I was giving a talk at my home parish on the early Church when a woman came up to me. Pointing at her heart she indicated that we, the people, are the Church. I couldn’t deny her sincerity, nor do I think her intentions were wrong.
I come across this sentiment from time to time. I recall when I was in Washington DC, helping with catechesis, a particular follow-up meeting for the newly ordained. The deacon of this parish was brought in to explain a few things. My 20-year-old self was a bit appalled by his teaching. He was saying, “You don’t have to genuflect to the tabernacle. Most people don’t even know what that means. If you’re going to bow or reverence anything it should be the people because without them there is no Church.”
I interjected, “We genuflect because the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is housed there and we reverence His Holy presence.”
He continued by saying something along the lines of ‘but isn’t God in each of us?’
I was happy when a number of newly baptized spoke up, many of them young to middle aged (28-45) saying “the purpose of going to mass, most of all, is the Eucharist” and “if no one knows why we genuflect why aren’t we teaching them?”
In one part I was sad that these men and women, newly formed in Christ and possessing the fervor of a new convert, were met immediately and in their own home with divisive error, stubbornness, and borderline heresy. Nevertheless, I think it shows that no matter how close to home we are we have to be on guard from error.
Perhaps this deacon had lived through a time where the faithful did not respect each other. Perhaps he had some vision of Church that he couldn’t let go. Whatever the reason his message was “We are the Church, we should not reverence the Eucharist but each other.”
Fast forwarding to the present day: I wish I had this insight 5 years ago. All the same it came to my mind now and so I share it in hopes that it helps you, the reader.
I told her, more or less, that “We are certainly the Church. We were baptized and we as human beings can receive God’s grace. We were also given a mission and entrusted to carry it out.
“You’ll recall, however, that in the Old Testament God himself called the people of Israel together. In this sense the people were Israel. But God didn’t stop there, did He? He formed a covenant with His people. He gave them priests, prophets, kings, laws, and a host of other things. People as people weren’t Israel alone, it was the people committed to a certain way of life and a certain structure. This is how they were properly called children of God.”
Afterward I reflected on what I had said. Perhaps these words would have helped even more:
Peter, in Scripture, tells us “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5).
In this sense we are the Church, but only so much as the stones of a church are the church. For you see, without a plan to build that church the stones remain scattered, disorganized, and contribute little to nothing. Likewise, if the building didn’t have a purpose those stones would have never been gathered in the first place.
A church has structure. It has rules, it has order, and it has reason behind it. Likewise a church has a purpose. It gathers people to one spot for worship, for praise, for atonement, and it gathers them to be closer to God.
A church is not a church without its plan, without its purpose, or without its materials (or its people). The Church herself is God’s gift to us. It’s a structure that we inherit and it’s a body that we’re incorporated into. As living members of that Body we are indeed important and special. But we can only exercise our mission, our specialness, and our faith within that Church. The purpose of building a church is not to look at it from afar and comment, “It’s a very nice building.”
A church is built to be prayed in, loved in, and to worship God. Living apart from God’s plan makes us as useful as a stone in a field. Living according to the structure and purpose of the Church glorifies God and stands tall with all others with us as a physical sign for all to see.
We are the Church, but only when we consciously choose to humble ourselves, making ourselves fit together like stones meant for building.
Those who claim that faith is only a personal relationship with Jesus are like stones that wish to remain stones. Peter, I believe, uses the image of “living stones” in a very particular way. A stone is something essential to a solid building, but a stone does not “build,” rather it is something “built with.” A stone submits itself to the builder. Paul himself said, “According to the commission of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid the foundation, and another man [my successor] is building upon it” (1 Cor 3:10).
A stone that does not submit itself to the builder is a stone that’s cast away or one that’s in need of work. Paul, leader to his people, says, “We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building” (3:9). And even if one builds with Christ as his foundation it does not mean that his building will stand. When we entrust ourselves with building we may end in ruin. When we submit ourselves to wise builders we endure.
Some men may be good builders but they adopt a different plan from the generations that came before. Some men, like Luther for example, forsook the Tradition of his fathers. Rather, because he saw many stones were weak he decided that the plan for the Church was at fault and not the stones or the builders. He blamed the builders, perhaps justly so, but he also eventually blamed the plan.
The integrity of a structure like the Church depends first on its foundation, but it depends on more thereafter, if we’re to believe 1 Corinthians, chapter 3. The integrity of the Church requires humility from her members so that, like stones, that may make a temple pleasing to the Lord.