Tag Archives: house churches

Saint John Lateran

To listen to the audio of today’s homily please select file below:

Some years ago I went to Rome to visit churches. One was the Church of Saint John Lateran.

Churches have stories, which is especially true of  St. John Lateran. It’s the first of the great Christian churches built by the Emperor Constantine after coming to power early in the 4th century. He gave Christians freedom to practice their religion throughout the Roman empire. He also built them churches and St. John Lateran was the first of the many he built.  At its entrance is an inscription, “The mother of churches”; it’s been there for 1500 years.

The church, holding 10,000 people, was dedicated around  320 AD. Rome’s Christians must have been thrilled as they entered it.. Many were persecuted or has seen relatives, friends or other believers jailed or put to death during the reign of Diocletian, before Constantine.

Now, a new emperor honored them by building a church, a great Christian church, that everyone in Rome could see. He built it on property belonging to enemies of his, the Laterani family, which is why it’s called St. John Lateran. It’s situated on the southeastern edge of the city, away from the Roman Forum,  because Constantine didn’t want to antagonize followers of the  traditional religions. Still,  the Lateran church was a sign that Christianity had arrived.

Before this, throughout the Roman empire, Christians had no churches but met  in ordinary homes or small buildings. In Rome itself there were about 25 homes  where they met and worshipped.

That in itself made people wonder about them. Why didn’t Christians  participate in public rites and religious sacrifices conducted for the good of the empire, as good Romans did? What kind of religion was this anyway, people said? They’re godless, atheists. The 2nd century pagan writer Celsus saw them plotting rebellion, these “ people who cut themselves off and isolate themselves from others.” (Origen, Contra Celsum,8,2)

So, the building of the church of St. John Lateran was a signal of changing times. After centuries meeting apart in homes and small community settings, Christians now gathered as one great family.

That’s what churches do; they bring people together as one body, one family, one people. That’s how Paul described the church in his Letter to the Romans: “As in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans12, 4-5)

An important part of the church of Saint John Lateran is its baptistery,  a large building connected to the church itself,  worn and patched, as you would expect from a building over 1500 years old. You can still see bricks from Constantine’s time. This is where for centuries Romans have been baptized. Conveniently, it’s built over a Roman bath, for a good supply of water for baptism. The church is called St. John Lateran because St. John the Baptist is one of its patrons, along with St. John the Evangelist. A beautiful Latin inscription is over the big baptismal basin and fount.

Those bound for heaven are born here,

born from holy seed by the Spirit moving on these waters.

Sinners enter this sacred stream and receive new life.

No differences among those born here,

they’re one, sharing one Spirit and one faith.

The Spirit gives children to our Mother, the Church, in these waters.

So be washed from your own sins and those of your ancestors.

Christ’s wounds are a life-giving fountain washing the whole world.

The kingdom of heaven is coming, eternal life is coming.

Don’t be afraid to come and be born a Christian.

One last thing about St. John Lateran, which many people don’t know. It’s the pope’s church. From the time of Constantine till the 15th century, the popes as leaders of the Church of Rome resided next to this church. Then, they moved to the Vatican, where they live today.

Celebrating the dedication of a church, as we are doing today, reminds us  how important church buildings are for teaching us our faith. God speaks to us in our churches, God comes to us in our churches.

“Do you not know that you are the temple of God,

and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” St. Paul says.

“If anyone destroys God’s temple,

God will destroy that person;

for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.”

5th Sunday of Easter: Bless them All

Audio homily here:

When we read the Acts of the Apostles in the easter season, we see another form of church. The church of Paul and Barnabas is certainly different in structure from the church we know today.

There were no parishes or dioceses then. In Rome, if you asked where the Vatican was, they’d point you to a race course on a hill on the fringe of the city where the emperor had his private games. There were no monasteries or religious communities or other Christian institutions.

When Paul and Barnabas went to different places, they went to the Jewish synagogues where they spoke about Jesus as the Messiah. The reaction to their message was mixed, at best. At times they were violently rejected, but some Jews and some “God-fearing gentiles” – non-Jews who appreciated Judaism and its spirituality– accepted their message about Jesus and his promise of salvation.

The synagogue was the normal “catechumenate” where early Christian missionaries like Paul and Barnabas found converts to the faith. No synagogues, as far as we know, became Christian churches.

Where, then, did new believers go? They gathered in the houses of other believers, in “house churches”, usually bigger houses belonging to merchants. The owners and their families lived in these houses, but they also conducted their business in part of the house. Their servants and slaves would live and work there too.

In his Letter to the Romans Paul sends his greeting to Prisca and Aquila and the “church in their house.” They were husband and wife, a couple of merchants who ran a leather business in Corinth. Paul lived with them for almost two years; he worked and taught in their house. After that, he lived in their house in Ephesus and founded the church in that city. He calls them “ my co-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life. I am grateful to them but also all the churches of the gentiles.”

In Rome there were no churches as we know them till the 4th century, but historians count 25 house churches where  Christians met in the early centuries in that city.

Our church structure developed since then, we can see  a development in our first reading today. Paul is appointing leaders in every church. But there’s something important this early time can teach us. At the end of his Letter to the Romans, after expounding on some of his most profound teachings, Paul remembers a number of people in Rome he wants to greet. Prisca and Aquila and all the church in their house are the first; they must have moved back to Rome.  Then there are  a number of other names that seem to come spontaneously to his mind. They’re the names of ordinary Christians, not just the owners of the houses where Christians meet and their families, but the servants, the slaves, the ordinary people whom Paul lived with and worked with and prayed with side by side.

Unfortunately, this section of his letter is never read in church. It should be; it breathes with affection and appreciation and love for all the people who are the body of Christ. Listen to it.

Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus,
who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I am grateful but also all the churches of the Gentiles; greet also the church at their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the firstfruits in Asia for Christ.
Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you.
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are prominent among the apostles and they were in Christ before me.
Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord.
Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys.
Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus.
Greet my kinsman Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus.
Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord.
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine.
Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers who are with them.
Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the holy ones who are with them.
Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. ( Romans 3,3-16)

Paul doesn’t want to leave anybody out. You can hear his love for them all. That’s the love Jesus had for his disciples. “Love one another, as I have loved you.” That’s the love that should be in our church, no matter what its structure is.