Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 5 October 2014
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
FEAST OF DEDICATION, 2014 EVENSONG
Readings: Jeremiah 7.1-11; 1 Corinthians 3.9-17
It is by a convenient coincidence rather than deliberate design that the church looks like a building site as we hear those words of St. Paul read on the Feast of Dedication; our annual thanksgiving for the consecration of this house of God.
However, the scaffolding and other equipment for the latest phase of our restoration programme do serve as an “outward and visible sign,” not just of new wiring and lighting, but of the ongoing task of building the church of God, a temple made of living stones, on the foundation laid by our forebears.
We can be grateful that William Butterfield laid a solid foundation and that, however much work we have had to do over recent years to restore it, his building stands as solid as a rock.
Our worn-out wiring is being replaced lest the good work that “skilled master builder”, a century and a half ago, and our more recent efforts, should go up in smoke – tested not by the fire of the last judgement of which Paul speaks but by a literal this-worldly one.
As we know from his letters, St. Paul had many concerns in the care of the churches he founded, not least the one in Corinth, but the maintenance and restoration of buildings was not one of them. He used the language of building not literally but metaphorically, as a figure of speech.
He writes of the building of the Christian community in that city. He had laid the foundation through his preaching. This work had been “According to the grace given to me.” It’s source and motivation came from God. Paul says, “I, as a skilled master builder have laid the foundation.” But in the next verse he speaks of the foundation “which has been laid.” In New Testament Greek this is an example of the “divine passive” tense. The primary agent of the work, the laying of the foundation, is God. The two are not incompatible: God on his grace, his kindly disposition towards humankind, has used Paul as his agent.
Paul writes as he does because he has moved on to new work since the foundation. He has left the task of building the superstructure to others. But now he is concerned by reports that this succeeding phase of the work is going awry. It is deviating from the plan and the foundation.
So he reminds them that the foundation is Jesus Christ. If we go back to the beginning of the Letter, we find that the Jesus Christ he had preached to them, and who was the foundation of their church, was “Christ crucified.”
Some church buildings follow this quite literally. They are laid out on a cruciform plan, with nave, chancel and transepts forming the four arms of the cross.
But Paul means something else: the building of a cruciform, a cross-shaped community. In that task, it is vital, he says, that they take care to build on the foundation. This building work would include such tasks as:
- the interpretation of scripture and the working out of doctrine;
- the organization of leadership and ministry in worship, mission and practical care of the community;
- dealing with questions of morality, how Christians should live.
We can be thankful that our forebears here not only left us a building which is structurally sound, but, and this is even more important, that they built a Christian community on the foundation and plan based on scripture and the catholic creeds, on word and sacrament, on the life of committed prayer and service, on the Church’s heritage of tradition and discipleship. These should all point us:
- to the grace of God as the source of our endeavours
- and the cross of Christ as that which should form them.
They built on Christ: “the Church’s one foundation.”
When Paul speaks of himself as a “skilled or wise master-builder,” sophos architekton, he takes up one of the Corinthians’ favourite words: “wisdom.” He addresses a community whose problems, influenced by the surrounding culture, spring from obsession with having the right knowledge. They have fragmented into groups, clustered around different leaders or preachers considered to possess and express it – perhaps more eloquently than Paul. Paul contrasts the wisdom of this world which they might be tempted to ape with that of God. That wisdom which comes from God may seem foolish in the eyes of the world, folly to Greeks and a scandal to Jews, but is true and the only foundation for building a community which can be God’s temple.
So those whose task is to carry on the work of construction must take great care in two ways:
- they must stick to the plan laid out in the foundations. There are to be no re-excavations to start again on another, nor ramshackle extensions for the followers of one leader or another;
- they must be careful in their use of building materials as their work will be tested.
It may be tempting to substitute something more immediately popular than the gospel of Christ crucified as the foundation of the church: immediate religious experience, for example, or worldly wisdom, a gospel of prosperity and success, or one which upholds a social order or a lifestyle which suits us. Superficial and simplistic presentations of the Christian faith may be more easily marketable, but we are warned that they will be tested by fire. Paul uses language which would be as familiar from building contracts then as it is now:
“if what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. It the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss…”
He does not say that those who use inferior materials, ones which don’t stand the test, will pay the ultimate penalty. They will “be saved, but only as through fire,” with singed eyebrows.
