The fire that devastated the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was an accident, according to the president of the Paris region. Donors have already pledged millions of dollars to rebuild the medieval landmark, one of the most iconic in the world.
The Cathedral was begun in 1163 with the laying of the cornerstone and largely completed by 1345. The cathedral towers are both 226 feet tall. They were the tallest structures in Paris until the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889.
Around four hundred firefighters battled the blaze for nine hours before extinguishing it. The cathedral’s iconic spire fell, but the towers were saved.
People in Paris lined the streets as the cathedral burned, praying and holding vigils for the monument.
The “emotion of an entire nation”
The Notre Dame Cathedral is a significant metaphor for religion in our times.
French President Emmanuel Macron described the devastating fire as the “emotion of an entire nation.” Thirteen million people visit the cathedral each year, making it one of the world’s most beloved structures.
And yet, practicing Catholics make up only 1.8 percent of the French population. According to a recent study, “the practice of the immense majority of French Catholics is limited to life events such as baptism, marriage, death, etc. and to the major feasts of the Church.”
The French are by no means alone in their view of the church’s relevance today.
“Where is the church?”
The oldest church building in the world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Begun in AD 327 by Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, it marks the location of Jesus’ birth. The second-oldest church building is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, also begun by Helena and intended to mark the location of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
I have visited both many times over the years. Each time, I am struck by the beauty of the structures and the way they draw my attention vertically to the Lord they are intended to serve.
However, the fourth-century decision to begin constructing church buildings across the Empire marked a major shift in the way Western culture understood the nature of the church.
If you had asked a first-century Christian, “Where is the church?” he or she would not have known how to answer your question. It would be like asking, “Where is the Republican (or Democratic) Party?” or “Where is the pro-life movement?”
Early Christians knew that they were the church. Buildings they used to gather for worship were just that—buildings. Jesus launched the church as a movement intended to attack the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18). The church is not a location but an army that marches on its knees as it makes disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).
“We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard”
The fire that destroyed two-thirds of the Notre Dame Cathedral was indeed a tragedy. But fire cannot destroy the church of Jesus Christ.
Jewish authorities tried to stamp out the church at its beginnings (Acts 4, 5). Nero blamed the fire that swept Rome in AD 64 on the Christians and mistreated them mercilessly. According to tradition, Peter and Paul were both executed during this persecution.
Over the following centuries, Christians were blamed for causing natural disasters by refusing to worship the Roman deities. They were accused of immorality and black magic. By AD 325, as many as two million believers had been martyred for their faith.
Over the centuries since, Christianity has remained the most persecuted religion in the world. But, as Tertullian famously declared, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
During my first visit to Cuba, I told one of the church leaders that I was praying for persecution to lessen against his people. I was surprised by his response.
He asked me to stop, explaining that the persecution they endured was being used by the Holy Spirit to purify and strengthen his people.
The apostles’ answer to our first persecutors must be our declaration today: “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
What the book of Revelation means
The Notre Dame Cathedral still stands this morning. Even if it had been totally destroyed, the church it represents would be just as strong and just as significant today.
The strength of the church is not in her buildings but in her people. Our willingness to pay any price to worship and serve Jesus is the test of our faith and the foundation of our witness.
When last did it cost you something significant to follow Jesus?
What sacrifice will you make today in gratitude for the grace you have received?
In response to the “mercies of God,” will you surrender your day and your life to your Lord as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1)?
Will you use your influence to help other people know and follow your Lord?
If you do, you will join a global movement of believers across twenty centuries whose faith and witness circle the globe and advance the kingdom of God. And you will be part of a movement that cannot be destroyed by fire or persecution—the church triumphant on earth and in heaven.
A seminary student was playing basketball with some friends at a nearby high school gym. He noticed the school’s custodian sitting on the steps of the building with a Bible open on his lap.
He made his way over to the elderly gentleman and asked him what he was reading.
“The Bible,” the man replied.
The seminary student grinned and said, “I can see that. What book of the Bible?”
The man responded, “The book of Revelation.”
The student was surprised and asked, “The book of Revelation? Do you understand it?”
“Of course I understand it,” the custodian answered.
“What does it mean?” the seminary student asked.
The custodian smiled and said, “It means, we win.”