Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on St. Paul during his general audience on Oct. 15. He spoke about St. Paul’s teaching on the Church. Paul used the word “church” to refer both to the local Christian communities and to the Church as a whole. The person of Jesus Christ and his Gospel are at the heart of the Church, and Paul’s work of evangelization was aimed at establishing new communities of believers. In this way, the Church takes shape as a concrete assembly called into being by God’s word. For Paul, the Church is also the “body of Christ,” a living body endowed with various ministries that are spiritual in their origin and purpose. Paul invites us to understand and love the Church ever more deeply and to work towards building it in faith and charity.
Dear brothers and sisters,
In last Wednesday’s catechesis, I spoke about St. Paul’s relationship with Jesus during his life here on earth prior to Easter. The question was as follows: “What did Paul know about Jesus’ life, words and passion?”
Today, I would like to speak about St. Paul’s teaching on the Church. We should begin by noting that the Italian word for church, chiesa — as well as the French word église and the Spanish word iglesia — are all taken from the Greek word ekkle-sía.
This word comes from the Old Testament and denotes the assembly of the people of Israel called together by God, of which the assembly at the foot of Mount Sinai is a particularly prime example.
This word now denotes the new community of believers in Christ who consider themselves to be God’s assembly — all the peoples whom he has gathered together before him.
The Church of God
The word ekkle-sía makes its debut only in the writing of Paul, the very first author of a Christian writing. It is found in the opening of the Letter to the Thessalonians, which, according to the text, Paul addressed “to the church of the Thessalonians.” (Also note “the church of the Laodiceans” in Colossians 4:16.)
In other letters, he speaks about the church of God that is in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1) and in Galatia (see Galatians 1:2, etc.) — the local churches, therefore. Yet, he also writes about having persecuted “the Church of God” — not a specific local community but “the Church of God.”
From this, we see that the word “church” is multifaceted in meaning. On the one hand, it indicates the assemblies of God in specific places (a city, a region, a house), but it also denotes the Church in its entirety.
We see then that “the Church of God” is not merely the sum of the various local churches, but that the various local churches are the realization of the one Church of God. Taken together they are “the Church of God,” which precedes the individual local churches, yet is expressed and realized in them.
It is important to observe that the word “church” is almost always accompanied by the qualifier “of God.” It is not some human association born of common ideas or interests, but something that God has called together.
He has called it together and, for this reason, it is one in all of its manifestations. The unity of God creates the unity of the Church wherever it is found.
Later on, in his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul elaborated at length on this concept of unity in the Church, preserving the concept of the people of God, Israel, whom the prophets considered to be “God’s bride,” called to live in a spousal relationship with him.
Paul presents the one Church of God as “the bride of Christ” in love — one body and one spirit with Christ himself.
Old Testament Concept
It is well-known that Paul as a young man had been a relentless adversary of the new movement that the Church of Christ constituted. He opposed it because he felt this new movement was a threat to the faithfulness to the tradition of the people of God — a people inspired by faith in the one God.
This loyalty was expressed, above all, in circumcision and by observing the rules of ritual purity, abstaining from certain foods, and respecting the Sabbath.
The Israelites had paid for this loyalty with the blood of martyrs during the time of the Maccabees, when the Greek regime forced all the peoples to conform to a single Greek culture.
Many Israelites had defended Israel’s special vocation with their blood. The martyrs died in order to preserve their identity as a people, which was expressed through these distinct elements.
After his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul understood that Christians were not traitors. On the contrary, in this new situation, the God of Israel, through Christ, had extended this call to all peoples, becoming the God of all peoples.
This was how loyalty to the one God was accomplished. The distinctive sign of rules and observances particular to one people was no longer necessary because all peoples were called, in their variety, to be part of the one people of God, of the “Church of God” in Christ.
One thing was immediately clear to Paul about this new situation: the fundamental and foundational value of Christ and the “word” that proclaimed him.
Paul knew that a person does not become a Christian through force. Not only that, but also, in the internal configuration of this new community, the institutional component was inevitably linked to the living “word,” the proclamation of the living Christ through whom God opens himself to all peoples and unites them in the one people of God.
