This Sunday, What the Church Is (and Isn’t)
This Sunday, the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time Year C, Jesus teaches the apostles important lessons about how he will deal with mankind.
They are lessons with ramifications for both Christian history and our personal history.
Jesus tells them that that he is founding a Church, not giving them a Bible.
As Jesus says in the Gospel, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.”
Part of what the Holy Spirit will do is inspire the Bible — but the First Reading shows what the Holy Spirit will mainly do.
Leaders from the Church in Jerusalem were telling the people, “Unless you are circumcised … you cannot be saved.” When people balked at this, “it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question.”
There follows an ecumenical council and a kind of encyclical letter that settles the matter, relents on the rule, and communicates a clear teaching. To this day the Church behaves in exactly this way — with missteps, corrections, and Church pronouncements — guided but not dominated by the Holy Spirit.
The Church, we learn, is not a club for perfect people, but an oasis for imperfect people.
Jesus tells the apostles, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”
That Jesus gives us special peace is a very good thing. As Hilaire Belloc put it, proof that the the Church is divinely guided “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
As is clear in the wrangling that took place in the Church in the first reading, the actual day-to-day life of the human beings in the Church is not peaceful at all. The peace comes not from how smoothly things run on the surface, but from a profound calm deep below the surface.
Jesus gives the apostles the astonishing, consoling news that the entire Trinity will “dwell” with us.
“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him,” Jesus says.
The dwelling place of God was the temple, with the Holy of Holies in its center, where God’s presence appeared. But Jesus, as he promised, tears down that concept and rebuilds it. Now, the Christian becomes the temple-dwelling place of God, and the holy of holies in our churches are the altar and the tabernacle — the places where Jesus is truly present in the Eucharistic form of bread so that he can become present in us.
The second reading, in which St. John describes the vision he had of heaven, shows what this will mean when rather than the Trinity dwelling with us, we will dwell with the Trinity.
“The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,” he says.
“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb,” he says. Rather, it had “twelve courses of stones as its foundation, on which were inscribed the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
Weak and squabbling human beings have, through their union with God, become the sturdy foundation stones of the New Jerusalem.
All of this turns the human way of doing things on its head.
We may want us each to be our own interpreter of the Bible; instead, we are each members of the Church that wrote and interprets the Bible.
We don’t have to be freelance Christians, figuring it out on our own; but we do each become a temple, where God dwells within us.
We don’t each seek our own glory, we seek to be the footpath in a place of light where “The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.”
When Pentecost comes, in two weeks, we will see just how bright that light can be.