Sermon delivered at the parish dedication festival of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Sunday, August 28, 2016, in Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: 1 Chronicles 29.6-19; Psalm 122.1-9; Ephesians 2.19-22; John 2.13-22.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this feast day of Augustine of Hippo, our patron saint, we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the founding of our parish. It is therefore appropriate for us to look at the nature of the Church. What is it and why should we care?
When I say “church,” what comes to mind? Do you think immediately of a building, like when we say, “Oh goodie! It’s time to go to church so we can hear another one of Fr. Maney’s brilliant sermons”? Or did you recognize church more readily in our OT and psalm lessons this morning, when they talked about a place to gather, than in our epistle and gospel lessons, with their emphasis on something quite different? If you did, I suspect you are probably in the majority. Most of us today equate church with a building or a place to worship. Now on one hand, there is nothing wrong with this thinking. After all, we do need a place to assemble to worship and serve God together, and there is something to be said about having a beautiful worship space to evoke a proper sense of wonder and awe as we assemble before God. On the other hand, this kind of thinking is so, well, first and second temple kind of thinking, and not at all consistent with the NT’s vision of what really constitutes church.
What do I mean by this? What does first and second temple thinking mean? As David makes clear in his prayer in our OT lesson, the temple for Israel was much more than a building. It was the very place where heaven and earth came together, the place where the Creator of this vast universe chose to come and dwell with his called-out people Israel. Now certainly no building can contain God, as David acknowledged in his prayer. But it was critically important for God’s people to believe that the same God who had called them to be his people would continue to be with them to guide, protect, and redeem them. This was the function of the movable tent or tabernacle that God had ordered Moses to construct as God’s people wandered in the wilderness. You can read about that in the book of Exodus. If God was going to call a people for his own, it would be quite unsporting of God to leave them to their own devices. As David acknowledged in his prayer, without God’s abiding presence, God’s people would be nothing but wandering sojourners on earth and without hope. After all, who among us can have any real hope for this life and beyond without God? So here in today’s lesson, as David’s son, Solomon, prepared to build the first temple in Jerusalem, God’s people rejoiced that there finally would be a permanent dwelling place for God to live with and among his people.
As we know, the first temple was eventually destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BC because of Israel’s unrepentant sin and chronic rebellion (you do know that, right?). The only way for that to happen was for God’s presence to leave his temple, which God did. You can read about that in the book of Ezekiel. After deportation and exile to Babylon, God graciously restored the remnant of his people and returned them to the promised land, where a new or second temple was built. But a funny thing happened. God’s presence never apparently returned to this temple, even though God had promised through the prophet Ezekiel to do so. This was the state of the temple in Jesus’ day and it is what makes our gospel lesson so important. Jesus came to Jerusalem during the Passover festival, the great celebration of God’s rescue of his people from their slavery in Egypt, to pronounce judgment on God’s house because it had ceased to fulfill its function as God’s dwelling place. Instead, it housed all kinds of false and unreal practices, religious and otherwise, much like some church buildings do today. As Jesus told the authorities, no longer would the temple be the place where heaven and earth came together, where God dwelt. No, the new temple would be his own body, because he was the Word made flesh (John 1.1,14). You want to experience God’s presence among you, he asks? Then look to me and you will find the true temple of God, the place where God dwells with you on earth. I came because my Father and I love you greatly and want you to live with us forever. My death and resurrection promise to be the ultimate Passover for you, where you will get to live a new bodily existence forever in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth, with new resurrected bodies like mine, incomprehensibly beautiful and indestructible. You will finally get to be the fully human beings my Father created you to be, free from the sin and brokenness that plague your mortal bodies, and you will be safe from evil and death forever.
This gets us ready to hear what the NT says about what constitutes church. Church for the NT writers isn’t about a building or specific location, precisely because Jesus has become the new temple where God chooses to dwell with his people in the power of the Spirit. No, church for the NT writers as well as the apostles, is about a living organism, specifically the body of Christ, you and me and anyone who claims the faith once delivered to the saints.
In our epistle lesson, Paul lays out a breathtakingly beautiful vision for the reconstituted Church in Jesus. Speaking to the gentiles of his day, Paul calls them former strangers and aliens who were hostile and alienated to God. They didn’t have God in their lives and were without hope, and their lives showed it. Death was their inevitable and permanent end. But now because of what God had done for them in and through the cross of Jesus, and because they had come to believe in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, through whom, and only through whom, folks come to God to find healing and new life, they were no longer on the outside looking in. They were part of a new family, the place where they could be themselves and be assured that they were accepted. This is the kind of security nuclear and extended families provide when they are stable and functioning according to God’s good purposes for families.
In our day, of course, we don’t think much of the Jew/gentile divide, but that does not diminish the truth of Paul’s words. Sadly, there are Jews and gentiles alike who are still hostile and alienated to God because they have not yet discovered God’s great love for them in Jesus. But for those of us who have, everything changes. Jesus’ death has brought reconciliation with God and each other. To be sure, we are all very different personalities who come from different backgrounds and experiences, and that is a good thing because it makes us richer and more complete as Christ’s body. But we all have one thing in common. We are all greatly loved by Jesus and we have given our lives to him. Not perfectly to be sure. We are all works in progress and some of us are further along than others. But we have all been rescued from evil, sin, and death by the blood of Christ shed for us and have been given the Holy Spirit to live in us and to make Jesus readily accessible to us on a continuing basis.
