Pope Gregory I, (c. 540 – 12 March 604), is most commonly known as St. Gregory the Great.
The collect prayed in the Anglican Church on the occasion of his feast day (March 12 in both the West and the East) to commemorate him is:
“O merciful Father, who didst choose thy bishop Gregory to be a servant of the servants of God: grant that, like him, we may ever desire to serve thee by proclaiming thy gospel to the nations, and may ever rejoice to sing thy praises; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
I came across one of St. Gregory’s homilies on Ezekiel that served to remind me of a several aspects the character of not only my discipleship but the discipleship of the Church.
That statement, “the discipleship of the Church,” might seem strange. You and I might find it quite easy to think of ourselves as maturing in our discipleship and ministry in the world but not quite so easy to think of it in terms regarding the Church. Does the Church mature? St. Gregory implies very strongly in this homily that when the Body of Christ thinks of itself in a static way, as some kind of “finished work,” existing in the world, it runs the risk of going astray from Christ and becoming not just “in the world,” but “of the world.”
Join me in taking a stroll through St. Gregory’s “inspired convictions” regarding not only our personal discipleship but that of the Body of Christ as well. The portion from St. Gregory is indented and italicized. My ruminations follow in each case:
It is precisely because the vision of inward peace is made up of a community of saints as its citizens that the heavenly Jerusalem is built as a city. Even while, in this earthly life, its citizens are lashed by whips and subjected to oppression, its stones are being quarried every day. It is also the city, namely, the holy Church, which is to reign in heaven but is still toiling on earth. It is to its citizens that Peter says: And you are being built up like living stones. Paul also says: You are God’s land, God’s building. Clearly the city already has its great building here on earth in the lives of the saints.
“Inward peace,” St. Gregory contends, is not just something we enjoy individually as disciples. It is the fruit of the Spirit at the very heart (center) of the “community of saints” – the Church. We are citizens of the “heavenly Jerusalem” – city of peace – and are the very stone out of which the city is built.
St. Paul clearly links “peace” with the Spirit guided building/construction process underway, which produces “the Body of Christ” in the world. Peace is not a static/passive condition. Rather, St. Paul would have us understand this quality as powerful – dramatically transformative. In his letter to the Ephesians the apostle says:
Ephesians 2.11-22:  Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands —
 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.
 For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility,
 by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,
 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.
 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;
 for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
 So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,
 in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;
 in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
Notice he contrast between isolation and fellowship? Notice the connection between peace (reconciliation – the joining of two things that were alienated) and its result, the establishment of a dwelling place for God (a heavenly tabernacle) in the world but not of the world.
So, the peace of God establishes maturity not only in the life of the individual believer, but of the whole Body of Christ. St. Paul, in writing to the church at Colossae, instructs the fellowship in that city to continue to mature. He instructs them, I believe, not on an individual basis but on the basis of the fellowship as a whole. His counsel to them involves the kind of maturity that can only be achieved by the investment and resolve of the whole community. Right in the middle of the exhortation, he establishes the necessity for the peace of Christ. It is this “peace of Christ,” that is able to establish and transform them as a community:
Colossians 3.15:  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.
Notice also, that it is the sufferings of the Church as a whole and of its members personally, is said, by St. Gregory, to be way in which the stones – you and I – are quarried. The Holy Spirit’s quarrying of us as “living stones” out of which His heavenly city/temple is constructed is by the chisel and hammer of being “lashed by whips” and “subjected to oppression.” That is an amazing picture and a mysterious work. This is certainly the spirit in which St. Peter writes his two epistles not just to suffering disciples on an individual basis but the church as a whole.
St. Gregory continues:
In a building, of course, one stone supports another, since they are placed one on top of another, and one supporting another is itself supported by another. So in the same way, in the holy Church, every member both supports and is supported by the other. For neighbours give each other mutual support, so that the building of love may rise through them. Hence too Paul’s instruction to us: Bear each other’s burdens, and in that way you will fulfil the law of Christ; and he claims the virtue of this law, saying: It is love which fulfils the law.
For if I neglect to support you in the way you live, and you pay little attention to supporting me in mine, how will the building of love rise among us? He alone who supports the whole fabric of the holy Church supports us in our good ways and our faults as well. But in a building, as we have said, the supporting stone is itself supported. For just as I already support the ways of those whose behaviour in the matter of good works is still unformed, so I too am supported by those who have surpassed me in the fear of the Lord, and yet have supported me, so that I myself should learn to support through being supported. But they have also been supported by their predecessors.
There are three questions that my mentors over the decades have consistently asked me when I went to them for spiritual direction and counsel:
- Are you saying your prayers?
- Are you reading your Bible?
- Are you in a fellowship of accountability and encouragement?
