Breath of the Spirit
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Jesus’ earliest followers met not in special buildings, but in homes. Even then, the followers were the church, not the home.
NOVEMBER 9, 2014: DEDICATION OF THE LATERAN BASILICA
Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12
I’m certain that one of the two people who will be in purgatory until Jesus’ Parousia is the first person who referred to a building as a church.
For the first centuries of Christianity the word church only designated the community of believers who followed and imitated the risen Jesus in their midst. That’s certainly the way Paul employed the term in I Corinthians 11 when he spoke about the community “gathering as church.” Jesus’ earliest followers met not in special buildings, but in homes. Even then, the followers were the church, not the home.
Things and terminology changed after Constantine’s 313 Edict of Milan, granting Christians the same rights and privileges enjoyed by other religions in the Empire. What had been the exception now became the rule. Christians began regularly to meet in basilicas – public halls – for their liturgies, eventually deserting their homes for these new, more convenient venues.
At that point, today’s Ezekiel passage became significant. Just as the waters flowing from the reconstructed Jerusalem temple brought life wherever they went, so Christians were convinced the actions taking place in these special buildings also brought life to those who participated in them.
Only because there are no texts in the Christian Scriptures which support the building of church structures, those who eventually created our liturgy for today’s feast were forced to employ a passage (I Corinthians 3) which speaks of the people as “God’s building.”
Paul, writing ten or twelve years before the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, was forced to deal with a thorny situation. Though more and more Gentiles were buying into the reform the historical Jesus preached and lived, they, unlike their Jewish/Christian counterparts, were forbidden by Jewish law from even entering that sacred site.
The Apostle’s message in today’s pericope is one of “Don’t worry about it.” After all, he reminds the Gentile/Christian community in Corinth, “. . . You are the temple of God, and . . . the Spirit of God dwells in you.” What the Jerusalem temple hoped to achieve through Yahweh’s special presence, God has already achieved through the Spirit’s special presence in Jesus’ disciples. We shouldn’t long for something we already have – in spades.
Yet, while we’re waiting to totally morph into the temple of God’s Spirit, John’s Jesus warns us to make certain we properly use the church buildings we’ve constructed. This itinerant preaching carpenter from Capernaum was convinced some of his fellow-Jews had lost sight of why their ancestors had originally built the Jerusalem temple. Instead of offering the faithful an opportunity to worship Yahweh, it had simply become a site for making money.
John’s three Synoptic predecessors had Jesus quote Jeremiah’s famous chapter 7 temple speech as he cleared the sacred premises of the traders and sellers: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people, but you have turned it into a den of thieves.” When I’m teaching those three gospels, I often remind my students that the den is usually not the place where thieves do their thieving; it’s the place they run to after they thieve for security. In those writings, Jesus’ message is very biting. Instead of organized religion providing occasions for us to go out and give ourselves to all people, there are times when it actually helps us be secure and safe in our sinning.
Yet, even here, John takes the emphasis off the actual temple and puts it on Jesus. He becomes the only temple Christians have and need.
The late Cardinal John Wright once asked us seminarians, “What would happen if every church-owned building were simultaneously destroyed?” His response: “We’d have to go back to the faith Jesus left us.”
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