2 Corinthians 6:16
1 Peter 2:10
This phrase, “people of God,” figured heavily into Vatican II. The whole second chapter was devoted to it in the Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution of the church published during Vatican II. From Lumen Gentium:
“Christ instituted this new covenant, the new testament, that is to say, in His Blood, calling together a people made up of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit. This was to be the new People of God. For those who believe in Christ, who are reborn not from a perishable but from an imperishable seed through the word of the living God, not from the flesh but from water and the Holy Spirit, are finally established as "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people . . . who in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God.” (1 Peter 2:10)
What the Lumen is saying, as this phrase means throughout the Bible, can best be explained like a Southern pastor did to me once. “When God says ‘you,” he usually means ‘y’all.’” For those of you who don’t speak Southern, ‘y’all’ is the second person plural. Contrary to what many Protestants mean when they say “Jesus is my personal savior,” which suggests no community is necessary to maintain a relationship with God, Catholics and several other confessions believe that “church” means not a collection of persons, but a “people,” that is, a community. This idea that people are isolated, independent individuals is not a Christian idea, but an idea that emerged in liberal philosophy after the seventeenth century, and gained traction as an ideology from the eighteenth century forward.
I don’t want to confuse you with the word “liberal,” because in philosophy it means something different than how we think of it now. Now we think of liberal as the opposite of conservative, which generally divides people on cultural issues like sex and money; but when the church talks about liberalism, which it does frequently and in not so friendly a way, it means philosophical liberalism, which includes most so-called “liberals” and “conservatives” today.
Liberal philosophy begins with the idea that there is this thing called “an individual,” who is both sovereign and self-determining. By sovereign, I mean subject to no other authority, and by self-determining, I mean unhindered by any connection to others. This is, of course, not true, but it is a political fiction that makes us all abstractly equal, even when we are not merely unequal, but so unique from person to person that we can’t be compared.
Anatole France, a French novelist, once summed up this absurdity by saying, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich as well as poor from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets, and stealing bread.”
As Christians and Catholics, we believe that we are subject not to ourselves, but to God as God is revealed in Jesus. So we are not sovereign. Jesus is sovereign. That’s why we use the term king. Sovereign means answerable to no one else. Only Jesus is answerable to no one else. Not us. As Christians and Catholics, we also believe that we are not independent, but dependent upon one another and upon God. We are a community, and what we are as individuals is determined within that community. When we participate in the Eucharist, we are taking “communion,” which has the same word root as the term “community.” “Com” means “with.” These words mean “with union’ and “with unity.”
So in this sense, we are not liberals. We are neither conservative-liberals nor liberal-liberals, which is why the mainstream press can’t figure out Pope Francis. They keep saying, “Sometimes he sounds liberal and sometimes conservative,” but the reason they are confused is that they are theologically illiterate. They are so immersed in the idea of the world being divided between conservative-liberals and liberal-liberals, who both accept the idea of this sovereign, self-determining, abstract individual, that they cannot get their heads around a world view that accepts neither, because we don’t accept this assumption they share about this political fiction – this uprooted individual with no family, no history, no community.
In Pope Francis’s first sermon of this year, during the Solemnity of Mary, he said:
“It is not possible ‘to love Christ but without the Church, to listen to Christ but not the Church, to belong to Christ but outside the Church’. For the Church is herself God’s great family, which brings Christ to us. Our faith is not an abstract doctrine or philosophy, but a vital and full relationship with a person: Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God who became man, was put to death, rose from the dead to save us, and is now living in our midst. Where can we encounter him? We encounter him in the Church, in our Holy Mother Church. It is the Church which says today: ‘Behold the Lamb of God’; it is the Church, which proclaims him; it is in the Church that Jesus continues to accomplish his acts of grace which are the sacraments.
“This, the Church’s activity and mission, is an expression of her motherhood. [Note here that children are dependent on mothers, as Jesus himself was dependent on a mother!] For she is like a mother who tenderly holds Jesus and gives him to everyone with joy and generosity. No manifestation of Christ, even the most mystical, can ever be detached from the flesh and blood of the Church, from the historical concreteness of the Body of Christ. Without the Church, Jesus Christ ends up as an idea, a moral teaching, a feeling. Without the Church, our relationship with Christ would be at the mercy of our imagination, our interpretations, our moods.
“Dear brothers and sisters! Jesus Christ is the blessing for every man and woman, and for all of humanity. The Church, in giving us Jesus, offers us the fullness of the Lord’s blessing. This is precisely the mission of the people of God: to spread to all peoples God’s blessing made flesh in Jesus Christ.”
When we say “the people of God,” we are talking about ourselves, as persons yes, but as persons embedded in a community, a people, who have a family, and who depend on each other as a community. One of the struggles of the church and of church members is that we are ourselves, like those confused reporters who can’t figure out Pope Francis, are immersed in a language that is drenched in philosophically liberal assumptions. We think we are called to be independent and successful, just as the disciples expected Jesus to be a violent avenger who would triumph like David over his enemies. But we are called to depend – as Jesus did – only on God. We are not called to be independent and successful. We are called to be holy.
