Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 4 October 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
In the past, place was always important to people of faith. There were places where, as all knew, the transcendent was experienced, where you went to meet your God, ‘holy’ places. We still refer to ‘holy places’ – many are mentioned, for example, in tourist guides to the so-called ‘Holy Land’. But while pilgrimages to so-called holy places continue, our awareness of place and the holiness of places is much diminished. We people of faith are often dis-located.
The Bible has mixed views about holy places as about so many things. The Israelites are instructed to destroy all the ‘high places’ of the Canaanites. Their failure to do so is repeatedly condemned in the Hebrew Bible. Bad kings build high places to false Gods; even good kings fail to tear them down (1 Kgs 13.33; 22.43). The doggedly literal reception of these stories led to the various iconoclasms of Christian history (not least in the England of Cromwell’s Commonwealth).
But ambivalence about holy places is most apparent in the conflicting attitudes to the Temple found in the Bible. In building the Temple, Solomon was carrying out the project his father David had in mind and for which he had secured divine planning permission. Solomon’s Temple was a sumptuous edifice – possibly almost as nice as this one. The fact that it was built by slave labour did not, of course, bother the Biblical writers. Nor did it seem to trouble them that the Temple was designed like a contemporary pagan shrine with its outer courts, inner courts and innermost sanctuary for the deity (‘the most holy place’). This ground plan was replicated in ‘the tabernacle’, where we are told the Israelites worshipped in their wilderness wanderings. And the grammar of Solomon’s pagan architecture is repeated in our churches, with chancels, screens and sanctuaries cordoning off the areas of the building reserved for especially holy people like our choir.
The problem about the Temple (and about all holy places) is that God cannot really be supposed to be in one place more than another. Solomon prays, ‘even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built.’ So it is that, while prayers are being said ‘towards this place’, it is from ‘heaven his dwelling-place’ that he expects God to answer.
This distinction very soon proved too subtle by half. The Temple itself came to be seen as ‘God’s House’, itself an object of veneration. The prophets took opposing sides. Some condemned this devotion to the Temple as idolatrous (as we heard in the first lesson, from Jeremiah). Others continue to see the Temple as the pledge of God’s commitment to his people and, after its destruction, they demand that it be rebuilt. An angry and petulant-sounding God complains through Haggai, that without his Temple he has nowhere to live (Haggai 1)…
Ambivalence about this particular holy place is evident in Jesus’ devout attendance there, while seeming to question the intrinsic value of it as a physical object: ‘cleansing it’ and predicting its destruction and, most tellingly for us, using it as a parable of his death and resurrection (‘but he was speaking of the temple of his body’ Jn 2.21).
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension the ambivalence remains. The disciples are ‘continually in the Temple’ (Luke 24.50): presumably, then, they approve of the place and what goes on there. But before long Stephen is accused of launching fierce attack on the Temple, and what he says in his own defence is hardly a denial of the charge (Acts 6.8-8.1)
And, as Fr Alan was reminding us this morning, we are still divided about the significance and role – not to mention the affordability – of our holy places. A Dedication Festival is the occasion not to avoid this nettle but to seize it. We should insist on the importance of what Bishop Bill Inge called ‘the relationship between people, place, and God’ in this of all churches. But there is also a sense in which that endlessly rehearsed argument is off the point. For Dedication Festival is a privileged Feast of the Church not because of any building but because of the One who is our one foundation, Jesus Christ Our Lord (‘but he was speaking of the temple of his body’ Jn 2.21).
If you consult your (doubtless well-thumbed) English Missal, you will find that the texts for this feast rank before all the other celebrations in what is called the Common; even above those of Our Lady and the Apostles. This is because the building, for which we do thank God, was never understood by Christians as merely a place inhabited by God, a ‘house’ in that sense. Rather, in a church, the altar, with its five crosses for the five wounds, announces the central place of Christ in our life and worship; the sacrifice we celebrate upon it brings us to the foot of the cross and beyond; our daily bread of the Mass makes us what Gregory Dix reminded us we are – the sancta plebs Dei, the holy common people of God.
Once we remember this, and recollect that we are celebrating a Feast of Christ the Lord, ranking alongside Christmas and Easter in the particular church building, we may think again what it means to say ‘how awesome is this place, this is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven’. As a window on heaven, a place where we may glimpse glory, it nourishes and sends us out into God’s world to find him in all the places and people we encounter, even those we wish we could avoid. Above all this building is here to make us joyful. This feast is all about Christ, our God. God is love and joy is the language of love. If we do not rejoice, in our faith and our worship, no one else will believe us or glimpse that glory.