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Proper 11, Year B, Tr 1 (20.7.03). St Mark's
2 Sam 7.1-14a: David & Nathan: D:Iíve house, God no house; N:God will build your house
Ps 89.20-37: I have found David and I will build him a house
Eph 2.11-22: (to Gentiles) You, brought nigh; built into dwelling place for God.
Mark 6.30-34, 53-56: sheep w/o shepherd; he began to teach them many things.
Collect: in vocation & ministry may we serve you in holiness and truth (1550 -83=1467 words)
Post Com: may this world be so ordered that we may serve you joyfully in godly quietness
Summary: We gather to be St Mark's, the temple made without hands.
Here is a question: If St Markís burned down tomorrow what would we do next Sunday?
Before we came to England I was Vicar of two churches in the Diocese of Chicago. One was St Johnís, Lockport, and the other, St Gabrielís, Plainfield. St Gabrielís was effectively ten miles away from Lockport where the vicarage was. St Johnís had a vicarage, a church building and a house that was used for the Sunday School and other activities. St Gabrielís had none of these. When I arrived St Gabrielís was meeting Sunday mornings in a mortuary chapel. Rather wryly, we used to call it "St Gabrielís in the mortuary". After a while the funeral director asked us to leave, saying he needed the chapel for business on Sundays. So we moved to the basement of the Plainfield library. On Sundays we moved all of our stuff in for the service, and then we moved it out again, some of it to homes and the rest back to Lockport.
When Dorothy and I first arrived in Lockport, the vicarage was rented out and we were housed in a flat in the parish house. After a while we moved to the vicarage. Not surprisingly, it needed decorating. No one in Lockport volunteered to help. But St Gabrielís Bishopís Committee, a mission equivalent of our PCC, said, "Letís have the next meeting at the Vicarage in Lockport, weíll keep the meeting short and weíll come in work clothes", and they did. One does not need a building to be a Christian community.
Buildings can place a heavy burden on the Christian community in terms of the cost and effort that needs to go into their maintenance. But they can also be a hindrance to an effective sharing of the life of the gospel by a Christian community. At at least one level, and that a fundamental one, this was the case in the first century AD.
Now, what started me on this line of thought for today were our readings from 2 Samuel and the letter to the Ephesians, both of which contain the theme of the temple.
In our reading from 2 Samuel David wishes to build a house for God, that is, a temple in Jerusalem. And the author of Ephesians speaks of the household of God growing into a holy temple in the Lord. The former speaks of a physical building, the latter speaks of people.
Solomon, Davidís son, built the first temple in Jerusalem. I have heard an Old Testament scholar say that it was a building so typical of ancient near Eastern temples that it was almost as though Solomon had gone to an Argos catalogue and said, "Iíll have that one". That temple was destroyed, and later on it was replaced with a very second-rate temple. This in turn was being replaced by the new temple being erected in Jesusí day.
The Jerusalem temple had two main divisions: an inner part reserved strictly for Jews and an outer courtyard which was open to Gentiles and God-fearers; it was commonly known as the Court of the Gentiles The two parts were separated by a wall three cubits in height, that is, about four and a half feet high. On this wall that divided the two parts there was a warning that threatened death by stoning for any gentile who dared to go past it. It was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.
So the Jerusalem temple represented a clear division and barrier between Jews and Gentiles.
As we have heard in our reading from Ephesians, the writer is very concerned to stress that what God has done in Christ has broken down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles, who now form one household of faith. So it is not surprising that all four of our Gospels attack the Jerusalem temple at one level or another.
In Mark, when Jesus throws out the money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals who have crowded into the outer court, Jesus says it was to be a house of prayer for all nations, but they have made it a den of thieves. In the trial in Mark when the high priest accuses Jesus of blasphemy he rends his clothes as a sign that he has heard blasphemy. When Jesus dies on the cross, God countercharges blasphemy by rending the veil of the temple in two pieces, which means that the shekinah, the cloud of Godís presence, leaves the temple, and the Gentile centurion now has access into the true temple made without hands. This is in keeping with what Iíve told you before, that in Mark all of Jesusí arguments with the religious authorities are basically over the boundaries of the community: whom can we keep out, whom can we kick out, and whom can we make to be just like ourselves? and the answer each time is, "No one."
In the 2nd chapter of Johnís Gospel, Jesus, having driven out the animal sellers and the money-changers, is asked by the Jews for a sign for doing this. He replies,
"Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." They assume he is referring to Herodís temple, but he is referring to his body, the Body of Christ. I think it is no accident that the Fourth Gospel specifies that the inscription on the cross was in the same three languages found on the outer wall of the Jerusalem temple, "I if I am lifted up will draw all men unto me," for he is the gateway into the new temple that is his Body.
The opening to the Gentiles occurs at the cross in Mark and Matthew with the centurionís confession, and a bit more subtlely in John where the Greeks are told to see him in his hour of glorification, that is, the lifting up in the cross.
In Luke and Acts the breaking into the mission to those who are other than Jews occurs not at the death of Jesus but rather at the parallel death of Stephen. In his speech to his fellow-Jews Stephen has been berating them for rejecting the prophets whom God has sent, including the last and greatest of them, Jesus. He then goes on to say, in effect, David was a good man because he sought a skhnwma, that is , a dwelling-place, for God, but Solomon was wrong, because he tried to put God in a box. Stephen is then stoned for saying that God does not dwell in a house made with hands. It is at this point that the Gospel begins its spread beyond Jerusalem to the Samaritans and the Gentiles.
And in Philipís encounter in Acts with the Ethiopian eunuch, we have the eunuch brought into the temple made without hands by baptism. Because the eunuch was physically maimed, as well as being a Gentile, he would never have been allowed into the Jerusalem temple.
Thus it is the claim of the NT writers that the Gathering of the disciples of Jesus is the true temple, open to all people, a temple made without hands, in sharp distinction from the stone-built temple in Jerusalem. Yet, when the opportunity arose, the church started erecting buildings to house the worship, and these became all too easily identified as the church in the popular mind. Now we are saddled with these glorified rock piles all over the British Isles.
In sorting out our priorities as the Church of England in the Diocese of Birmingham, I am sure that part of our re-focusing will include getting rid of excess buildings that sap our energies and our resources.
And a further question: Do our buildings put a wall between us and those with whom we wish to share the gospel? Do the stereotypes of expectation of those outside make them reluctant to pass through the door to the inside? Three weeks ago, on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Robert and Kathleen received Holy Communion with us. They are to be married here in August. During breakfast Robert, who was rather puzzled, asked quite seriously, "Is this the Church of England?" If his previous experience and current expectation had led him to find our welcoming fellowship in our modern language Eucharist so unexpected that he felt he needed to ask the question, and it was only their desire to be married in the church that had brought Robert and Kathleen through our doors, is it any wonder that the physical walls of our churches may resemble that three-cubit high wall in the Jerusalem temple? And so, I leave us with the question with which I started: What would we do next Sunday if St Markís burned down tomorrow?