There’s an ancient piece of fiction about two brothers who were secretly doing kind and generous things for each other – neither one knowing who his mysterious benefactor was. One night, as each of them was going to his brother’s home to carry out another good deed, they bumped into each other and instantly realized what had been happening for so long. They embraced, they cried and laughed, and one of them said, “Let’s build a church on this spot!”
That fictional, improbable tale suggests very effectively the real meaning of the word, the concept, church. Church is a gathering of persons who are already building bonds of unity by acts of love and who come together to celebrate their oneness, to thank God for the gift of shared life, and to ask for the grace of continuing reconciliation. Whenever church becomes a purely private enterprise – a “Jesus & me” affair – it is something very different from the definition of its name.
The history of our world is one of alienation, hostility, disintegration. The Hebrew Book of Genesis, the first book of the bible, confirms that, of course, making it clear that in our very development into intelligence and self-reflection we deliberately chose to reject one another in a selective way designed to serve our own selfish purposes. So deeply ingrained is this evil tendency that the bible tells of the murder of a man by his own brother for the sake of personal, material profit: the Cain and Abel myth.
So universal is this tendency, that the Tower of Babel is put forth as its symbol: human beings, all creatures of the one and only God, therefore conceived in love, are unable to work together because they will not communicate with one another. Mind does not reach mind; heart does not reach heart. The condition has continued down the centuries even to our own day, taking different forms from age to age, but remaining the same in essence.
That’s the momentum that Jesus was dedicated to breaking and reversing. Jesus is God’s saving presence in the world: he gathers us into one community, one church, as a sign of the unity he has sworn to restore and as a source of power for all who are willing to love and labor with him.
Again, for the second week in a row, we interrupt the liturgical cycle of green today, the cycle of Sundays in Ordinary Time. We splash a stroke of white and gold across the calendar as we celebrate the annual feast of the Church of St. John Lateran. That church is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, who is also the pope of the world-wide church. It is the head church, the mother church of all Christendom. It represents every Christian church in the entire world, of all centuries past present and to come.
The honor we give the building or the place is not the core of our celebration, which is much deeper than just that. Today’s excerpt from Ezekiel’s prophecy speaks of God residing with God’s people and God’s presence filling the place of worship. St. Paul teaches the Corinthians that they are the temple built on the foundation of Christ. It is they, each of them, all of them; it is we, each of us, all of us, in whom God resides.
In the Gospel passage for this day, Jesus refers to his own body as the temple that will be sacrificially destroyed and then triumphantly rebuilt so that all may dwell happily and securely in him forever!
What are you building? A family? A business? A treasury of knowledge? A battery of skills? A bank of memories? Whatever. All building, this unusual feast day reminds us, is in vain, useless, doomed unless it is part of, related to, in harmony with the community that God calls together as church.
“I have chosen and sanctified this house,” says the Lord, “that my name may remain in it for all time.”