Growing a New Temple.

April 25, 2010

Sermon for a church anniversary. (Genesis 28, 10-22; 1 Peter 2, 1-10; John 4, 19-26. Psalm 84.)

We are here today to celebrate the anniversary of this place where we worship God. All our readings throw some light on that.

Suppose you were asked to design a new place of worship for God – a new temple. What would you build?

Would you build something like that Hindu temple many of us have visited at Neasden, all domes and spires and statues; or something covered with gold leaf like many of the Buddhist temples in the Far East? Would you adorn it with precious stones and rare wood, as we are told Solomon’s temple was decorated? Would it be dark and mysterious, with many corridors and rooms, as were the temples of ancient Egypt? Or made of glass and full of light as many modern churches and cathedrals are?  Or would it be simple and plain, like the chapel of the Primitive Methodist tradition in which we stand?

To some extent, your design would reflect your taste and what you think is beautiful, because we instinctively offer what is best in our culture to house God. That would mean different things to different people.

Jacob put up a memorial stone in the place where he encountered God, the place where heaven and earth met. Later, his descendants identified that place with the Ark, which moved round with them, and later still, with the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Because it was the dwelling place of God, nothing in it could be contrary to the laws which had been revealed to God’s people.

But the problem with identifying the place of encounter with God to a specific location and building, as the later prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel pointed out, was that people came to believe that the only place where God was encountered was the Jerusalem Temple. And this was to limit God to something the human mind could conceive and control.

If we listen carefully to what Jesus said about the Temple, then our ideas about what we might design should be quite different. We will think about the dwelling place of God not as a building but as a person. The new Temple, the one in which the Spirit of God is made flesh, looks like us. Jeremiah and Ezekiel were already working towards this idea when they talked of God  writing the law not on tablets of stone  to be kept in a building, but on human hearts, to be kept by the mind and will.  The same idea is expressed in some of the New Testament epistles, like the first letter of Peter from which we heard earlier, where they talk of believers as ‘living stones’  who offer themselves to be built as  a spiritual temple, around the cornerstone of Jesus Christ.

To think of people as the temple of God means a radical change in our way of thinking about  what is holy, and therefore fit to be the dwelling place of the Spirit. For actual people do not necessarily fit our idea of what is beautiful, attractive or worthy. We need therefore to look at  people with God’s eyes, to  look beyond externals to what is within, to value the potential in every individual, if we are to take seriously the message of the New Testament. We cannot confine God to a certain place or time if everyone we meet is a potential dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. We cannot place limits on where we need to observe God’s laws if we may encounter the divine in every home, every workplace and on every street corner.

And if we think of the temple of God as a living person it will make a difference to the way we go about creating that temple, because living things aren’t built, they grow. And the language we use in teaching, in liturgy and in worship will need to reflect this. Sister Lavina Byrne, in her book “Women before God” reflects this change of emphasis when she writes of her dissatisfaction with the formal language of the Divine Office  in the Roman Catholic Breviary.

She says: “The activities suggested there as ways of helping the Kingdom of God grow within seem to rely upon images of strife and construction engineering, and imply that the Kingdom is about numbers and noise rather than attitudes and values. Words like ‘hold’, ‘enfold’, ‘touch’ and ‘embrace’ must appear alongside words like ‘build’, ‘strike’, ‘fill’ and ‘complete’; the images of creation must be fed into those of construction.”

So perhaps what we need to help us imagine the New Temple is language that comes from the experience of parents, farmers, gardeners and teachers rather than soldiers, architects and builders. Jesus certainly used both when he spoke about the Kingdom.

So, let us think for a moment. What do we need to grow a temple? We need a seed. So we must consider where that seed is to come from if it is to grow into a temple for the Holy Spirit among all those people in the world who are not yet aware of their own potential to become such a temple. We need to think what we can do to be or plant that seed, and to help it to grow; and even more important, what it is we might do  to destroy that seed, especially in its early, very fragile state.

A living thing needs the right environment to grow in. Our physical places of worship – churches and chapels – may well be part of that environment, signs of the Kingdom, so we are right to celebrate them, and look after them. Our church services may provide a cultural environment where the seeds of faith may flourish. But we always need to be aware of the prophet Jeremiah’s warning that the physical temple can become a snare, which strangles new spiritual growth. It may give us a false sense of security and closeness to God, when it is actually destroying the Spirit of God within us, or within other people.

Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic hermit monk,  wrote “Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice, your mediocrity and materialism, your sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.”

Jesus teaches us that an environment of love, of truth and of hope is the most productive for the growth of his Spirit. So we need always to be asking ourselves: “Do we provide that here?”

So we need constantly to be reviewing the environment we provide for spiritual growth. Or rather, the environments, for different living things require different environments in which to grow, flourish and bear fruit. Some of the Fresh Expressions of Church may provide this environment for people who won’t grow into temples of the Spirit in conventional church settings.

Living things need to be fed if they are to grow, and to have a varied diet if they are to grow healthily. So we need to ask ourselves whether we provide a varied enough diet to meet the needs of a variety of potential temples of the Spirit – or whether what we provide contains a very narrow range of spiritual vitamins, minerals and proteins.

Finally, living things need space  to grow successfully. One problem with physical buildings is that they limit the space within which we imagine God to be present. Faith groups and denominations can have the same effect. They can encourage us to say: “God is only present within my religion, my denomination, my tradition, my particular church or chapel.” But just as a plant needs space to spread its roots and leaves if it is to grow, and just as children need space to explore and be themselves if they are to become mature, independent adults, so we need to e open to new places and experiences of God if we are to grow into the true temples of the Holy Spirit that God created us to be. The bird of heaven, as Sydney Carter’s hymn reminds us, cannot be caught in a cage.

Anyone who cares for a living thing, be it plant or animal or child, knows that it can be a frustrating and sometimes painful experience. So it is as we seek to grow temples of the Spirit. Paul describes the world groaning in the labour pangs of a new age – anyone who has had a baby knows what that is like! But, on the other hand, in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of the change from sorrow to joy that a mother experiences when her labour is over and her child is born, reminding us that there is no greater joy in human life than to share in the creation of a living thing.

As we celebrate today the life of this church, may we rededicate ourselves to the labour and struggle, and sometimes the pain of nurturing the growth of the temple of the Spirit in our community and ourselves, in the faith that we may know the joy of recognising there the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, where we and others may truly encounter the living God.

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