Pope Francis elevates the Eucharist during a Mass marking the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican June 29. CNS photo/Paul Haring

God’s Spirit dwells in us

  • October 30, 2014

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica (Year A) Nov. 9 (Ezekiel 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; Psalm 46; 1 Corinthians 3:9b-11, 16-17; John 2:13-22)

In ancient Israel the temple was a rich metaphor for the life-giving presence of God. For people of the ancient world, temples were theology books in stone. Their mathematical proportions and symbolic structures were meant to reflect divine and cosmological principles. The temple was often referred to as the navel or axis of the world.

Ezekiel’s vision — received during the exile in Babylon — was of a temple that no longer existed. His vision was of the temple to come, and that temple was intimately linked with the life of the nation. The holiness and power of God was believed to radiate outwards from the centre of the temple — the Holy of Holies — sanctifying and giving life to the land and its people.

As far as the Jewish exiles were concerned, their land was a desolate wasteland after the Babylonian invasion and destruction of 586 BC. The vision was a message of hope, for in the near future the land and nation would be brought to life again. The water flowing from the temple along the four points of the compass would bring freshness and life to the entire land. Since the water was flowing from the sanctuary, it would bring fruit-bearing trees that would never wither, both food and healing.

This image of the impending activity of God would have brought comfort and encouragement to the exiles. The vivifying water flowing from the sanctuary was a rich symbol that is found in Psalm 46 and in texts such as Zechariah 14:8, John 4, and Revelation 22:1-3. This symbol was an expression of the kindness, mercy, and compassion of God and the many ways that God would bless, sustain and give life to the people. As Psalm 46 reassures us, there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God. That stream, of course, is the Spirit and it is found within.

Paul alerted his followers to an important transformation of the temple symbol. Using the building or construction metaphor, he insisted that the new temple was the community and the foundation was Jesus Christ. He levelled a pointed question at his readers: Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? He was referring to the community — each member was a living stone in that temple.

We don’t usually think of the Christian community as a holy temple and destructive behaviour is seldom treated as a serious sin, let alone sacrilege. But Paul was adamant — factionalism, selfishness, competition, gossip and backbiting damage the holy temple of God. The sanctuary is the entire community, not just the area around the altar and tabernacle.

This evolution of the temple symbol continued in John’s Gospel. Angered by the apparent profanation of the temple by the buying and selling taking place in the temple, Jesus drove the money changers and merchants out. The incident was portrayed as a more passionate and violent outburst in John’s Gospel than in the other three Gospels.

It conveyed a different message: challenged to produce prophetic credentials for His actions, Jesus answered that if they destroyed the temple, He would raise it up in three days.

Taken literally, this was ridiculous, for the huge and elaborate temple had taken 46 years to rebuild. But the narrator lets us in on a secret — Jesus was referring to the temple of His body and its impending resurrection. Even His disciples were clueless until after the Resurrection. The body of Jesus would become the temple from which live-giving and sustaining water would flow.

This was unpacked in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 and in 7:37-39. In both passages, Jesus proclaimed that living water — a metaphor for the Spirit of God — would flow from Him to quench forever the thirst of believers. Drinking from this stream of living water bestows on the believer the gift of eternal life, even while they still live in the world.

The Body of Christ is the temple of God, and since we are part of that body we also form the temple of God. Jesus Christ is not a remote figure waiting for us on the other side of death, but a life giving and sustaining presence in our lives and in our communities. 

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