Strange as it might seem, the word “Church” appears only twice in the Gospel accounts. Both instances are found in St. Matthew’s Gospel narrative. The word Church occurs first when Christ pledges to St. Peter that the apostle will be the rock upon which Christ will build his Church. The second use is found in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage when Christ instructs the Christian community to bring dissident members before the Church to sort out their mistaken behavior. The word Church as it appears in the original Greek is “ekklesia,” which means “called out.” The Church is those who are called out by God from the larger society to bear special witness to Him and to do his specific work on earth. The Greek ekklesia can easily be discerned in the English words “ecclesial” and “ecclesiastical,” i.e., pertaining to the Church.
Although the same Greek word “ekklesia” is used in both instances, it refers to the church in two different circumstances. When Christ institutes St. Peter as the Church’s firm foundation, the Savior is using the word to indicate the worldwide believing community, the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church as later fathers of the Church would label it. When Christ employs the word Church in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, he uses the word to mean the local church community which today might be labelled as the parish. So, the Church is indeed the universal Church as well as the local Church. Appreciating the broader community and the home-grown community are both vital to the authentic Catholic life. The universal church and the local church are both integral to a full Catholic existence.
In this coming Sunday’s Scripture passage, Jesus goes out of his way to emphasize the importance of the local church community in the authentic Christian life. “Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Jesus teaches that even if only two disciples agree on the goal of their prayer, God will certainly listen to them. And again, Christ adds that when just two or three believers are assembled for prayer, his grace will indeed be effective. Christ clearly envisions the Christian life as a communal enterprise. Catholicism is not a private devotion simply joining the soul to God. An “I/Thou” relationship does not exhaust the Christian experience. As God Himself is a network of the three Divine Persons eternally relating to one another, so too, the children of God are expected to reach out toward their neighbors in authentic communal experiences.
St. Paul, in the second reading at Mass this Sunday, strongly emphasizes the importance of interpersonal and communal relationships within Church life. In fact, St. Paul envisions the hearty give and take of daily life as the summit of Christian experience: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” The Apostle gets very practical indeed citing offenses against the communal life like adultery, killing, stealing and covetousness. These are grave contradictions against the ancient Scriptural summation of what being a religious person truly means: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then he adds very practically, “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”
The prophet Ezekiel, for his part in this Sunday first reading, introduces the touchy prospect of fraternal correction. The authentic believer should be a “watchman” for the house of Israel, heeding the word of God himself and then warning those who stray from righteousness about the dangers of their disagreeable ways. Indeed, failure to correct the erring brother or sister will endanger the watchman’s own salvation: “I will hold you responsible for his death.” But God will reward good efforts even if they do not always have happy results: “But if you warn the wicked, trying to turn him from his way, … you shall save yourself.” The prophet here echoes the advice of Jeremiah, “But you, prepare yourself; stand up and tell them all that I command you. Do not be terrified on account of them, or I will terrify you before them!” Fraternal correction is indeed a challenging, but nonetheless mandatory Biblical obligation!
SS. Matthew, Paul and the prophet Ezekiel are by no means alone, stressing the centrality of practical love in the Christian life. Among Jesus’ final words to his disciples is the familiar charge, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, by your love for one another.” And this is not just good advice; it’s a “new commandment!”