The Church

We read Ezekiel 47, 1-12 and 1Cor 3 v 10-17.

“Did you not realize that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God lives within you”? 1Cor 3.14

St Luke wrote two books, the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. In the Gospel he narrates the life and work, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the gospel we see Jesus teaching, blessing, curing the blind, the cripples, the sick. We see Him preaching God’s word, we see him praying, we see him driving out evil spirits and announcing the Kingdom of God.

In Luke’s second book written after the death of Jesus, the Acts of the Apostles, we find the Apostles continuing the work of Jesus. Basically they do the exact same things that Jesus did. They too are seen driving out evil spirits, they are teaching, they are blessing , they are curing the sick, raising the dead as Jesus did.

I think there is an important lesson here. Luke is showing us that what Jesus Himself did historically in Palestine at his own time is now being continued exactly the same in the church through His Risen presence in the community that is the church. Jesus is risen, He is alive and He is alive, He is church. St Paul teaches, ‘the Church is the Body of Christ’. He is the head we are the members, He is the Vine, we are the branches. The Church then is the true vine.

It is interesting then while Jesus continually makes the Kingdom of Heaven of God the subject of his preaching the Apostles do not use this phrase. Peter and Paul and the rest do not preach the Kingdom of God explicitly as Jesus did.

This is because Jesus risen from the dead is himself the Kingdom of God. When they preached the risen Christ they were saying the Kingdom of God is among you. The Church then in so far as it is the Body of the risen Christ is the Kingdom of God being made present among us. It is arriving, it is here but also not yet. It is on its way. Paul and ourselves make up for the suffering of Christ and make Him present today.

In Ezekiel we read of that wonderful temple from which healing, pure water flows out to the East and which brings life into the world, this water provides healing fruit and all kinds of blessings. This is the water which flowed from the right side of Jesus pierced on the cross and became that river, the Church, by which His life and Spirit heals the world and our persons. When Jesus drives the traders out of His Father’s house, the temple, He speaks of a new sanctuary which he will raise up in three days, the sanctuary of His body. John 2,v 13-25. Jesus is the new Temple, He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. The Church is where His Body is made present to the world today.

It is necessary to celebrate the church and to emphasize its absolute importance among people of South Africa. People in South Africa do not live in catholic villages, in catholic towns in a catholic mileau. We are surrounded and related to people of so many different churches. There are 6000 different churches in our country.

Now it is true that God is everywhere and can be worshiped everywhere. And yet God Himself offered his people the Ark of the Covenant and later he had them build the temple in Jerusalem. Through we can serve God anywhere. God knows that we human beings are composed of body and soul and so He gives us concrete visible institutions and structures and shrines to experience fully the reality of His presence. If God were everywhere then for us humans He would soon be nowhere.

Again we can worship God at anytime yet God instituted the Sabbath and commands us to keep the Lord’s day holy. Yes, we can find God anytime of day and night, yet God has invited us to have a special time in which we can be with Him.

It is true that anybody can speak directly with God. Yet, God has given us a priest and a Church to give concrete expression to his presence among us. God has given us churches, priests, and liturgy so that in a real concrete way we can experience that really He embraces us at all the times and everywhere. We celebrate every year the Dedication of the Church of St John Lateran and also that of St Peter, the basilica of Paul; we celebrate the Chair of St Peter, ordinations and professions and jubilees. These are, as it were sacramentals giving concrete expression to a mysterious reality, the presence of Christ’s grace and Spirit in His Church through time. They are signs making present a spiritual reality.

We must have a great love for the church, it is the church which gives us life in Christ. It gives us word, sacrament and communion. Traditionally we speak about the four marks of the church.

1. It is One
2. It is Holy
3. It is Catholic
4. It is Apostolic

The church is One. Cardinal Newman, recently beatified by our Pope was originally an Anglican Christian. This man of great intelligence felt that this Anglican church needed secure foundations in the history of Christianity and in the scripture. The more he read of the history of the early church and the writings of the fathers of the church- those who came after the apostles- the more it became clear to him that it was the Roman Church which was in union with these roots and traditions. It was the Roman Catholic church which gave us the Canon of sacred scripture, it was this church which gave us the creed of the Apostles, it was this church laid the foundations of our liturgy today, and it was this church in its teaching which was still united with that of the Apostles.