Why does this matter? Because as Paul tells us, we have a heavenly citizenship where we are citizens with a hope and a future. Our mortal bodies will die but because we are Jesus’ people, we will share in his resurrection one day, so that life is our future, not death. And because we are a forgiven and redeemed people in Christ, we are called to be his body, the Church. As we say each week during the eucharist, “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in the one bread” [of Jesus’ body given for us]. The living God now seeks to make his home in our hearts, lives, and bodies. He has called us together in a new family with Jesus as our head so that we choose to live our lives in ways that are fundamentally at odds with the ways of the world. In other words, we are the Church where the love and presence of Jesus is embodied in and through us. We are living stones as the apostle Peter tells us (1 Peter 2.5). We choose to live our lives in obedience to Jesus in love and humility. And we are called to live our lives together, as part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
This exposes the lie that many embrace that there really is such a thing as an isolate Christian, that we can find God walking on the beach or looking at the stars at night. To be sure, this is true. We can find God anywhere. But the Christian faith is much more than finding God. It is living out our lives consistent with the will of God most powerfully expressed in Jesus Christ. We aren’t saved so that we can go around acting snotty and thumbing our noses at the rest of the losers who aren’t Christians. No, we are called to live our lives in ways that are patterned after Jesus’ love for all people, and that use our individual personalities and gifts for God’s glory, not our own. And part of our calling is to call others to this way of life, whether they accept our invitation or not. When we do this, regardless how imperfectly we do it, two things happen. God uses us to advance his kingdom on earth as in heaven and to pronounce judgment on the disordered ways of the world. But this can’t happen unless we live our lives together. If we are truly living stones, healed, redeemed, and greatly loved by Christ, how can we be a temple in and of ourselves? Whoever heard of a one-brick house or temple? It simply can’t exist, let alone stand.
No, we are called to be Jesus’ people together. It means that we love each other and bear with each other despite our differences because we realize Jesus has rescued us all, even the folks we don’t much care about. This, of course, requires great humility on our part, a humility derived from the knowledge that there is nothing inherently deserving in us to warrant God dying on a cross to rescue us from ourselves and our sin. When we get this fundamental truth, it changes us and helps us love in the manner God created us to love. We do this not only as individuals, but as a community, because we are part of God’s new living temple that has Christ as our chief cornerstone, the most important stone of the building, the stone that determines the shape, function, and features of the rest of the building, i.e., our lives.
To be the living church of Christ means that we need to know our own story and how greatly loved we really are in God’s eyes. It means we must reject the tribalism that is inherent in each of us, the aftermath of trying to build the tower of Babel (Genesis 11.1-8), so that we really can love each other and work for the other’s best. It means we must grow and mature in our faith and in our living, all the while confident that God loves us and accepts us, warts and all, even as he remains faithful and present to us, and helps us grow together. This growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens when by the grace of God and in the power of the Spirit we as Christ’s living stones overcome our differences and the things that can separate us, and dare love each other enough to want to live out our faith together. It means we encourage each other and study together. When that happens, we discover what real joy and power of living means.
Will things be perfect? Not a chance. We all have our troubles and sorrows. We all are profoundly broken and fragile. There will be disagreements and conflict at times. The difference is that when we realize we are the Church and not some building or location, we commit ourselves to caring for each other and learning how to resolve conflicts in a Christianly manner so as not to let the things that can separate us become more important than the thing that joins us together—the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. In that way we ensure the structure of the church always remains strong. It is the necessary and ongoing maintenance of Christ’s living Church, so to speak. It means too that we will always have someone to share our joys and sorrows with, confident that because we are Christ’s, we will love others as we love ourselves. Life is meant to be lived together and when we are faithful to our call to live as living stones who constitute the Church, the Church becomes the supreme example of what that looks like. This is no small or insignificant witness to a world starved for real relationships.
As we celebrate our fifth anniversary today, I look at the living stones of St. Augustine’s with whom God has blessed us—you all, those here and those absent today. And when I see you interact with each other and how you love the Lord and each other, it is enough to bring me to tears. I rejoice in seeing the tribes and nations represented in our parish being called together by the love and power of Christ. I see a real unity of spirit amongst us and a real love that is expressed in a variety of ways, internally and externally. This is what it means to be truly catholic, i.e., universal, and that is something we all should desire—to be catholic for the sake of Christ and in obedience to his prayer that we all might be one (John 17.20-23). Don’t let this praise go to your heads, my beloved. You’re good, but not that good! Rather, let your faithfulness be a call to even greater love and humility so that we can continue to honor the one who loved us and gave himself for us, using the individual and collective gifts with which he has blessed us. Not only will that help us be faithful to our mission statement to be, “Changed by God to make a difference for God,” it is also the essence of living the Good News, now and for all eternity. To him who is the foundation and chief cornerstone of his Church be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.