Sermon for Feast of Dedication – Procession & High Mass Sunday 5 October 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray towards this place.
O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive. 1 Kings 8.27-30
You have not come to something that can be touched… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,… and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Hebrews 12.18-24
‘“My house shall be called a house of prayer”, but you are making of it a den of robbers.’ Matthew 21.13
Let me first address that story in the Gospel of the cleansing of the temple, a story which I mentioned a few weeks ago when we heard about the healing of the Samaritan woman’s daughter. St Mark, who records the incident first, quotes Isaiah more fully than Matthew: ‘for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’ (no mention of robbers). Matthew has left out a crucial phrase in Isaiah’s text, ‘for all peoples’ (and he’s added the robbers). So Jesus’ explanation of his acted parable, overturning the moneychangers’ tables and chucking them all out, is originally about inclusion. It isn’t the commerce on sacred ground to which he objects (Matthew, possibly displaying some unexamined Jewish prejudice here, has taken the story down that track by putting a different spin on it, producing centuries of neurosis about selling things in church). But Jesus is objecting to the exclusion of the gentiles from the temple, a process in which the money changers’ tables are complicit.
So the first thing to notice about Dedication in the new covenant is its bias towards openness and inclusiveness, a bias which was already present in tension in the old covenant, but which had been supplanted by the narrower exclusive strand of tradition. And Solomon’s prayer of dedication for his temple, which we heard in the first reading, reminds us of that in which we are included – the Israel of God – and of its first appeal, to God’s mercy: O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive.
But today’s text from Hebrews gives us something more to think about: true to the paradoxical teaching of the Lord, we celebrate today the dedication of a building by remembering that the building is of no consequence:
You have not come to something that can be touched… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,… and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel Hebrews 12.18-24
In Hebrews the heart of the matter is made explicit: the blood of Christ on the cross, shed from ‘the temple of his body’, is here offered and received by us in the Eucharist, the so-called ‘unbloody sacrifice’ of the new covenant. Our temple, and our dedication, is above all sacramental. We are here as a sign, both building and people, and we are also sent out from here as a sign in the world of God’s loving presence in his creation. This is what the incarnation means, and achieves. Christ is the sacrament of God; the Church is the sacrament of Christ, and the Eucharist is the sacrament which makes the Church.
In the second century AD, Christianity was under attack from Greek and Roman thinkers, who argued that it was a godless religion (because it denied the Roman & Greek gods) which engaged in barbaric practices. These attacks gave rise to a group of Christians we call ‘apologists’, those who defended Christianity against these charges. But among the earliest defenders of Christianity was the non-Christian Greek writer Aristides, who addressed the Emperor Hadrian in these words:
Christians love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If a man has something, he gives freely to the man who has nothing. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy, as though he were a real brother … If they hear that one of them is in gaol, or persecuted for professing the name of their redeemer, they all give him what he needs … This is really a new kind of person. There is something divine in them.
Here Christians find an apologist in a man who was not a Christian, but who argued that the good of the Christian community was evident for all to see. As a working description of Christians today it might sound like a triumph of optimism over the facts. We all know from experience that the visible group of believers has its fair share of the crooked and the cracked, as well as those, oddly, who seem entirely uninterested in the content of the faith. And, if we’re honest, many of us are invisible Christians much of the time, well-meaning people whose actual Christianity appears at intervals. But we are, I trust, at least committed to letting our Christianity become more visible so that something of the divine may show through.
About seventy years before the non-Christian Aristides wrote that defence of Christians, Paul wrote to the Christian community at Corinth, in the south of Greece. He had stayed there for about 18 months, working as a tent-maker and preaching the message of Jesus in the public squares and in houses. By the time he left, Paul had established a thriving Christian community in a city that was renowned both for its culture and its squalor. Writing to them later, Paul encouraged the community he left behind to see themselves as ‘God’s building’. They are a sacred people, God’s holy temple.
So the paradox expressed by our appropriation of Hebrews deepens. Contrary to appearances our point of focus is not something that can be touched, in the sense of a building. But we are embodied, tangible beings, and in our Eucharist we ‘make’ the Church, something greater and more lasting than the sum of its actions. As you know, the Greek word for church is ekklesia which means not a building but an assembly of people called together, a community of those who believe. We are part of the universal or Catholic church, the people who believe in the Lordship of Jesus. As a community of believers, we are united in faith under the leadership of our bishops, the successors of the apostles. And, with them, we all have Christ as our foundation.
That means that we also belong to the same Church as that community of believers in Corinth, for the Church crosses boundaries of both space and time. Like the Corinthians we are invited to see ourselves as God’s building: not bricks and mortar, but an equally real building of flesh and blood, a community of faith and charity. Today’s feast, which celebrates to the dedication of the church building, is a perverse reminder that all of this only stands here as a sign, the sign of a dedicated community; when that community is absent, then the church building is rightly closed and sold. If our personal dedication is old and tired, if we no longer view the church as anything more than a few people we know, or a historical monument, then we will soon stop taking responsibility for seeing ourselves as the Church, as God’s building.
That is why we need to renew our personal dedication, and why we keep this festival each year. Woody Alan famously said that 80% of life is just showing up. We are aiming higher. We stay dedicated not just by existing, not just by turning up, but by struggling to grow up in faith and taking responsibility for our own community, warts and all.