It is significant that Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, uses the expression “proclaim the word” several times, even when referring to Paul (see Acts 4:29,31; 8:25; 11:19; 13:46; 14:25; 16:6, 32), with the obvious intention of giving maximum emphasis to the decisive importance of the “word” that was being proclaimed.
In concrete terms, this word is made up of Christ’s cross and resurrection, through which the Scriptures had been fulfilled. The paschal mystery, which brought about the profound change in Paul’s life on the road to Damascus, is clearly at the center of Paul’s preaching (see 1 Corinthians 2:2; 15:14).
This mystery, which is proclaimed in the word, takes place in the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist and then becomes a reality in Christian charity.
The Body of Christ
The only purpose of Paul’s work of evangelization was to firmly establish a community of believers in Christ. This idea is contained in the very etymology of the word ekkle-sía, which Paul, as well as all of Christianity, preferred to the other term: “synagogue.”
Originally, this first word was more secular (coming from the Greek practice of political assemblies that were not expressly religious), but it directly implies the more theological idea of a call ab extra (from without) — not just the idea, therefore, of a mere gathering, but of a gathering of believers that God has called, uniting them in a community, his Church.
Along these same lines, we can also understand the original concept, which was unique to St. Paul — of the Church as “the body of Christ.”
In this regard, we must keep in mind that the concept has two dimensions. One is of a sociological nature, according to which the body is made up of its members, without which it could not exist.
This interpretation appears in the Letter to the Romans and the First Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul adopts an image that already existed in Roman sociology. He says that a people is like a body with different members, each having its function, and that all of them, including the smallest and seemingly most insignificant, are necessary so that the body can live and function as such.
Likewise, Paul observes, there are many vocations in the Church — prophets, apostles, teachers and ordinary people — all of whom are all called to live each day in charity, and all of whom are needed for building the living unity of this spiritual organism.
The other interpretation refers to the body of Christ himself. Paul maintains that the Church is not just an organism, but truly becomes the body of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, where we all receive his body and truly become his body.
This is how the spousal mystery is fulfilled, according to which everyone becomes one body and one spirit in Christ.
Thus, reality far surpasses the sociological image and expresses its true profound essence; namely, the unity of all who are baptized in Christ, whom the apostle considered as “one” in Christ, conformed to the sacrament of his body.
Saying this, Paul shows he understands and helps us all to understand that the Church is neither his nor ours: The Church is the Body of Christ; it is the “Church of God,” “God’s field, God’s building ... the Temple of God” (see 1 Corinthians 3:9, 16).
This latter designation is particularly interesting, because it attributes to the intricate fabric of interpersonal relationships a term commonly used to refer to a physical place considered sacred.
The relationship between Church and temple thus assumes two complementary dimensions. On the one hand, the characteristics of separateness and purity that are proper to a sacred building are applied to the ecclesial community. On the other hand, it goes beyond the idea of a material space, transferring its characteristics to the reality of a living community of faith.
Even though temples were originally considered to be places where God was present, people now can know and see that God does not dwell in buildings made of stone. Rather, the place where God is present in the world is in the living community of believers.
The descriptive phrase “the people of God” deserves separate consideration. Paul, for the most part, applies it first of all to the people of the Old Testament and then to the pagans, who were once “no people,” but have also become God’s people due to their insertion into Christ through the word and the sacraments.
Finally, one last nuance: In the Letter to Timothy, Paul describes the Church as “the household of God” (see 1 Timothy 3:15).
This is a truly original definition, because it refers to the Church as a community structure in which people experience warm, interpersonal relationships of a family nature.
Paul helps us to understand ever more deeply the mystery of the Church in its different dimensions as an assembly of God in the world. This is the greatness of the Church and the greatness of our call.
We are the temple of God in the world: the place where God truly lives and, at the same time, we are also a community, the family of God, who is love.
As a family and as the household of God, we must make God’s charity a reality in this world, and thus be, with the power that comes from faith, the place and the sign of his presence.
Let us ask the Lord to grant us the gift of being ever more his Church, his body, the place where his charity is present in our world and in our history.