Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily, February 20, 2011, Do You Not Know?, Francis Herrmann, SJ


Do You Not Know That You Are The Temple of God?

St. Mary of the Angels, Feb. 20, 2011

When Paul wrote to the Christian communities of his day, he was often trying to tell them who they are; what their identity is. After all, this following of Christ was a brand new thing. No one had ever heard of worshipping a man who had been disgracefully crucified. The new believers wanted to know who they had now become in light of their accepting the Good News of Christ. In response, Paul liked to use images to explain how the the Christ-event transformed those who accepted him. To a different community, Paul writes that those who have this new faith are like marathon runners, moving through life with the Holy Spirit as their breath, with Christ as there guide, and with their eyes fixed on God. To another infant church, he writes that they are a body, not just any body, but the body of Christ, who is their head. Each person is a distinct part of the body, with an identity that she or he can be proud of because God gives us each our own unique gifts and each person makes his or her contribution to making the whole body strong and healthy. Everyone is needed.

Now in writing to Corinth, Paul reaches out for a new image to try to capture what being a follower of this most unlikely crucified and risen redeemer means for us. Cleverly, Paul uses an image that will be very familiar to the people in Corinth: the image of a temple. Most good cities in our present day are famous for sites that tourists come to see from other places. Many people come to Boston for its historical places, or to NY for its skyscrapers. Ancient Corinth had its attractions, too. It was especially famous for its temples. Zeus, father of the gods; Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty; Asclepius, god of medicine and healing; each had a beautiful temple dedicated to him or her. These great temples with their beautiful architecture were renowned. Even today, thousands of people go to Corinth to see the ruins of these buildings. And we in this country still adorn many of our best buildings with Corinthian pillars.

What does Paul mean to tell the Christians at Corinth, when he says they are "the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in them?" I think his message must have really sent a shock through them. The Christians were often, if not always, poor people, living in ordinary circumstances, at best. They may have thought there was nothing special about themselves, particularly in comparison to the imposing magnificence of the temples around them, where the rest of the world worshipped the Greek gods and probably thought this new religion was foolishness. But, Paul says to them, "the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God."

Paul is saying to his hearers that these famous, gorgeous temples are nothing compared to what you are. These high, decorated pillars and gleaming walls contain only false idols. At heart, they are empty. But you, you are a temple where the true God, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, really dwells. Each one of you is a living stone, carefully crafted by God and fitted together with one another to form a temple that contains the mysterious glory of the real God. You, therefore, are more glorious than any collection of Corinthian columns, whatever their lasting beauty though the ages. You have a dignity, beauty, and worth far greater than that. "Brothers and sisters: do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you…The temple of God, which you are, is holy." And Christ is the cornerstone that holds all of you together in union.

Paul says the same to us today. We may have heard the phrase "you are the temple of God" many times as we grew up. Often the phrase is used to mean that each one’s body is the temple of God; the Spirit’s dwelling place. And certainly that is true. So are its consequences: we should respect ourselves and the dignity of every person. For each person is holy.

But Paul means something beyond that when he says, "you are the temple of God." He means we are not just individuals, unconnected to each other. We are meant to be a community, linked to each other by our common faith. Ours is not a "me and Jesus" faith. Our faith joins us together like stones in a beautiful building, which rests upon Christ. We form a temple greater than all the grandeur of Greece and Rome because in our temple, "the Spirit of God" chooses to be at home. When we offer Eucharist together, when we pray together, when we act as a community to help others, when we love one another as Christ taught us, then we are the place where God dwells.

Let us pray that we will each do our part to be the living stones of our church—a community—where God’s holy presence lives, and can be seen to live. Then, people in need will find among us hope, strength, peace, joy, and faith.

F.R. Herrmann, S.J.

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