Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 12B, August 26, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: 1 Kings 8.1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84.1-12; Ephesians 6.10-20; John 6.56-69.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Have you ever longed to know what God is really like? Have you ever worried that maybe God doesn’t really exist, or if he does, he isn’t really all that accessible to us so that we can ever really hope to know him or take comfort in him or be protected by him? If you have ever had questions or concerns like these—and I suspect if we are honest, almost everyone here has had questions like these at one time or another in our lives—then you will begin to understand why the temple was so important to God’s people Israel. Like us, and before the temple was built, they often wondered if God was with them or whether he was really all that accessible. So imagine how wonderful you would feel if you longed for God to dwell with you and your people as he promised, and now you believed that God had finally done just that by coming to dwell in his temple, not as we humans occupy a house and live there, but that you could come to a physical place where you believed heaven and earth intersected so that you could actually be in God’s presence. If you understand how comforting and awesome that would be, you can begin to understand why today’s OT story was so important to God’s people. We want to know that God is with us and is accessible to us, and so this morning I want us to look briefly at this notion of temple and why we Christians don’t go to a temple to find God.
A temple, by its very definition, means that it is a dwelling place for a deity, in this case the God of Israel. Now in one sense, God had always dwelt among his people, especially from the time he called them out of slavery and bondage in Egypt. God had led his people through the wilderness by the pillars of fire and cloud and he would eventually have Moses build a tabernacle, which would house the Ark of the Covenant. But the tabernacle was designed to be a mobile dwelling that moved when God’s people moved. There was really no permanence about it, at least in a geographical sense, and despite God’s presence among his people, there were plenty of times when they rebelled against God or grumbled about whether God was really going to take care of them and deliver on his promise to bring them to a new land and give them rest from all their enemies. But after a long and checkered history that was characterized by chronic rebellion and unfaithfulness on the part of God’s people, God had finally given them the land and the rest from their enemies he promised so that Solomon—whose very name is derived from shalom, which means peace—was able to build God a temple in which to dwell.
And as today’s OT story tells us, when Solomon dedicated the temple, God did indeed come and dwell there. His presence was so powerful that it drove the priests out from it so that they could not do their duties, at least temporarily. Finally God’s people had a place to come and bring their thank offerings as well as their fellowship and sin offerings. In other words, they had a place to come directly (well, almost directly) into God’s presence and through the mediation of a priest find forgiveness and reconciliation with God. But even then, as our story alludes, God wasn’t entirely accessible to his people. Initially the cloud hid his presence and afterward only the chief priest was allowed once a year to enter the holy of holies where the Ark of the Covenant rested, which was God’s “footstool.” God was so close to his people but in some ways still so far away. How then could the people really get to know God and experience his presence first-hand among them? In other words, how is it possible for the Creator to dwell with his creatures? After all, the OT writers made it clear that to see the face of God meant death because sinful mortals were unable to gaze directly on the presence of God’s perfect holiness and survive. Was God’s presence in the temple the best they (and we) could hope for?
If we understand these dynamics, we have some of the background to help us understand today’s gospel lesson in which Jesus finishes his discourse about being the bread from heaven. We are also in a position to understand why Jesus’ words drove so many folks away. But first a bit more background. Earlier in John’s gospel we see Jesus driving the moneychangers et al. from the temple (cf. John 2.13-25). This was not an effort to reform corrupt temple practices. Jesus’ actions went way beyond that. It was Jesus acting out a prophetic judgment on the temple and all that it had come to stand for in a manner similar to OT prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. And if we remember that in Jesus we see the very embodiment of God, we quickly realize that in this episode we are watching God pronounce judgment on his temple and all that had become distorted in and through it. It is quite a sobering thought.
Now in today’s gospel lesson we see one of the logical outcomes of Jesus clearing the temple. When Jesus pronounced God’s judgment on the temple and made the cryptic reference to his body being raised in three days when asked by what authority he had done so, he was effectively telling his challengers and us that he is the new temple. Jesus is the place for us to come and interact with God, not the temple, because he is the Word made flesh. No longer would God’s people have to bring animal sacrifices to a priest to find forgiveness for their sins because in Jesus’ costly death on the cross we are directly offered forgiveness of our sins once and for all, and with it, reconciliation and peace with God. Jesus was going to do for Israel and the world what God had called Israel to do (and for which Solomon had prayed), but which Israel had failed to do. Just as God had delivered his people from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, so now in Jesus God would deliver his people from our bondage to sin and death. Sadly not everyone will accept this gracious gift offered to us. But it is God’s free gift offered to everyone, regardless of who we are or what we have done. No one is outside the love or reach of God!
Jesus goes on to tell us that he is the giver of life and his claims will be vindicated after he has ascended into heaven, NT code for reminding us the risen and ascended Jesus is now Lord of the universe and rules through his people by the power of the Holy Spirit that he promised to send on us. This is why Paul reminded us several weeks ago at the beginning of Ephesians that the people of God, both Jew and Gentile who had been healed and reconciled to God and each other, were now the new and reconstituted temple of God (cf. Ephesians 2.19-22). We are Christ’s body, the Church, built on the foundation in which Jesus is the most important stone because only in Christ do we find true forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God and each other. This, in turn, equips us to be the people God calls us to be, holy people whom God will use by the power of the Spirit to bring his healing love to bear on others who desperately need and seek it.
