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The Church Is the New People of God

General Audience — November 6, 1991

We can also begin this catechesis, following the program and method which we have chosen, by reading a passage from the Council's Constitution Lumen Gentium, which says: "God, however, does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges him in truth and serves him in holiness. He therefore chose the race of Israel as a people unto himself. With it he set up a covenant. Step by step he taught and prepared this people, making known in its history both himself and the decree of his will and making it holy unto himself" (LG 9). The subject of the preceding catechesis was this People of God of the old covenant. But the Council immediately adds: "All these things, however, happened as a preparation and figure of that new and perfect covenant which was to be ratified in Christ, and of the fuller revelation which was to be given through the Word of God made flesh" (LG 9). The entire passage quoted from Lumen Gentium is found at the beginning of chapter II, entitled "The People of God." According to the Council, the Church is the People of God of the new covenant. This is the idea already expressed by St. Peter to the first Christian communities: "Once you were 'no people,' but now you are God's people" (1 Pet 2:10).

In her historical reality and theological mystery the Church comes from the People of God of the old covenant. Although designated by the term qahàl (i.e., assembly), from the New Testament it is clear that the Church is the People of God established in a new way through Christ and in virtue of the Holy Spirit.

St. Paul writes: "For we are the temple of the living God, as God said: 'I will live with them and move among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people'" (2 Cor 6:16). The People of God is established in a new way, because all those who believe in Christ are part of it, with "no distinction" between Jew and non-Jew (cf. Acts 15:9). St. Peter says this clearly in the Acts of the Apostles when he describes "how God first concerned himself with acquiring from among the Gentiles a people for his name" (Acts 15:14). St. James declares: "The words of the prophets agree with this" (Acts 15:15).

During his first stay in the pagan city of Corinth, St. Paul was given another confirmation of this perspective when he heard these words of Christ: "Do not be afraid. Go on speaking...for I have many people in this city" (Acts 18:9-10). Lastly, there is a proclamation in the Book of Revelation: "Behold, God's dwelling with men. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them" (Rev 21:3).

All this clearly shows that from the beginning the Church was conscious of the continuity and, at the same time, the newness of her own reality as the People of God.

In the Old Testament, Israel already owed its existence as the People of God to God's choice and initiative. However, this people was limited to a single nation. The new People of God goes beyond this limitation. It includes people of all nations, languages and races. It has a universal character; it is catholic. As the Council says: "Christ instituted this new covenant, the new testament, that is to say, in his blood (cf. 1 Cor 11:25), 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" (LG 9). The basis of this newness--universalism--is the redemption accomplished by Christ. He "also suffered outside the gate, to consecrate the people by his own blood" (Heb 13:12). "Therefore, he had to become like his brothers in every way, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people" (Heb 2:17).

Thus the people of the new covenant was formed. This covenant was proclaimed by the prophets of the Old Testament, especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel. We read in Jeremiah: "The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah" (Jer 31:31). "This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer 31:33).

The prophet Ezekiel more clearly reveals the prospect of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in which the new covenant will be fulfilled: "I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees" (Ez 36:26-27).

The Council especially draws on the First Letter of Peter for its teaching about the People of God of the new covenant, which is the heir of the people of the old one: "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 (cf. 1 Pet 1:23), not from the flesh but from water and the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 3:5-6), 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'" (LG 9). As you see, this teaching of the Council emphasizes, with St. Peter, the continuity of the People of God with that of the old covenant. But it also brings out what in a certain sense is the absolute newness of the new people who are established in virtue of Christ's redemption, set apart (purchased) by the blood of the Lamb.

The Council describes this newness of the "messianic people," which "has Christ for its head, 'who was delivered up for our sins, and rose again for our justification' (Rom 4:25), and now, having won a name which is above all names, reigns in glory in heaven. The state of this people is that of the dignity and freedom of the sons of God, in whose hearts the Holy Spirit dwells as in his temple. Its law is the new commandment to love as Christ loved us (cf. Jn 13:34). Its end is the kingdom of God, which has been begun by God himself on earth, and which is to be further extended until it is brought to perfection by him at the end of time, when Christ, our life (cf. Col 3:4), shall appear, and 'creation itself will be delivered from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God' (Rom 8:21)" (LG 9).

This is how the Church is described as the People of God of the new covenant (cf. LG 9), the nucleus of the new humanity which has been called in its entirety to be part of the new people. The Council adds: "That messianic people, although it does not actually include all men, and at times may look like a small flock, is nonetheless a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race. Established by Christ as a communion of life, charity and truth, it is also used by him as an instrument for the redemption of all, and is sent forth into the whole world as the light of the world and the salt of the earth (cf. Mt 5:13-16)" (LG 9).

We will devote the next catechesis to this basic and fascinating topic.