What Is The Church?

 The Cross

 

Today’s readings give us a strong instruction on what the Church is and where we fit as members of the Church.

The first reading gives us a glimpse into some of the key hallmarks of what Church is. The community was upset because it was felt that the wives of the gentiles who converted were not being treated equally as the Jews. So the order of deacons was first instituted.  In order to establish a just balance in the community, the apostles decided to appoint seven men as “deacons” or “servants” who would be ordained and recognized as having a share in the work of the apostles, but whose special task was to see that all needy persons were treated with charity and justice. The community prospered under this arrangement and moved closer to their objective of imitating his way of life through a just and righteous decision. They saw the need for love and true community in the Church and that was one of the first hallmarks of the Church.

But it’s the second reading that delivers a truly powerful message. Peter chooses a message that is both new and somewhat startling in its conclusion. He tells the followers of Jesus that they cannot participate in the spreading of the faith or in any other spiritual activity unless they first grow in personal holiness. Personal holiness. How many of us really spend any time on that? How many of us ever take an inventory of how holy we are. Like the disciples, we too often live troubled lives. We are so absorbed by everything we have to do or cope with that we often forget the truth that our destiny is heaven. Too many of us are absorbed by our material possessions, how large our homes are, how much money we made or still need to make. Yes, we go to Church on Sundays or even daily Mass. Yes, we receive the sacraments and believe that we are united with Christ in a special way. But when we leave this Church, do we take it with us? No matter how pious we may look, no matter how spiritual we may sound, if we do not get the message that we are the living stones that the Church is built on then we fail as true Christians. Because that is what the Church is. It is not bricks and mortar. It is a living body. It is a communion of living people.

Our newly canonized saint, St. John the 23rd knew that when he opened the second Vatican Council. That was the central message in his encyclical Lumen Gentium – The People of God. He emphasized that we must both believe and become a Church that is not known by bricks and mortar but rather known as a Church which is seen as  “Christ dwelling in men and women.”  Let me repeat that: Christ dwelling in men and women. THOSE are the living stones. But are we? Do we think of ourselves as people in whom Christ dwells? Do we?

This should be the true source of our joy. We were created by the Father to be his children. Our first sin took us out of the plan God designed for our good and blessing. Out of love for us, Jesus came to bring us back into the Father’s original plan. By his life, suffering, death and resurrection Jesus reconciled us to the Father. He took away the sins that separated us from him. He opened up the gates of heaven, closed against us by our sin, so we could enter into heaven itself. Jesus gives us the power to become children of God) and to be receivers of the Spirit so that we can live in God’s presence all our days and then, after our death, be with God forever and live in his light and love.

But that growth comes with a price. This growth is possible only when we let Jesus become the foundation stone of our life. As living stones of the church we become by the power of Jesus and his love, members of a chosen race, sharing a royal priesthood. Like the Israelites of old we become a holy nation, a people set apart. It means that through our sacrament of Baptism we are specially selected and reserved for God as holy people. Even when we are rejected by others, deprived of all privileges, beaten down, we become God’s people, the chosen recipients of his mercy. Though we come from different races, nations and social backgrounds, we are united in Christ. Therefore we must realize our dignity as members of the church and live our vision to the full. The word “royal priesthood” has a special connotation. As priests we become mediators between God and man and therefore we bear the task of reconciliation. We bear the task of healing the wounds of others – be they physical or spiritual. No, let me rephrase that. As followers of Christ we are commanded to be not just reconcilers but people who offer love and hope through to others. Living stones who seek out – who seek out – EVERY day – a way to bring love and hope to another. Whether it is simply making another feel good about themselves or something more substantial like adopting a less fortunate family in Boquete. We can not – CAN NOT – call ourselves true followers of Christ unless we bear the task of Him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Unless we too – each and every one of us – share his light through our actions.

Today’s Gospel delivers that message in a very profound manner. Jesus calls his apostles to a deepened faith and tells them that they must believe in him when he says that he is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus. He invites them to believe this on the evidence of his work, if for no other reason. Jesus has now been with them for three years, had taught them continuously and they had seen him teaching and working among the people. Now when he tells them that he is going away to prepare a place for them, they find difficult to accept. When Jesus made this statement, it was to emphasize to His disciples that they should not worry when He will be gone. They will not be forgotten but he is going there to prepare a secure place for the apostles. Further he adds that the person of faith will do greater works than he did. Once more, listen to the message: the person of faith will do greater works than he did. The Church and every member of the Christian community are called on to continue the mission of Jesus. We have all read and believe that Jesus fed thousands of people. Today his followers do the feeding and healing of many more through their acts of charity to bringing the divinity of Christ to all. Sometimes it is a simple act such as San Juan Bautista Church proving the food for the representatives who supervised the recent elections. Sometimes it is more substantial such as adopting a poorer family here in Boquete. Sometimes it is an act of charity or kindness that seems “other worldly.” Each time, each circumstance, is an example of the living rocks of the Church proving the underpinnings of what Church is about.

In the end, our primary response to God’s self-revelation is one of faith, faith in the one who cares about us, about our well-being and needs, about our joys and sorrows. Let us remember that we have been called as members of the royal priesthood of God which is a very special and free blessing that is undeserved because of the many times that we slip into sin. This week, let us reflect on this blessing of being a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation and god’s own people. In thanksgiving, we should proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called us out of darkness into His light. Let us remember that Jesus is our true way to the Father through the Church which He established and through which He continues His saving mission in the world.

But key to it all is the realization that our relationship with God is not merely an individual relationship. As the people of God, we belong to a community in continuity with those who have gone before, those who have passed on to us the traditions of faith. The Church is not a mere organization, but a community of faith over which the risen Lord presides and through which the baptized make their pilgrim way to the Father. Faith is a response to the person of Jesus, a personal and individual response to His presence in us and in our world. Translating that faith into the daily actions of our lives is proving that we are deserving of that relationship.

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