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21st Sunday in ordinary time: On what foundation?

Today’s readings: Isaiah 22, 19-23; Romans 11, 33-36; Matthew 16, 13-20.

Today’s text from Matthew, reporting Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus and the founding of the Church on Peter as the rock, has been always a debated text. Some argue that the text refers to a tradition that arose in the Church at Antioch where Peter was looked upon as the founding apostle. The story then about what happened at Caesarea Philippi would reflect an attempt at establishing Peter’s authority by tracing it back to Jesus’ time.

The need to justify the claim and the source of the Church’s authority is not a modern issue. It was from the very beginning that the Church’s authority was contested and that the claim of the Church to have been founded by Jesus was to be justified.

The gospel today provides an early statement meant to give reassurance in a context when Christianity was evolving and establishing with authority on the Jesus message as witnessed by the apostolic Church. This was, and still is to date, a major and vital theologi­cal issue that has always called for rethinking and reformulation of doctrine.

Present-day culture and sensibility continue to ask on what grounds the Church claims what it claims and with whose authority does it speak. The Church is not automatically credible in what it teaches and particularly in its claims of the truth. We live in times when even the Church has to earn its own credibility in whatever it teaches.

We should never forget that Peter was the one who confessed who Jesus truly was but also the one who denied him. So the rock, the foundation against which “the gates of the underworld can never hold out”, has its own vulnerability. The Church, being divine and human, even for the believer carries within its DNA the promise of Jesus, but remains very human, and many a time behaves like any other institution on earth.

Our approach to such questioning cannot simply be apologetic. In Matthew’s gospel text, it is remarkable how it is the confession of faith that gives reason for the Church to exist, and in turn it is on that confession that the Church’s role and authority revolve. There are those who have no problem at all believing in Jesus Christ and in the truth of the Gospel, but who question the role of the Church in the process of faith or even the interpretation of the Gospel as given by the Church.

We need to be extremely sensible to such delicate issues. People ask very sensible and reasonable questions where the Church is concerned. Why do we need to belong to the Church? Do we need a Church, at the end of the day? We have all come of age, can’t we fend for ourselves and intelligently assume responsibility for choices made and options taken? Do we still need the Church to pontificate to us, to dictate with authority what is right and wrong?

We cannot simply ignore these questions or even pretend that they should not even be posed or that we always have ready-made answers to them. The Church as always is called to provide justifications for its claims and this not through a recycled old theology, as so often happens. This posits the Church in a situation of permanent rethinking and reform.

Yet the basic question is Jesus’ true identity. It is still posed by many and it is the responsibility and mission of the community of believers to answer creatively the question that constitutes the essence of our being Church.

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