Every parish is part of a larger group of parishes called a "diocese". Every diocese is led by a bishop. Because a bishop oversees all the parishes in his diocese, he is not assigned to a single parish church. However, every bishop does have a cathedral which is a church set aside for special ceremonies such as the ordination of priests and deacons as well as other diocesan-wide liturgies.
Our pope, Benedict XVI, is also a bishop, the bishop of the diocese of Rome. And, like all other bishops, he also has a cathedral. It is a common misconception that Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City is the pope's cathedral. In fact, it is actually the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. The feast we celebrate today is the dedication of that basilica some seventeen hundred years ago.
What makes that one church building so special that we are setting aside a day to celebrate it? Well, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran is the first public church in the city of Rome. Before the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, followers of Christ met in private homes for worship. Without the freedom to worship according to their beliefs, they often had to hide out of fear of persecution. Now, with the dedication of this great basilica in 324 A.D., Christians could come out of the dark and worship together in public without the fear of being arrested, tortured or even killed. After nearly three centuries of harassment, we can only imagine the jubilation that took place that day seventeen hundred years ago when Christians gathered in the city of Rome to worship Jesus Christ.
Nonetheless, for all the history that has taken place in that church, for all the popes who have celebrated Mass there, for all the emperors and kings who have knelt there, the Basilica of Saint John Lateran is merely a building. It could easily be destroyed by an earthquake or fire. The real beauty and power of that church comes from the presence of Jesus there. And, that presence is due to the people who gather there daily to hear his word and receive his body and blood.
When we use the word "church" in everyday language, we are usually referring to a building. For instance, we call this building a "church". But the word "church" has a fuller, more spiritual meaning. The Church is the People of God, all those who have been baptized in the name of Jesus. We are the Church. Just as we are still Americans when we travel to England or Zimbabwe, so we are still the Church when we leave this building and return to our homes.
This is Saint Paul's message today in the second reading from the Letter to the Corinthians. He writes, "YOU are God's building". And later, "YOU are the temple of God," and "...the Spirit of God dwells in YOU." Paul and his fellow Christians did not have public buildings in which to worship. Rather, they understood that wherever they gathered, they themselves were the Church. The Spirit of God was not dwelling in buildings but in the hearts of those who believe. They themselves in their bodies formed the temple where God was present.
Jesus takes up this idea in the gospel reading. In a shocking scene, Jesus takes a rope and drives out the money changers from the temple, overturning their tables and sending the sheep and oxen away. Jesus then uses the situation to teach us something about who he is and what his mission is. When asked by what authority he took such a drastic action, he told them, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." As Saint John explains, he wasn't speaking about the temple building, but the temple "of his body". Jesus, by his death and resurrection, would become the new temple. The temple was no longer a physical building in Jerusalem, but Jesus' very body. In this way, we don't have to go all the way to Jerusalem to offer worship which is pleasing to the Father. We can offer that worship anywhere and anytime through Jesus Christ, the new temple and the new lamb of sacrifice.
When we realize that the Church is the People of God and the Temple in which God's Spirit dwells, it has some profound implications for our life.
First of all, if the spirit of Jesus dwells in the Church, then we cannot love Jesus without loving the Church. None of us has just a personal relationship with Jesus. We all love and serve Jesus as members of a Church. Throughout the centuries, the Church has kept the teaching of Jesus intact. We all have learned about Jesus through the teaching of the Church and encountered him through her sacraments. The Church is the instrument Jesus uses to communicate his love and his presence to the world. How could we not love the one through whom we come to know our Savior?
Secondly, if the Church is the People of God, we cannot love the Church without loving people. Loving the Church is not a matter of loving buildings, ceremonies or history. It is a matter of loving all God's people no matter how good and no matter how bad. Can all of us who say that we love this parish also say that we love the people of the parish?
We are not alone in our journey of faith. The Spirit of God dwells in each of us and in all of us. We experience Jesus in this building because of the people who make up this parish community. Land and buildings can be taken away from us, but no one can deprive us of the Spirit of God who dwells in our hearts through faith and makes us the Church. That is the essence of our celebration today. Not just a church building in Rome, but a People who have witnessed to Christ for over two thousand years and will continue to do so until he comes again in glory.