One of the most influential priests leading up to Vatican II was Henri de Lubac, who would become a Cardinal, even though he was almost thrown out of the church in the decade prior to the Council. De Lubac is seen as a forefather of something called narrative theology. Without getting too detailed, the idea behind this is that peoples – communities – are formed by particular stories. “Narrative” means “story.” So these narrative theologians that came after de Lubac said that church is a community that is more than a collection of people who obey the same rules and conform to a set of propositions. They said that church is a story-formed community, and that we ourselves are participating in an unfolding story.
Our story has a beginning, and we are in the middle, and the end is something we have been promised, but we haven’t yet seen. That story begins with the Bible, but our participation isn’t in memorizing the Bible or imitating it word for word… a book where people did the same things chapter after chapter would be pretty boring… but by participating in the unfolding story, even as we are formed by the parts of the story that went before us. You all are not merely individuals. You all are important characters in God’s story. You are part of the people of God.
Now I just used the term “formed.” Note that I did not say educated. Education is a product, and a thing found only in modernity, as is “development.” Remember the trouble the reporters have with Pope Francis, and how I said that we ourselves are often the captives of a language that reflects and reproduces ideas that are not Christian, but liberal. And individual can be developed through education. So because church is a community that is formed around a different story than liberal modernity, we need a different vocabulary. We don’t assess and evaluate, we “discern.” We are not educated and developed, we are “formed.” Formation is different than that bloodless term “education.” We are not looking for people with merely knowledge or skill, but with character.
The process you are undergoing now, and that we go through until we die as Christians, if we are following Jesus, is not “development,” it is conversion. We are formed not merely with new information, but through a process of imitation. The same way that children are formed, in their characters, by living the way they see adults behave, we are formed by living the way other disciples have lived. You all know that you can “teach” children not to lie, but if you teach them not to lie, and you yourself lie, the children will do what you do, not what you say. Formation as the people of God is not so much education as apprenticeship. We are not self-determining and independent; we are a community that understands life not as a quest for success, but as a gift. We are a community of grace, which means we do not accumulate gifts, but we pass them along. During the liturgy, we say, “the gift I have received, I will give as a gift.”
I said we are formed by stories. A friend of mine who used to attend this parish and taught English at Siena Heights, named Davin Heckman, said, “Lifestyle is a technology by which subjects are able to tell a story about themselves through consumption.” We are bombarded by stories all the time from the dominant culture. We see stories on TV that tell us all strangers are dangerous. We watch movies with stories that show how men become men through revenge and violence. We even see little stories on ads and billboards. The story might begin with a problem – my teeth aren’t white enough, my clothes are too frumpy, I’m too fat, my skin is imperfect, my car isn’t big enough of fast enough, and so on. And someone, a model of some kind, is frowning. Then along comes the solution. Something to give me a brighter smile, a better car, a smaller behind, a clearer complexion, bigger muscles… and presto! The problem is solved, the model is smiling, and we all know he or she will now live happily ever after. These kinds of stories are not about conversion. They are about chaining us down in a bottomless pit of insecurity and desire. They also tell us that what is important is Me. Mine, more, and now. And again, the reality is, these stories – the dominant stories of that non-Christian society in which we all live – are stories that will make us what a smart person once called "the prisoners of addiction and envy."
Christian’s have a different story, when we can get hold of it, study it, make sense of it, and make it our own, in the face of all these other stories with which we are daily bombarded. In this story, we can escape the superficiality of these stories and face more serious matters, because in our story death is there, but death does not have the last word.
We are living into this story, this story of Israel, the people of God, the people who “wrestle with God,” which culminates with this strange and surprising gift in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” The Creator of billions of galaxies, smashing through the barrier between space-time and infinity, to became a dependent child in a poor family in a town half the size of Onsted, and in a region that was under a violent military occupation. That’s a wild story, a strange story, and it is our story. And as we head toward Lent, we’ll see how the story gets wilder and stranger, because this truth is far stranger than any fiction.
The story doesn’t end with the crucifixion and resurrection, and it doesn’t end with Pentecost, when the church is born. This is the pivotal chapter in the story, but the story goes on… it has ups and downs, more sins, more repentances, more redemptions, more conflicts, more resolutions, and here you are, entering the story as its newest characters, as the latest less-than-perfect disciples of the God who became a human, who people could touch and smell, who did great signs, challenged the powers, who taught us to love unconditionally, and who was humiliated, then tortured to death, refusing to settle accounts in the ways the powers do, and having his perfect faith answered by being raised by God from death.
This is your story, because this is your new family, your community. There is much to be done, but do not rely on yourselves. This is where the story has gone terribly wrong. Like Jesus, we need to rely on God. The world out there is telling you one story, where you compete, lose or win, accumulate, consume, and die in ways that don’t inconvenience others. We have a different story. When that story gets hard, remember what Revelation - John of Patmos’ apocalyptic vision-poem – says about the ending of the story.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”