Sermon: Does Jesus really want us to go to church?
When did Jesus tell His followers that they had to go to church? Can’t I believe in Jesus, follow His teachings by loving others, read the Bible, and grow closer to Him without actually going to church on Sundays? And aren’t there a lot of people in the world who never go to the Church but are actually better Christians than the people who do? These are some of the questions that many people in our world would ask about the obligation to attend Holy Mass on Sundays.
Jesus was very concerned about the sacredness of places of worship. As an observant Jew, He regarded only one place as a true place of worship: The Temple, located in the holy city Jerusalem. He participated in the services of the synagogue, but while the synagogue in each Jewish city or town played an important role in teaching the scriptures and communal prayer, true worship of God, the worship that took place through sacrifice, could only take place in the Temple in Jerusalem. Only there did God dwell.
This is why Jesus’s actions that we see today are so important and were so shocking to the people who witnessed them. The Jews who say in today’s Gospel that the Temple had been under construction for 46 years are telling a small part of the story. The original Temple had been built by King Solomon and was destroyed several centuries later by the Babylonians. About 500 years before the time of Christ, the Jews returned from exile and re-built a modest version of the Temple, but it wasn’t until King Herod’s rule in the years before Christ’s birth that the Temple was rebuilt into the awe-inspiring structure that it would have been during Jesus’s visits to Jerusalem.
Jesus’s actions of expelling the vendors and turning over the tables of the moneychangers establish His authority over the Temple. He claims for Himself the authority of God to establish what is and is not allowed in His house. And even more importantly, He claims that His body – which He Himself will raise after three days in the tomb – is a new and truer Temple than the one that stood on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.
Some people would take from this lesson that the place of worship is not important – just that we find ways to connect with Jesus. But this would be tragically to misunderstand Jesus’s prophetic actions. Jesus was not a guru and Christianity is not a life philosophy. You don’t need to belong to a community to adopt one particular life philosophy or another, but you do need to belong to the Church to be a Christian. Christ Himself established the Church. He did not merely teach men and women how to act, but gathered them together and taught them a new way of worshiping Him.
This is why it is patently false to say that many people who do not go to church are better Christians than those who do. Being a good Christian is not primarily about moral conduct. The way that we live is very important, but it is really a consequence of an encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus, who is present in our midst in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The new Temple of Christ’s body requires a new worship, which is precisely the worship that He taught the Apostles when He gathered them in the upper room to give them a new commandment: “Do this in memory of me.” (When one of my college professors met this objection that the people who went to church did not seem to behave more morally than those who didn’t, he retorted, “Yes, I recognize that I often do not live up to Christ’s teachings. But just imagine how much worse a person I would be if I didn’t go to church!”)
Our weekly participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass fulfills the “obligation of the natural law to render to God outward, visible, public, and regular worship” (CCC 2176). This is the first duty of men and women, the first obligation imposed on us by our recognition of our own status as creatures who owe our very existence to something – or really, some One – greater.
God’s action throughout history has given a deeper meaning to our worship. God established the Sabbath observance as a sign of His irrevocable covenant with Israel. We take it for granted now, but the observance of the Sabbath by our ancestors in faith marked them as very different from those around them. A regular day of rest was unheard of to the peoples who surrounded them. Not only did they not work – but not even their slaves, or their animals, or foreign peoples living in their midst were to violate the necessary Sabbath rest.
Truly observing the Lord’s Day – the fulfillment of the Jewish Sabbath – will doubtlessly mark us off as different as well. St. Paul tells us today that Christ crucified is a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Living our lives in such a way that we make our religious duties our number one priority will seem foolishness to the world, but, as St. Paul continues, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.”
What, then, are these religious duties that we are obligation to perform? The first and most important is divine worship. But does God really care how we worship Him? Aren’t there a multitude of ways to honor God? Christ, the new Temple, stands at the center of what it means to worship God. Christ gathered the twelve Apostles to give them the power to celebrate the Sacrament of the Eucharist, making them His first priests. This means that absolutely nothing can take the place of Jesus’s real presence in the Eucharist as the center of authentic Christian worship. To worship anything else is to worship an idol.