Paul reserves his sternest words, not for them, but for those who deliberately set out to destroy God’s temple; those who seek to undermine its unity and foundations by their divisive behaviour.
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”
They do know, or they should, because he has taught them this. It is part of the revolutionary shift for a Jewish Christian like Paul, or for Gentile converts like some of the Corinthian Christians, from seeing the Temple in Jerusalem or the pagan temples of their city, as the dwelling-place of the divine, to seeing the community of believers as the dwelling of God.
“If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that persons. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Commentators point out something we can miss in English: the “You” in the Greek text is plural not singular. This is about the life of the community, not just as is sometime said, especially to young people, about matters of personal morality. It is not just a text to urge them to behave when it comes to alcohol or sex.
We can take their point, but we should not conclude that our personal behaviour in these or other areas does not matter to the life of the church. Discipleship cannot be selective. Paul will criticise the Corinthians both for their tolerance of scandalous sexual misbehaviour and their socially divisive behaviour at the Eucharist. Both are wrong in themselves, and they undermine the life of the church and its capacity for mission.
Some Christian communities which are most censorious in matters of sex are curiously silent about those sins which Jeremiah thunders about: economic, financial and political practices which are unjust and dishonest, oppress the alien the orphan and the widow or shed innocent blood.
Others which are more inclusive of those who because of their sexuality say, or some past failure, are unwelcome elsewhere, can give the impression that personal morality and fidelity does not matter. Those sins of passion which both editors and readers of red top newspapers and celebrity gossip magazines are obsessed with, are not the only sins, but they are still sins for all that. We are called to holiness.
The people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s day thought they could trust in those deceptive words, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” The prophet warns then that they cannot go on committing their litany of sins, ‘steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to false god, and then come and stand before God and say, “We are safe.”’ Much less can they return to these abominations afterwards.
The pursuit of holiness does involve turning away from sin. But repentance is not just a turning away, but a turning to; a turning to Christ, to find in him, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the power to live that cruciform, that cross-shaped life.
A discipleship, a Christian life, a holiness, a church, which is founded on the crucified Christ is not one that seeks to emulate his suffering literally, but his obedience and self-offering to the Father.
If we are to continue the task of building a Christian community which is God’s temple, and not just restoring a building, then the materials and techniques we need are the same ones Paul and our forebears used; ones which keep Jesus as the centre of all that we are and do.
We need to listen to scripture, to meditate on it, that together we might have in us the mind which was in Christ Jesus.
So we need preaching which takes seriously the task of opening up the word to a new generation. Our preachers had better not be dull and boring if we are to listen to them, but nor should they be lazy or superficial, giving a few minutes spiritual light entertainment. Preachers are in the business of feeding souls not tickling ears.
We need to be rooted in prayer, both communal and individual. The most important thing about the Book of Common Prayer is not its beautiful language but its corporate spiritual discipline of Daily Prayer and regular Eucharist, of feast and fast.
The mere possession of all these things is not enough. The Corinthians had their spiritual gifts too and yet Paul criticises them for their abuse of them: their obsession with the more spectacular ones, like speaking in tongues. Well we might think that is one which doesn’t apply to us: not much likelihood of an outbreak of glossolalia at Benediction. But we can be just as spiritually arrogant about Prayer Book Evensong or Palestrina masses as any pentecostalist is about speaking in tongues. Like us the Corinthians had the Eucharist, but Paul will be scathing about their failure to discern the body of Christ Our sacramental life is a gift we should be thankful for. It is not a possession which entitles us to a smug superiority. It is given to us so that we might be changed, built up as living stones, into a temple made without hands, to offer spiritual sacrifices.
So now we turn to the crucified and risen Jesus present in his sacramental body. We pray to him for his Church and for our part in it; that he will pour out his Spirit on us all to build us up into that temple of living stones.