesus to which we belong was given to the world as a blessing so that, through the Holy Spirit, He could continue to speak and act throughout history.
There are others who say that we really do not need the Church to have a relationship with Jesus. All we need to do is lead good lives and pray at home alone. While living a good life and praying are important, they are not enough to live a fully Christian life. We also need the helps that the Church provides for us. Consider this. How would we even know about Jesus and His death and resurrection if the Church had not proclaimed it over the centuries? How would we have the Bible to read if it had not been written, preserved and handed down by one generation of believers to another? How would we know anything about our faith if catechists and teachers had not dedicated their lives to instructing us in the mysteries of God? Without the Church we would have no idea who Jesus is. And without the Church we would not be able to receive His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. The Church does not get in the way of our personal relationship with Jesus. Rather it sustains and nourishes it helping it to grow into the fullness that God intends for us.
Finally, there are those who say that it is fine to follow the Church’s teaching on matters of faith. But on moral issues we should be able to make our own decisions. This error is rampant in our society today and has led many people astray. The truth is that Jesus’ established His Church so that we would have all the truth we need to be saved and to live a joyful life. The truth that will set us free is not only the truth about Jesus and who He is, but the truth about how we should live as sons and daughters of God. When we hear a teaching that we disagree with or that does not make sense to us, our first reaction should not be to disregard it as if we knew more than the Church does. Rather we should try to understand it by talking to someone who can explain it to us, by looking it up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or by reading a book on the subject. Jesus said to His apostles, “Whoever hears you, hears me.” So when we reject a teaching of the Church, we are rejecting a teaching of Jesus. None of us wants to do that. Therefore we should make every effort to understand, to embrace, to live out and to pass on to others all the truths the Church teaches whether it regards matters of faith or moral issues.
The Church is not just buildings and bishops. It is people. It is you and me. And because the Church is made up of human beings, it is imperfect and sinful. But it was left to us by Jesus to continue His saving message. Jesus loves the Church despite its failings, and we should love the Church too. If we want to know the truth, if we want to know Jesus, it can only be through the Church that He founded on the rock of Peter.