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The people of God, the Church, is the Body of Christ in the world. 
We are called to celebrate and serve one another and our world in a unique way.

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Reflecting on Belonging and Community
"I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." This passionate quote comes from Eric Liddell, a devout Christian athlete in the movie Chariots of Fire which relates the true story of two British track athletes in the 1924 Olympics. Liddell missed out on a chance to pursue gold in the 100 metre sprint because the heats were held on Sunday, the Lord's day, and he refused to run.

At the Olympic Games, athletes chase the glory of one of their sport's highest achievements, the Olympic gold medal. Yet the Games for all their promises of fanfare, national pride and fame are not the only reason a person decides to become an athlete. They may simply wish to improve their health and sense of well-being. And as Eric Liddell dramatically displayed, there is more to life than a medal.

A similar attitude is held by many Catholics. We can believe in Jesus Christ, follow his teachings and read the Scriptures, so why do we need to worry about the Church? One can be a good person without going to Mass. Why bother with the Church, some say, especially with its scandals, tired rituals and seeming irrelevance to life?

In Jesus' day he replaced the centre of religious life, the Temple, with himself. This would seem to support those who disregard the Church or keep it on the peripheral of their Christian life. Furthermore, they are right to put Jesus first! Jesus Christ places himself at the heart of our encounter with God, he is the centre, rather than some religious structure or set of rituals.

Yet our Baptism in the Lord is not simply a personal union between one believer and the Divine. In grafting ourselves to Christ, we become part of the Body of Christ, and so share in an intimate relationship with every other believer. In being one with Christ, we are one with other believers, who become our brothers and sisters in a profound and lasting fashion. In other words we become Church.

Our communion in the Body of Christ is neither an institutional trapping nor an optional nicety, such as being part of a sporting club. If we truly wish to follow Jesus Christ, we cannot sidestep Church, because Church is the very reality we are called to be in Christ! By becoming a disciple we die to our old life of autonomy and embrace God's reign. We become sharers in the One Spirit, which unites us in one faith. Our sacramental life springs from this reality. We gather as Church, not out of Sunday duty, but to be the very reality Christ calls us to. It is not something that we can do on our own. The rituals we follow cannot be of our own choosing, as they unite us beyond personal tastes into the life of the Body of Christ. Being Church is our core response to Christ's call.

But one may protest, what about the problems of the Church? Surely there are examples of how it may impede one's faith rather than being a powerful manifestation of our life in Christ.

We, the Church, can be compared to a ship. We are a pilgrim people on a voyage. We point towards the goal of Jesus Christ, and follow the Son. Yet what happens if we go off course, or worse still, come to believe the Church is the goal of our journey? We will end up going around in circles, or be like the "Queen of Nations", a ship bound for Sydney Harbour in 1881 that ran aground at Corrimal. In the report it was found to be off course and that both the Captain and some crew members were drunk.

The Church is a human society, though Spirit-led, and so falls into sin and error time and time again. We, the Church, are constantly in need of purification. In 2000, our millenium year, Pope John Paul II displayed a palpable testimony to our faltering steps when he sought forgiveness for a litany of offences committed by the Church.

Yet without the Church, how do we follow Christ? It is easy to manufacture our own approach to faith, keeping only the "good bits" but does that not somehow sidestep the fullness of our call? Can we reconcile such a response to Jesus' zeal for his own faith? Rather than turning away from his religion, he was filled with a passion for its renewal, even to his own death.

The Olympic Games is a feel-good moment and a snapshot of how nations can come together in celebration. Yet when the nations depart, the inequalities, disharmonies and injustices remain. We are called to follow the Son beyond the unity of the moment, to the unity of the Church that is our lifelong home and family. True, it is not always an easy family to be a member of, yet it is within this fragile community that we express the union Christ calls us to, the union we embody in Christ.

In Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell's rival, Harold Abrahams, vents his frustration: "If I can't win, I won't run." To which his girlfriend rejoins, "If you don't run you won't win." Equally, one may say that unless the Church is whole, they won't participate. Yet unless we participate, the Church will never be whole.

  • Thursday, 22 November 2012
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