Sermon for Feast of Dedication and Friends’ Festival High Mass Sunday 6 October 2013
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
FEAST OF DEDICATION, 2013 HIGH MASS
It’s hard to imagine Jesus arriving at All Saints, Margaret Street one Sunday morning, storming into the parish shop, over-turning the tables, spilling choir CDs and coffee, and driving Christine and Myrtle out into the street with an improvised whip. Their gentle activities hardly represent the invasion of God’s house by predatory capitalism.
And given that John brackets this story of the Cleansing of the Temple with that of the Marriage at Cana, it doesn’t seem likely that he would close down the bar – or take offence at us having a glass of wine after mass to celebrate Juliet and Ian’s birthdays. Indeed one of the accusations which would be levelled against him by his critics was that he was “a glutton and a drunkard.”
The other evangelists place this incident at the beginning of Holy Week – the climactic confrontation with the powers that be in religion and politics. John sets it near the beginning of the Gospel, as if to announce a programme, to signify what Jesus is doing, not just on this occasion, but in the whole of his life and ministry: replacing the system of sacrificial worship centred in the Temple as the place of God’s presence.
As often in John, those who challenge Jesus to justify his words and actions misunderstand his response: “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up again in three days.”
Now, with Jesus, the place of relationship with God is his own person and the relationship with him which the resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit makes possible.
And so, the Letter to the Ephesians tells us, those who belong to the Church belong to the family, to the household of God. The language of the Temple is radically transformed. They are to be built together into a sanctuary for God to dwell in – a holy structure of which the foundation stones are the apostles and prophets. Its cornerstone, the one which determines the lines of the building and compacts it into one, is Jesus Christ, according to God’s word in Isaiah, “Behold I lay in Zion for a foundation stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone of sure foundation.”
The image of the building undergoes further transformation as it passes into that of a growing plant. Christ is, as St. Peter says, “a living stone.” He not only determines the lines of the spiritual structure, but he pervades the whole of it as a presence and spirit, so that every other human stone is also alive and growing with his life.
The foundation stone of this church was laid by Dr. Pusey, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, and this evening Fr. Barry Orford, the Librarian of Pusey House in Oxford is coming to be our preacher.
That was at a time when a group of devout and generous people, committed to the mission of Christ and his Church had commissioned the building of this church and had provided the money for it – echoing the action of David recorded in the reading from Chronicles; giving from his own personal wealth – rather than just the tax-payers – to encourage others among the people to support the building of the temple to be carried out by his son and heir King Solomon.
On this day, we give thanks for the generosity of our forebears here, and we give thanks for the more recent generosity of all those who have contributed to the restoration work in recent years. And we look to their example as we continue that work.
The first principal of Pusey House was Charles Gore, later one of the founders of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, then Bishop of Worcester, Birmingham, then Oxford.
Gore and a group of friends produced a series of essays called “Lux Mundi” – the Light of the World – which by a creative yet critical engagement with contemporary thought, including biblical scholarship, rescued Catholic Anglicanism from being intellectually reactionary; saving it from an ecclesiastical fundamentalism as dangerous as the biblical version espoused by some of its evangelical contemporaries.
When he retired, Bishop Gore came to live at No.6 Margaret Street. In his commentary on Ephesians, he seeks to refresh the glorious realities which these images of the Church express, but which have become dulled by a conventional Christianity, which “involves no sacrifice and therefore attains no sense of blessedness.”
Throughout the Old Testament, there is the idea of the chosen people all as a whole consecrated to God. Priests and kings appointed by God to their several offices may fulfil special functions in the national life, yet the fundamental idea is never lost, that the entire nation is holy, a “kingdom of priests.” Because this is true, the prophets can appeal to the people in general, as well as to priests and rulers, as sharing together the responsibility of the national life.
Now the whole of this idea is deepened and intensified with the Church. It too has its divinely-ordained ministers, its different functions in the body, but the whole body is priestly, and all are citizens – not merely residents but citizens, that is, intelligent participators in the common corporate life, consecrated to God.
“The laity, it is generally understood among us, are to come to church and perhaps to communion, are to accept the ministries of religion at marriages and funerals, and are to subscribe a little money to religious objects; but they may leave it to the clergy, as a matter of course, to carry on the business of religion, – that is worship and doctrine, – and confine themselves to a certain amount of irresponsible criticism of the sermons of the clergy and their proceedings generally.”
Well, there has been some change there, but there remains enough in that description to challenge us: the Church and its clergy can still be seen, in the language of our day, as service providers for consumers.
But Paul describes the Church as the ‘household of God.’ A household is a place where a family is provided for, where there is a regular and orderly supply of ordinary, everyday needs: food, clothing, shelter. And the Church is the divine household in which God has provided stewards to make regular spiritual provision for people, so that shall feel and know themselves members of a family, understood, sympathised with, helped, encouraged, disciplined, fed. The sacraments and sacramental rites, baptism, confirmation, marriage and ordination, the administration of the word of God, the dealings with the penitent, the sick and the dead, are the ‘portions of food in due season,’ the orderly distribution of the bread of life in the family or household of God.
All this is not something that happens by magic. Like the building of the Temple or of this church, it has to be paid for. If there are to be priests and pastors and teachers for God’s people, houses of God for them to worship in, then that requires the generous commitment and involvement of all God’s people. The challenge is not to someone else, but to us. Today is an occasion for thanksgiving as well as for exhortation. We can look back over these recent years, when the scaffolding has been in here, not just round the Vicarage, as a time of blessing – of blessing which has come to us as the fruit of a dedication and generosity which has itself grown out of that process, of which Paul writes, is which the Church is a sanctuary which is gradually being built for God to dwell in.
The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians, – and the scholars argue over whether it is Paul or a disciple – describes the Church as a sanctuary which is gradually to be built for God to dwell in. There is an echo, conscious or unconscious of Jesus had said of the temple in Jerusalem, ”’Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He spoke of the Temple of his body.’
The image of the sanctuary shows us that the social organisation of the Church is an organisation for worship. It is a household and a citizenship, because it is first and foremost a sanctuary. The strength of corporate Christianity, says Bishop Gore, is to be measured by the vitality of its corporate worship. That vitality, that worship in spirit and truth, which Jesus speaks of in John’s Gospel, may be expressed in the beauty of building and music, but must be rooted in our communion with Christ in word and sacrament, in prayer and self-giving; in openness to being used by God in the whole of our lives.
The Church as a visible organisation of human beings can be what it is – the City of God, his household and his sanctuary – only because it is pervaded by Christ’s life and Spirit. The ‘stones of the building’ are not merely placed side by side of one another, or held together by any external agency of government; they are as branches of a living tree, limbs of a living body. In all Paul’s theory of the Church: it is truly the extension of the life of Christ.