The very earliest writings of Christians emphasize that they gathered on Sundays to read from the Scriptures and partake of Holy Communion. They describe a ceremony that seems strikingly similar to what we do each and every Sunday. That’s not a mere coincidence, because the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that we celebrate actually is the continuous worship of Christians from the time of the Apostles down to our own day. This act, then, in which we participate, is of absolute necessity for the life of the Church and cannot be substituted by any other act of worship.
God’s revelation to Moses and the life of Jesus, as well as the further writings of the New Testament, make clear that mere attendance at divine worship is not sufficient, though. The money changers and dove-sellers were present in the Temple, but they were not truly worshiping God, but rather pursuing their own profit. Attending Mass for social convenience, to keep up appearances, or to get a stamp on one’s religious education passport is not the real worship God has in mind. Instead, God deserves the worship both of our bodies and our hearts.
Obviously, those of us here today have made worshiping God a priority in our lives, but we still ought to examine our consciences about whether we do so on a consistent basis. To miss Mass on any Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation without a sufficient reason unless dispensed by one’s bishop or pastor is a mortal sin – putting one in danger of eternal death. Too many Catholics treat Sunday Mass as something that we normally do or do most of the time without reckoning upon the gravity of the failure to fulfill this obligation.
What about the rest of our time each Sunday, though? All of Sunday is the Lord’s day, not just an hour or so. Doing servile work on Sundays is also sinful because it is a rejection of the gift of a good God who wants to offer rest to our bodies and minds. The rest of the Lord’s day is a protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money that are particularly endemic in our age. Yes, sometimes we may unavoidably be required by an employer to work Sundays, especially in essential occupations like the medical field, or police and firefighters. But we should not neglect our responsibility to do what we can to keep this day free.
We should be concerned not only about what we do on Sundays, but what our conduct requires of others on the Lord’s day. For someone with a very difficult schedule, Sunday might be the only day on which it is possible to shop, but could not many of us arrange our schedule so that we can complete these duties on other days of the week, so as not to require others to forego needed rest and time for religious duties and family life by reporting to work on the Lord’s day? Before heading to the store on Sunday, we should ask ourselves: “Am I going to buy something I actually need? Or could this purchase wait a few days?” For example, if your children will not have anything to eat tonight unless you go to the store, you should go. If you would just like to have some ice cream on Sunday evening – this is not a necessary purchase and it is unfair to force other people to work so that you might obtain a superfluous item.
Now, you might think it odd that I would preach on the necessity of Sunday worship given the present conditions we are in, and having been dispensed by the Bishop from our Sunday obligations. But each of us ought to think carefully about whether it is really good for him to take advantage of this dispensation. For those with compromised immune systems, or with fragile health or advanced age, we can understand the necessity of staying home. But even if someone were to choose to take advantage of this dispensation from the Sunday obligation at this time, this does not absolve him or her from the obligation to keep holy the Lord’s day. Sunday – the day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – remains just as sacred regardless of what external circumstances prevail in the world.
The commandment to keep holy the Lord’s day is not just a moral requirement placed on us. It is a gift from a good God who desires His people to imitate Him by resting in His love through divine worship, good recreation, time with our families, and performing works of mercy. Sunday is truly a day of recreation in the literal sense: re-creation. Sunday is the first day of the week, but ancient Christians also saw it as the eighth day, the first day of the new creation. By entering into God’s Sabbath rest, sanctifying the day upon which Jesus Christ rose from the dead, God wants to re-create you as well. In this un-substitutable act of divine worship, the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, God’s whole creation is renewed and sustained. We are privileged to be made present every Sunday at the foot of the Cross and at the door of the empty tomb. The true Temple of the person of Jesus Christ, God made man, is in our midst. Why would we want to be anywhere else?
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
III Sunday of Lent, A.D. MMXXI
Image: The Second Temple of Herod
Attribution: By Ariely - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4533576