Perhaps the presence of these three essential aspects of a rule of life provide us with the ability to be consistently “supporting one another” and the willingness (humility) to “be supported by the other.” In essence, we cannot be a support if we are not, in turn, willing to be supported.
Think about it. How in the world would someone build a building in which one row of stones did not depend on the support of the rows beneath them. And, what is more, the row that has received support is also being used as a support for the rows above them (??!!) It is all quite obvious. And yet is not quite so easy. The stones you use to build a house do not have free will. WE DO… Simple, but not easy.
St. Gregory could have but chose not to take time to say what he is clearly implying. We, as living stones MUST submit ourselves to the Holy Spirit and to one another to be used to support one another with the support that is the Lord’s support in and through us for one another. In other words, we MUST deal with our WILLFULNESS as individuals and as the community of saints – the Church. And, if you don’t think the Church can have a wilful spirit, you haven’t been in the Church long enough!!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Life Together, says that we must bear the burden of our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. We must bear with their good points as well as their bad points. One challenges our pride and jealousy; and the other challenges our willingness to be patient and forgive.
Some folks are “farther along” than us and we are “farther along” than others. That is the way it is supposed to be. We need fathers and mothers in the faith to teach, encourage, correct us who are still in our youth. And, likewise, we who are older brothers and sisters can do the same for those who look to us for guidance and companionship.
In this way, through bearing our brothers and sisters, supporting them and letting them support us in the way St. Gregory outlines, that the Church becomes a holy temple to the glory of God. Once again, St. Gregory assumes that the Church not just the individual believer is maturing in the building process.
St. Gregory brings his homily to a close:
However the stones placed at the top of the building to finish it off, though supported of course by others, have no one to support in turn. For those, too, who are born at the Church’s end, that is, at the end of the world, will certainly be supported by their predecessors, to dispose them to behave in a way that leads to good works; but when they have none to follow them who could profit by them, they have no more stones to support for the building of the faithful above them. So for the time being they are supported by us, and we are supported by others.
There will come a time, as in every building project, when the final row of stones are laid and the building becomes a “finished work.” Who can tell if he or she is part of the “last row?” That is not, in my estimation, a point to be debated. We must, I believe live as if there will be another row to support. Let the builder – God – decide how many rows there will be in his temple. You and I are to give ourselves to supporting and being supported by one another, not “row counting.”
However it is the foundation that carries the entire weight of the building, because our Redeemer alone supports the lives of all of us together. As Paul says of him: For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid, which is Christ Jesus. The foundation supports the stones and is not supported by the stones, because our Redeemer supports us in all our troubles, but in himself there was no evil demanding support.
Christ Jesus “carries the entire weight!”
In the New Testament, however, there are a number of striking statements in this regard.
- “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19.28)
- “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship…” (Acts 2.42)
- “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to…” (Acts 15.28)
- “…built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone…” (Ephesians 2.20)
- “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known…” (Colossians 1.24-25)
- “Round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads.” (Revelation 4.4)
Who carries the weight of the Church, Christ or Christ and the apostles and prophets?! These passages suggest that it is both. Christ and Christ in and through His Apostl es. Does this disturb you?! If it does, then, I suggest that you reread the New Testament with a different emphasis – the Father’s work in Christ Jesus being the reestablishment of union between God and man and, as a result, the successful administration of the dominion of the created order that God intended as mankind’s priestly ministry… God unites Himself to us to unite us to Himself. God shares His authority with us… That authority is an aspect of the Church’s stewardship. We cannot pretend it does not exist and we cannot presume upon it.
What then, is the key to understanding that it is no contradiction to say in the same breath that Christ alone carries the entire weight and Christ and His apostles carry the entire weight? It is the difference between humility and presumption.
After all, don’t the Scriptures also proclaim:
- Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to thy name give glory, for the sake of thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness! (Psalm 115.1)
- “And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, ‘Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.’” (Revelation 4.9-11)
The question for the Church is not IF we are called to bear the weight in Christ. The question is how do we understand the bearing of that weight and with what spirit?! Is it “alongside” or is it “in union with?” There is a BIG difference between “alongside” and “in union with.” Is it with an attitude of “grasping at” or “available to?”
The spirit in which we understand and seek to do a thing is of utmost importance. As John Cassion says in his Conferences, “…we must look not only at the thing which is done, but also at the character of the mind and the purpose of the doer. And therefore if you weigh with a careful scrutiny of heart what is done by each man and consider with what mind it is done or from what feeling it proceeds…” Conferences 16.22
Once again, an opportunity to reread a lot of the New Testament…
I take away from this homily the conviction that St. Gregory is saying that we, as the Church and as individual believers are maturing into our call to be His holy temple that is acceptable to Him for eternity.