I’m often amazed by the flurry of activity that goes on around this place. I’d only been here a couple of months, and I became convinced that if I strolled over to church at three in the morning, I’d see six or seven cars in the parking lot and a meeting going on somewhere. In a typical day here, there are a handful of meetings, a full day of classes in the school, several people stopping by the parish office to schedule Masses, or pick up baptismal certificates, or coming for appointments with us priests or other staff people. We have people come in for financial and other assistance, perhaps to plan a funeral for a loved one, or pick up lesson plans and supplies for a religious education class. People come in for daily Mass, or to decorate the church, or come for ministry training. And all these things have to be supported by people cleaning the church or watering plants, staff members repairing broken furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or changing light bulbs. We have around fifty staff members involved in every kind of ministry and function here, as well as countless volunteers who support the work of the church in so many ways.
Today we celebrate the feast of the dedication of the St. John Lateran basilica in Rome. That might seem like a strange feast to celebrate, since few of us have probably ever been there. But St. John Lateran is a very important church for us Catholics. It is the “mother church” of all Catholics around the world. It is the Pope’s parish church, the cathedral of Rome. It’s an enormous basilica built over three hundred years ago on the site of a former church built in the fourth century. Within the building are representations of the popes going all the way back to Peter. Over time the churches on this site have been subject to fire, earthquakes and war, and have had to be rebuilt several times. But a church has always been there. It is a visual reminder, inside and out, of our connection to our tradition and the fact that the Church has survived a lot over the centuries–from both within and without. The building attracts many tourists. They can’t help but admire this grand edifice, much like the Jews of Jesus’ time strolled the Temple precincts and admired its splendor.
While it is a solid structure, and probably needs constant upkeep, it is a reminder of another edifice, the real Temple Jesus laid the foundation for and Paul and subsequent preachers carefully built upon, and that temple is God’s people. This structure also requires constant upkeep, that’s what we are about in our celebration today, remembering who we are and “tending to the Temple.”
This church that is ourselves, this temple of the Holy Spirit that we are, needs constant upkeep and maintenance – just like this building where we worship, and just like old St. John Lateran. Because we often fall into the disrepair of sin or the neglect that is spiritual laziness. And often the repairs can seem daunting. But they are certainly possible because of the love of God and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that spirit that brings us back to the Church and helps us with the sacraments.
And that’s the point of today’s celebration. We remember that we are connected as Catholics throughout the world by our connection to the Pope. We remember that we ourselves are the temple of God, as St. Paul tells us today, built on the rock-solid foundation of Jesus Christ, built up with the teaching of the apostles, the proclamation of the Holy Scriptures, and the guidance of the Church’s tradition.
The Scriptures today paint the picture of a Church that is not just a building, but is a living thing that goes forth and makes the whole world new. Just as Ezekiel’s vision painted the picture of water flowing forth from the temple, cleansing and renewing the earth, so the waters of baptism flow forth from the Church of God, taking with it the many ministries of the parishes and the myriad of giftedness possessed by all the baptized believers in all the churches of the world, and flowing out into the world to make a real difference. This is how the lost come to find salvation. This is how the poor are fed. This is how the unborn and the elderly sick are protected. This is how the world, dark in sin and lost in the disrepair of apathy is bound up and made new and washed clean and healed. Saint Paul makes it very clear today: we are the temple of God, and we are filled with the Spirit to make a difference in the world. The Church that is us, we baptized ones, goes forth into a world aching for renewal and brings it all back to the God who made everything, and makes everything new.
And that newness is exactly what Jesus meant when he upturned the moneychangers’ tables and scattered the doves. Because the doves were needed for the sacrifice, and the money which bore the inscription of pagan deities had to be changed for money that could be brought into the temple treasury – they weren’t doing anything wrong. But Jesus’ message here is completely different than we might think at first – what he means by all of this is that there is a new temple, the temple that is he himself – that temple which will be torn down by disbelievers but restored in the Resurrection. There is a new temple, and so that old one with all its dove-sellers and moneychangers isn’t really necessary any more, so take it all and go home, or come to worship rightly, in the temple that is Christ, that temple that will never ever fall into disrepair.
We very much need the church buildings we have among us. We need St. John Lateran to be a symbol of the Catholic faith that has withstood persecution of every sort and remained standing to give witness to Christ. We need St. Raphael’s church so that we can come and worship and find our Lord in Word and Sacrament. But all of that pales in comparison to the importance of the Church that is you and me, and all the baptized ones of every time and place, filled and inspired and breathed forth with the Holy Spirit, gifted beyond imagining, flooding the earth with the torrent of God’s grace, making everything new, and bringing it all back to God who made it all possible.
The task is daunting, but we cannot be afraid to be Church to one another and Church to the world. As our Psalmist tells us today, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold!”