A number of years ago a young man I’ve known since the day he was born, in fact I was his Sponsor for his Confirmation, said to me, “I don’t believe in organized religion.” My response was simply, “Yet your life is run by organized hockey and baseball.” He works for the government and I almost said ‘and organized crime.”
Organized religion is a dirty word for many people, especially young people who feel they should live their lives uninhibited by rules or restrictions or structures of any kind. Flexibility is the name of the game. Once they hit the work place they realize life is not lived that way except of course their life of faith. There is something in us that resents and resists structures. I had a priest friend whose famous saying was, “God so loved the world he didn’t send a committee.” Structures are a part of all our lives. In such a simple thing as a pick up game of hockey, basketball or baseball someone has to choose sides and decide who is going to play what position. There is always a progression from idea to action to structure.
The loose gathering of followers of Jesus upon whom the Holy Spirit descended on Pentecost were led by the twelve men Jesus had chosen to be leaders and teachers. We might say this was the beginnings of structuring in the community.
In a very short while there were issues. Everything was held in common but the Greek Christians felt that their widows were not getting their fair share of food and saw the Hebrew Christian widows as being favored. They brought their complaint to the Apostles who basically said, ‘we weren’t called to wait on tables but to preach the good news.’ So they picked seven of the Greek Christians to take care of the widows and make sure they had enough to eat. The Apostles laid hands of them to show they were set aside for a special service to the community. This was the beginning of the service of Deacons, another structure in the community.
When we consider the structures and the bureaucracy of our present church we can see we’ve come a long way from those early days. I wonder if Jesus might even say, ‘this isn’t what I had in mind.’ As we know from any institution, structures take on a life of their own and they are very protective of themselves. So often when people speak of ‘the church’ they are speaking not of the community of believers but of structures and bureaucracy.
That’s why our second reading from St. Peter is so important. Some scripture scholars think that this passage we’ve just heard was an instruction for baptismal candidates. Peter explains the kind of community they are about to enter through Baptism. For Peter the church, the community of those who believe in Jesus is a temple, a place of God’s presence, made not of brick and mortar but made of living stones, the men, women and children of the community of faith.
In interviewing the children for their First Communion I show them a picture of people going into a church. I ask them where the church in this picture is. They always point to the building. I put my hand over the building and say,” I still see the church in this picture, what am I looking at?’ Eventually they get the idea that the people are the church, the other is just a building. Long before we had buildings we call churches we were church, a temple built of living stones. St. Paul asks “Don’t you know that you, you the people, are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?”
St. Peter teaches that we become living stones in and through our baptism and we are joined together by Christ, who is the cornerstone. The structures that have developed over the centuries are secondary to the basic reality that the people, we are the church. Peter goes on to teach that not only are we living stones we are also a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own people. This is what is known as the priesthood of all believers. You priestly people exercise your priesthood by offering up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God. You do this at every Eucharist when you make yourselves one with the priest at the altar and offer your lives to God as Christ offer his life for you. We call it a holy exchange of gifts. As priestly people you declare the wonderful works of God as you try to live this Mass outside these walls in the lives you live as Christians.
In the early life of the church St. John Chrysostom said “it is the people who make the building holy not the other way around.” This is a holy place because you are here; you are living stones building a temple to God.
As we continue to celebrate this Mass may we be blessed to be able to look beyond structure and bureaucracy and know the church for what is it, a temple made up of living, loving and serving stones. May we always remember, we are the church.