As we think about all this, two things strike us immediately. First, if Jesus really is the embodiment of God (which he is), it makes perfect sense that he would claim to be the new temple where we would come to meet and commune with God. This solves the vexing problem that has always existed for humans—how do we really get to know God? Granted, in Jesus we see God interacting with us as a human and therefore being subjected to human limitations. But if we want to see the face of God, if we want to know the heart of God, if we want to know how God expects us to behave, we have a clear example in Jesus to follow. Jesus is telling us to find healing, forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation in and through him. That’s why he is the cornerstone of the church and that is why if we ever hope to be the truly human beings God created us to be, we must establish our very lives and being in him so that he can work in and through us in the power of the Spirit to transform us into his very likeness. This is not a one-off event. It is a process that takes a lifetime and it can be difficult at times because we are so profoundly broken. But it is the NT’s consistent promise to us that if we do our part to cultivate our relationship with Jesus, we will be changed into his very likeness and with that will come a newfound sense of peace, power, and purpose for living. Are you enjoying the fruit of that promise in your life? If you are, then look for those around you who are not and share your secret with them! And if you are not, ask the Lord to show you what you must do to gain it and then be ready to receive the gift in humility and faith.
And here we also see the reason why so many people found Jesus’ teachings difficult. The very idea that we can meet the God of this universe fully in Jesus of Nazareth is so offensive to some people that they will immediately be driven away from its truth. The folks of Jesus’ day were not prepared to deal with the possibility that God would finally fulfill his ancient promise to come and live with his people by becoming a human being. They wanted (and in the temple had) something sexier and more spectacular. It’s quite a stretch to think about the God of this universe, not as a brilliant and awe-inspiring presence that dazzles and overwhelms, but as a mere mortal human being. The thought of it rocked Jesus’ world and it continues to rock ours. But if we really do worship the God of this universe, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we should expect him to rock our world, precisely because he is God and is free to manifest himself to us in any manner he chooses. The day we make God our intellectual and emotional equal is the day we stop worshiping the one true and living God and start worshiping a god of our own making. That’s why we need Jesus if we ever hope to really get to know God, at least as best as we are able.
True as Jesus’ promises are to us and active and powerful as the Spirit is in our lives, we can get distracted and forget all that God has done for us in Christ. And of course, being the physical creatures we are, we need the physical touch for a lot of reasons, especially to help us remember important things. That is why Jesus has been reminding us to feed on his body and blood. Think about it. We have all kinds of customs and rituals that help us remember what is most important to us as individuals and families because we are so distractible. We give each other wedding rings as a tangible reminder of our marriage vows. We have family holiday traditions to help us remember the good times past and the people we love but see no longer. That’s why newly married couples sometimes have difficulties in finding the right blend of family traditions to celebrate the holidays. Who we are and where we have been are important!
That’s why the Lord gave us a meal. He wanted to give us something tangible by which to remember him! It has been hotly debated if Jesus is talking about the Eucharist in today’s lesson, but surely he is because we don’t find an account of the Last Supper in John’s gospel, at least not about Jesus passing the bread and cup and interpreting what they mean to his disciples. But here our Lord has been reminding us to feed on him tangibly so that we have life, to feed on him so that we remember that we meet God through him and find life and wholeness for which we so desperately yearn. We can’t find a much better reason to come to the Lord’s table than that (or a better eucharistic theology behind doing so)!
But most of us only feed on our Lord once a week. So what about the other six days? What do we do to keep us faithful and firmly rooted in Jesus so that he will use us as visible signs of his new life and creation? Paul has the answer for us in today’s epistle lesson. He reminds us that we are in a state of war at all times. There are spiritual forces out there who hate us and want to destroy our faith and us, and we had better take them seriously or they will get us. Their existence is a big reason why many of us struggle in our faith or are confronted by struggles and difficulties in life. Don’t get bogged down in trying to personify these forces and don’t look for the devil under every rock. Accept that they are real and also acknowledge that dangerous as they are, they are still under God’s sovereign rule and that Christ has defeated evil and death decisively on the cross, even if that victory has not been fully consummated.
In the interim, to help keep us faithful, Paul tells us to put on the armor of God. The imagery Paul uses is based on the armor of a Roman soldier, which was designed to be used in formation with other soldiers to put up a formidable collective shield. And that’s what we need to pay attention to here. Paul is telling us as the Church to put on the armor of God individually and then come together as Christ’s body so that the Spirit can use us to help shield one another in prayer, mutual Bible study, and good works. In addition to feeding on our Lord each week, we need to read the saving narrative of God’s plan to rescue his fallen world and the numerous sub-stories that make up the larger narrative. We need to pray for each other and encourage each other. We need to reach out and provide tangible help to one another and the world when we see need and can do something about it. Every time we act like Jesus in real and tangible ways, we can trust that God uses these acts to help us keep the Main Thing the main thing.
Of course, none of this is particularly easy. If it were, and if we were not such distractible people, none of this would be necessary. But because we are at war, life isn’t always easy and we do need tangible reminders that will help us keep rooted in the life and power of Jesus. And when by God’s grace we experience his presence and power in our daily lives, even in the midst of our struggles, we will also know what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.