The Catholic Church is a community, it is a family, indeed it is a Body, the Body of Christ in which all the living and the dead are united in Christ.

The church is Holy. You know that when we celebrate Mass and read the scriptures we remember the words of Jesus, “Do this in memory of me.” This was recently translated by BBC Television as ‘when you do this you bring me back’. Jesus is Holiness Himself, He is God and the church brings Him back when it celebrates the Eucharist and the sacraments.

Where were the sick at the time of Jesus? They were lying at the side of the road, there was no one to care for them. It was the church that gathered them together. Millions of catholics, especially women, through the centuries dedicated their whole lives caring for prisoners and the poor and the sick. In Europe at the time of St Francis there were 90 thousand hospitals in Europe which cared for lepers. These were established and maintained by the Catholic Church. History witnesses infallibly that it was our Church which looked after the welfare of children and of women. It is through the church that God has shown His concern for the poor.

When we read the lives of the great saints down the centuries we see holiness present and beautifully lighting up the faces of our fellow human beings. Pope Benedict speaks of the saints as, “A great luminous trail through history”. The Church’s mission is to radiate the holiness of God into the whole world.

The church is Catholic. We Catholics are obedient to the scriptures. The scriptures are our word of life. But we also can know God through our reason. We also must bring our reason, our own minds and understanding and experience to the understanding of scripture. We unite faith and reason. We listen to the Lord, but we use the world and we admire its beauty and praise God who is the source of all beauty. We remember what St Francis says, “In all things beautiful he saw a hand of the artist of beauty, God Himself.” We see all life and human activity as potentially sacramental, that behind and beneath all human activity done in faith there is the presence of Someone greater, the Spirit of God.

The Church is catholic in that it is sent into the whole world, it is sent to all nations, it calls all to belong to the new people of God

The church is catholic and it cares for all our needs. The church is not only a place of prayer it is a place of caring, enriching all God’s people in all their needs. Again the church is catholic in its members. The church is not just the priest it is every baptized person who is fully part of the catholic church. And since Acts 15, the council of Jerusalem, all people everywhere who have faith or are touched by the Spirit are somehow members of that catholic church. Where there is Jesus Christ, there is the Catholic Church said St Ignatius of Antioch 1900 years ago.

The Catholic Church is also Apostolic. Jesus did not write a book. He did not ask us write a book. Jesus left a community. This community was cemented together around the twelve apostles. In fact, the first thing they did in the Acts of the Apostles was to seek someone to make up the number twelve to take up the place of Judas. The church has always been conscious of its apostolic foundations. It was this apostolic community that kept alive the presence of Jesus. It is in this Apostolic community that we find Jesus. Thomas, when he was alone, did not witness the risen Jesus. When he came back to the community, there Jesus came and asked him to touch him.

The Pope and bishops are that apostolic college. Just as Jesus unified his 12 around Peter so the bishops of the world are unite by the Pope, the successor of St Peter. They hand on the teaching, the saving words, which they have received from the apostles and their successors through the ages.

Finally, the church is a pilgrim church. The church of course is made up us sinners too, many people are scandalized by sinfulness in the church and some of the leaders. But the church has always had sinners. Jesus was himself criticized for picking out sinners and spending his time with them. Judas was one of his companions chosen by him. The Acts of the Apostles shows us many struggles for truth within the early church of the Apostles themselves. These people did not have the New Testament. They were conscious of the Spirit but they also were conscious of different points of view.

There was the Gentile Church and the Jewish church. Paul had to correct Peter on occasion. There were disagreements between the groups and faithful in the individual churches. We read Paul’s letter to Corinth begging for unity among these Christian but sinful people. The history of the church of course throws up many saints and sinners.

So our call then is to give expression to this church. We strive to be One, to the Holy, to be Catholic reaching out to all and to be Apostolic. We are pilgrims, we struggle. As pilgrims, as priests we are meant to offer guidance and example. We offer discernment, we listen with the people to the voice of God. We offer accompaniment, we travel with the people searching with them, consoling them, pointing them to God, calling them back to the true way.

We offer the people of God hospitality, we welcome them , we show them that God desires to embrace them. Our job is to build up the community. Grace is communitarian.

Priests are essentially men at the heart of a community.
Priest is not a lonely man, he is a man who belongs to all and to whom all belong.

Bishop William Slattery ofm