It is one of the most powerful questions that Jesus asks in all the gospels.
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter knows the correct answer by a special gift of knowledge given to Him by God as Jesus says, “...flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
As we gather here today, some two thousand years after Peter’s famous declaration of faith, the question we could ask ourselves is not just “Who do we say Jesus is?” but , “How do we know who Jesus is?”
None of us has personally met Jesus. We have not looked into His face or heard His voice. He has not taken our hand or hugged us. We do not know what He looked like. How can we say that we know Him? Even more importantly, how can we claim to have a relationship with Him?
The reason we can claim to both know Jesus and to have a relationship with Him is because of His Church. It is clear from today’s gospel reading that Jesus intended to establish a Church as He says to Peter, “...upon this rock I will build my church.” This Church would extend His presence through all generations. He gathered apostles whom He personally taught so that they could go out to all the world preaching Jesus’ message of salvation, celebrating the sacraments and serving the poor. After the resurrection, Jesus gave the apostles His Holy Spirit to be with them always, to guide them into all truth, to strengthen them in persecution and to ensure that His saving action in the world would continue right up to our day. It would be impossible for any of us to be followers of Jesus without the Church that He established.
Many Christians make the mistake of believing that we do not need the Church, all we need is the Bible. Besides the fact that the Bible never says this, let us consider this question, “Where did the Bible come from?” It did not just fall from the sky. Rather, the apostles and their disciples wrote down the stories of Jesus’ life, what He taught, how He died for us and rose from the dead. In the letters of Paul and the other apostles, we gain insight into the mystery of our salvation and practical advice on living it out. These scriptures were read whenever the early Christians gathered to celebrate the Eucharist.
Over the course of several hundred years, faithful Christians copied these manuscripts and handed them down to the next generation of believers. Eventually, the bishops of the Church in union with the Pope discerned which of these gospels and letters were inspired by the Holy Spirit based on whether they went back to the apostles, how they had been used in the life of the faithful and whether the teaching found in them was in line with what Christians everywhere had always believed. Guided by the Holy Spirit, they established what is called the “canon of Scripture”, a kind of table of contents for the Old and New Testaments. All Christians then came to accept the books that we have in our Bible today as the inspired word of God.
Therefore, if there were no Church there would be no Bible. Since we only know the words and teaching of Jesus through the Bible, then without the Church we could never know and have a relationship with Jesus.
Thanks to the Bible, written and preserved for us by the Church, we can say that we know Jesus and His teachings. However, since we have never seen Him face to face, how can we say that we have a personal relationship with Him? Because of the Mass.
The place where we experience the Church which Jesus established in the most visible way is when we gather for Mass. Here is where we meet Him, where we experience Him risen and alive among us, where we hear His voice, where we receive Him. He is present in us and among us as He promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be with them.” He is present in the priest who prays “in the person of Christ”. Whenever a priest celebrates a sacrament we believe that it is Jesus Himself who transforms bread and wine into His Body and Blood, who forgives us in the Sacrament of Confession and who heals us in the Anointing of the Sick. Jesus is present in the word which is proclaimed. It is His voice that we hear when the Scriptures are read. And, in the most mysterious way, we receive His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
We can say that we know Jesus Christ, that we have a relationship with the Son of the living God, because of the Mass which we gather to celebrate every Sunday. Since without the Church there would be no Eucharist, it stands to reason that without the Church we could not have a relationship with Jesus.
There is another mistake that Christians often make. When we hear the word, “Church”, we can misunderstand it to mean just the priests, sisters, deacons and bishops. Sometimes we use Church to mean the institutions of the Vatican or the buildings where Mass is celebrated. That is only a small part of what Church is. It is the Bible itself which teaches us that the Church is the whole people of God. It is all baptized believers who profess faith in Jesus Christ and who strive to live the gospel message. The Church is you and me. Therefore it is up to each one of us to work together with our bishops, deacons, sisters and priests to spread the teaching of Jesus, to minister to the needy and to ensure that the good news of God’s salvation continues to be lived and proclaimed for all ages to come. Each one of us is responsible for passing on the good news of God’s love.
The Church is a family. Just as none of us can come into this world alone without parents so none of us can be Christians without the family of believers we call the Church. This community is a gift to us from Jesus to help us know Him and love Him. We should be grateful for it and proud of it. Keeping our eyes always fixed on Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, we should work together so that others may believe and join us in this amazing community of faith that stretches back to Jesus and looks ahead to the communion of saints in heaven.