Rev. Don Beyers
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“How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts!” Ps. 84:1
Why do we need churches? Isn’t God everywhere? Can’t we pray wherever we want?
Every so often a person will pose these questions to me. While they are excellent questions, it’s been my experience that those who raise them ask not out of some sort of theological and spiritual interest, but rather to make a point that one need not go to a church to find God. Other times, the questions arise from conversations about the cost of sustaining and maintaining physical structures. Wouldn’t the Church’s mission be further advanced if we weren’t tied down to these old, and sometimes worn, buildings? Moreover, since the late 1960s there’s been a renewed appreciation and understanding of the Church not as a building, but as the Body of Christ composed of the People of God. The buildings don’t make the Church, the people do.
To be certain, all of these observations are indeed right. No, we don’t need churches; and yes, God can be experienced in creation. Anyone who has spent any significant time in the wilderness can tell you as much. Spend a few moments on a mountaintop or even on a prairie, you will experience the divine presence of God dwelling among us. Yet the questions, and the implied responses, always seem to me to fall short of a fuller, deeper understanding of God and the way God has revealed himself to us. While the scriptures make clear God can be experienced in creation, they also tell us stories where God is encountered in a particular, more profound way. Thus the response to the questions is much more nuanced than what is immediately apparent to us.
To fully appreciate this, I think it is helpful for us to recall our Christian understanding of God. Drawing from the experience of our Jewish sisters and brothers, Christians believe God is present in creation but is not contained in creation. All of creation, including us, reflect the beauty and goodness of God. As the Psalmist reminds us, creation proclaims the goodness of God: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) Furthermore, humans are made in the very image of God and are to live as stewards of God’s creation. (Gen. 1:26)
Yet, we acknowledge God as being greater than all of his creation, even the great multitude of the stars in the sky: “You have set your glory above the heavens.” (Ps 8:1) We can’t even fully begin to see or appreciate the greatness of God for “God’s greatness is unsearchable.” (Psalm 145:3) We Christians are neither pantheists, those who believe God is contained in creation, nor are we desists, who believe God created the world and no longer interacts with creation. As the Episcopal priest Marcus Borg once said, Christians are panenthiests: we believe God is present in creation but not contained in creation, but rather is greater than all of creation.
Although God is greater than anything we can imagine or conceive of, the Bible is full of stories of God revealing God’s self to us through various signs and wonders. One of the most familiar stories of God’s revelation is the story of Moses and his encounter with the Living God on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 3. Moses encounters a bush aflame with fire but not consumed by the fire and hears God speak to him and call him from the bush. There are countless other occasions in the scriptures where God reveals himself to his people. Ultimately, we Christians believe God fully and completely reveals himself to us in his son Jesus. Jesus is the Word made flesh, as St. John writes in his gospel: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:16-18)
God, in his desire to enter into relationship with us, reveals himself through natural signs and wonders. God knows well that we are tangible beings; we learn and experience through our senses. Thus Christian faith is an incarnational and sacramental faith. Our faith is incarnational for we believe God took on flesh in Jesus. It is also sacramental, for Jesus uses the physical to convey his grace. Some of you might recall the Anglican definition of a sacrament. If not, it might be good for us to recall it here: Sacraments “be not only badges or tokens of Christian profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of God, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he does work invisibly in us and strengthens and confirms our faith in him.” In other words, the sacraments are visible signs of the invisible grace of God working within his Church.
What does this all have to do with church buildings, you might ask? Quite a lot. First, the scriptures make clear God chooses to reveal himself through particular signs and in a particular person, namely Jesus. This is what we call the scandal of particularity. God certainly could’ve used any object or person to convey his grace, yet God chooses to reveal himself in a particular way. Of all the people in creation, he chose Israel to be his people and to reveal his glory.
Secondly, God sets aside certain places to be holy, as particular places of his dwelling. God first reveals himself to Moses on a mountaintop. God then instructs the people to set aside Jerusalem as his habitation among his people. The Temple, built on Mt. Zion, becomes God’s dwelling place with his people and a place for people to encounter God in a very real and tangible way. While Jesus reminded the Samaritan woman that it is not about where we pray but how we pray (John 2:21), he adamantly defends the Temple as place set aside for prayer and worship, as we heard in today’s Gospel lesson. (Mt. 21:13)
Christians have long set aside space for prayer and worship. In fact, our word for holy comes from the Greek, hagios, meaning set-apart. Even in the immediate years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christians set aside space for their worship. While they may have gathered in someone’s home for worship, there is significant archeological evidence indicating the community would move to a dedicated room for their remembrance of the Lord’s Supper. Within a short time, as early as the beginning of the second century, Christians believed that when they stepped into a church, they entered into heaven.
This is a belief we still hold to this day. Our worship is not merely a time for fellowship and to do some simple rituals, but rather liturgy is a foretaste of heaven. God once again reveals himself to us in Word and in Sacrament. In Liturgy, we become not only one with the Living God, but also one with the Church Universal, the Church throughout the world and the Church triumphant, the communion of saints. This is why great care should be given to our holy spaces.
Unfortunately, in our attempt to make things more accessible and our removal of all formalities, I think we have lost a sense of the holy and of the sacred. While I appreciate the desire to make worship more accessible to us so we can pray it more fully, I don’t think that necessarily means we have to let go of the sacred. In fact, in a very strange way I think we lose sight of our human nature when we do. We humans sense that there are realities beyond that which we can see; there is a supernatural world. In fact, I find it rather striking that in recent years there has been a growing interest in society for mystery as exemplified by the increasing, albeit dangerous, meddling in things spiritual in secular culture. While our churches have for the most part given up on mystery, some of the most popular books and movies have been about the mysterious and the magical.
Our church buildings are not only places set aside and consecrated for the holy and sacred, they also serve as a sacramental sign of God’s presence in the world, even for those who may no longer go to church. I’m always amazed and taken aback by my friends’ reactions to churches. While most of my friends are non-practising Christians, they always seem to be in awe and wonder whenever they visit this church or when we travel and visit some of the world’s great cathedrals and churches. I once brought a group of friends into this church and a couple of them immediately stopped and prayed. Despite their long absence from church, they still sensed the presence of God in this place.
While our churches may be holy places of prayer and a foretaste of heaven, the Church is more than the buildings. This church, and the countless number of churches throughout the world, are not the end of our faith. Rather, we come to these places to encounter the Holy One of Israel, Jesus Christ, and to be transformed and sustained by his grace. And as St. Peter says in his letter today, we come to meet the Lord in this space so as to become a royal priesthood, a holy priesthood to serve God’s beloved people and to proclaim the Good News of God among us. Peter writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
It is for these reasons that we celebrate this Sunday the feast of the dedication of this church building. This is a time for us to remember God’s holy presence among us and to give thanks that we can enter his courts and to give thanksgiving to him. (Psalm 105:4) And let us not forget that our encounter with the Living God in Word and Sacrament in this holy space compels us to go forth from here to share the Good News of Jesus Christ through word and action. Amen.