The People of God
I remember my mom telling me about the first time she heard a homily telling how the Church is actually the People of God. From her perspective, the "Church" might have been many things, but this idea that "I, we who are sitting in the pews, are the Church," was utterly shocking. It even sounded like heresy!
I can very easily imagine how this confusion could come about. Think of the way we use the phrase "The Church" most commonly, even today. "The Church teaches…" "The Church requires…" "The Church proclaims…" Because the Pope and bishops are the authoritative teachers and legislators within the Church, "The Church" is easily confused to be strictly identified with this teaching and governing subset of the Church. In reality, the Church is a body of which the Pope and bishops are the head and mouthpiece. When they teach, it is legitimate to say, "The Church teaches," just as much as when my mouth speaks you would say, "Jim said…" But my mouth does not represent the totality of who I am as "Jim."
What Vatican II is telling us is that the totality of "The Church" is rightly identified as "The People of God." I can think of two important implications of this way of thinking.
Emphasis on Communion
The root and cause of what makes one belong to the Church, to be among the People of God, comes down to a true spiritual communion with Christ.
Christ instituted this new covenant, the new testament, that is to say, in His Blood, calling together a people made up of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit. This was to be the new People of God. For those who believe in Christ, who are reborn not from a perishable but from an imperishable seed through the word of the living God, not from the flesh but from water and the Holy Spirit, are finally established as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people . . . who in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God" (Lumen Gentium paragraph 9).
See here that what makes one a member of the People of God is the reality of a true spiritual communion with Christ according to the Spirit - being reborn from an imperishable seed by the Holy Spirit. It is to be vitally linked with Christ himself, to be grafted into his body. When Jesus spoke of himself as the vine and we the branches, it was not merely a metaphor, a way we ought to think of ourselves in relation to him. It spoke to a reality as definitive as whether a tree branch is connected to the trunk or lying dead on the ground.
Members Share in the Qualities of the Whole
St. Peter writes, "Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house" (1 Peter 2:5). This spiritual house, the Church, is made up of living stones. This implies that there is a certain inappropriateness to saying, "I belong to the Church." This is valid insofar as a brick might say, "I belong to the house," but the brick also is the house. I think we continue to make the error today (I know I certainly do) of thinking of "The Church" as some ethereal reality, perhaps a platonic form. But the Church, being the body of Christ, is incarnational by nature - it has "flesh" and this flesh is the People of God. It likewise has a Spirit and is held together by spiritual mortar.
And so whatever is said about the house, as a whole, applies also to its parts. Just as you would say, "This house keeps my family warm," you can rightly say, "This brick keeps my family warm." So when the Council says, "The Church, in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament - a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men" (Lumen Gentium paragraph 1) we should be astonished by the magnitude of our calling!
The New Evangelization is a call to "become what we are." Is my participation in Church life merely as a receiver, a consumer? Are my life and my actions "sacramental," bringing about in others a new or deepening communion with God?