Several summers ago, we undertook the project of replacing the fence in our backyard. It had been built long before we moved into our house, had taken to leaning in several places, and I had a very real concern that it wouldn’t be long before one of my children would be able to push a section of it over and escape. Tearing down the old fence was probably the most fun I’ve ever had doing a home renovation project – we rented a skid steer to tear out the old fence posts & to drill holes for the new ones.
It was a big project, and I was fortunate to have a lot of help every step of the way – and it is this project that came to mind as I read through this Sunday’s Mass readings (which you can find on the USCCB website, by clicking here.)
In the second reading today (1 Peter 2:4-9), St. Peter compares the Church to a building. He’s not referring to the physical space in which people gather to worship (Church buildings as we know them today didn’t start to show up until the fourth century) – he was referring to the Christian community. He describes in detail how everything starts with Christ and is built upon the apostles, culminating with each member of the community being the living stones. We are spiritually connected by our membership in this Church – finding both an identity and a mission as a part of this community.
You get a sense of what that looks like in today’s first reading (Acts 6:1-7) in which the apostles were faced with a problem: the Church was growing beyond their ability to meet everyone’s needs. So they appointed seven others to ensure that the most needy and vulnerable among them were not being neglected. These seven “deacons” were given this mission and authority by the laying on of hands – the same ritual (Sacrament) by which the authority of the Apostles is passed on to deacons, priests, and bishops to this day. This early structure in the Church still exists today: every geographical region in the world has as Bishop who is responsible for the people who live there: to care for their souls and to look out for the vulnerable and needy. He appoints others to share with him in that task – priests, deacons, religious, and lay people. But the mission of the Church, spreading the Gospel and caring for those in need, isn’t just for those who have been given an official position or title, it belongs to every Baptized Christian. This is one of the ways in which we become “living stones.”
Understanding all of this makes the Gospel (John 14:1-12) for this Sunday particularly fitting. In this passage, Jesus offers consolation and hope to the Apostles, preparing them for the cowardice, fear, disloyalty, and disillusionment they will experience at the time of His passion. In this passage, Jesus mentions another building, His father’s house, a place He intends to take each one of us. This is ultimately the reason for our hope – that Heaven is a place He prepares and not the result of our own efforts – and it is also the reason why we as a Church build anything here at all: to make this passing world more like the eternal one.
But what does all of this have to do with my fence?
In addition to having all the fun tearing out the old fence, there was a good deal of planning that went to preparing for the new one. Where each old fence post had been, we needed to clear out the debris from drilling to ensure that the holes were big enough and deep to hold not only our 6×6 posts but also the two bags of concrete mix we set in each one of them. Once these posts were in place, the concrete poured, and each post levelled, we had to let it set overnight before properly assembling the fence over the next few days.
If you look at that fence today, you don’t see the concrete (but it’s there!) – and you do see the posts, holding everything together. You see each fence board serving it’s purpose and making the fence what it ought to be. When it comes to the Church, people can’t always see Christ (but He’s there) – and we do see the Pope and Bishops, successors to the Apostles, holding everything together. And in between these you should be able to find each one of us, helping make the Church what it ought to be… because, as the first reading shows, the work is too much for them to do on their own – we need to be there to serve as the word of God increases and the number of the disciples multiplies greatly (see Acts 6:7).