21st Sun [A] 2008
Fr. Charles Irvin
God is everywhere, isn’t He? So why do I have to go to Mass and receive Holy Communion? I can commune with God by simply going to a place of solitude out in nature. I can talk with God there, can’t I?
Why do I have to go to a priest and confess my sins in order to receive God’s forgiveness? Why can’t I go to Jesus directly? Why does a priest stand between God and me? Isn’t the Church sticking its nose into my private, personal relationship with God?
We’ve all heard those questions, but how do we answer them? They go right to the foundation of the Church, the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and the meaning of ordination into Holy Orders.
The only thing that’s wrong with these questions is their direction. Their direction is toward what we want to do in order to get to God. Their presumption is that we humans construct the means by which we reach God. They presume that the Church is simply an aggregate of like-minded persons who have voluntarily associated to form a religious institution known as the Catholic Church and that they have chosen to assent to a certain set of religious doctrines that they have fashioned for themselves. The hard reality is that the questions are what we want, not what God wants.
In today’s first reading we hear of God choosing Eliakim to exercise headship over Israel. It is God who speaks; God who determines; God who sets the agenda. The fundamental question is: Does God determine how the efforts of religion will be directed, or do we? In this reading from Isaiah God says: I will place on his shoulders the key of the house of David; he shall open and none shall shut; and he shall shut and none shall open.
Those thoughts and that commission from God are re-echoed in today’s Gospel account: And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, what whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Yet another Gospel passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus Christ saying to all of apostles (not just Peter), I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever you bond on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
We need to pay attention to the symbolism of the keys. In times past when there were real kings ruling over people, whomsoever was given the keys by the king was the highest official in the realm under the king. He was the chief executive officer, so to speak. The symbolism of the keys would not escape people in those days. The symbolism of the keys could not admit of any other meaning. The meaning of the conferral of the keys could not be explained or rationalized away, as many rationalize it today when they view the Church as merely a political institution or a social movement of some sort. It’s something established by humans, they assume, not by God.
The keys to the kingdom come from God and from no one else. The conferral of the office did not come from popular election, or from the will of human beings. God, and only God, gave the responsibility.
From whence comes authority? The question is a big as it is fundamental Does authority come from God or from human beings? Lest we answer that question too quickly or too simplistically, let us remind ourselves of our own American nation’s founding documents. We appealed to our Creator in order to warrant our rebellion against King George of England. We appealed to God for our authority, and to no one else, not our own human will or some organization’s Declaration of Human Rights.
The Church comes from God — it is constituted by God. From a human secular perspective it is merely a voluntary association of like-minded individuals. The Church from God’s perspective is quite something else. It is the Body of Christ, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. It is that special and sacred entity cut out from ordinary human time and space in which we humbly receive from God that which He wants to give to us.
It is in this context that I can now only suggest the outline and direction for the answers to the question asked at the beginning of this homily. These questions were: “God is everywhere, isn’t He? Why, then, do I have to go to Mass and receive Holy Communion if I want to commune with God? I can commune with Him by simply going to a place of solitude and quiet. Why do I have to go to a priest and confess my sins in order to receive God’s forgiveness? What can’t I go to Jesus directly?”
Those questions really ask a more fundamental question, namely: “Why do we have a Church?” “Why do we have sacraments?” Some answer that we have them because we have decided to need them. Some claim we have fashioned them after our own tastes. They are quite wrong. If the Church was simply a human construct it would have been wiped off the face of the earth centuries ago. No merely human institution could have possibly survived the attacks against it, both from within and without, and the human corruptions that have weakened it, were it not a gift given to us by God and enjoying His favor and protection.
The promise given by Jesus to Peter some 2,000 years ago is still good, still working, still as strong as ever. The words still ring in our ears: And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.