Thursday, 16 October 2014

What is church?

Psalm 122: "I was glad when they said unto me: 'Let us go to the house of the Lord."

The Psalmist who wrote those words was obviously excited about visiting the Temple. He couldn't wait to get there and when someone says “Let’s go there” it was the highlight of his life.

I was talking to a Muslim friend of mine who told me how he once went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and was able to see the Black Stone which Muslims believe was sent to earth by Allah. For Muslims this therefore is the holiest place on earth and to go to Mecca and better still, to see and touch the black stone, is the greatest privilege possible. There they feel especially close to their god.

Up there with that for the Jew of the psalmist's day, was to make the yearly pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and to offer a sacrifice in "the house of the Lord". There they felt they were as close as could be to God himself. For them the Temple - like the Tabernacle before -  was his dwelling place.

Where is the holiest place for the Christian? Is it Rome where the pope lives or Constantinople - as was - where Hagia Sophia was once the greatest church in Byzantium?

All of us have been to places where the surroundings have awed and inspired us and have had strong associations with God’s presence. But think back to around 3 BC. Where was the holiest place on earth then? It wasn’t Jerusalem where the Temple was. And there were no church buildings or cathedrals in existence. The holiest place was nothing more than a hay-strewn space carved into rock normally inhabited by animals. It was here that Jesus was born and laid in a manger. That was the holiest place on earth. To be there was to be in the presence of God. To be closer to him than anywhere else on earth.

What made that stable so holy was the presence of Jesus. And wherever he is, that is the holiest place for the Christian. So where is Jesus today? In Matthew 18:20 Jesus tells us that wherever 2 or 3 Christians gather “in his name” i.e. with him in mind as the chief focus of our love and worship, there he is in the midst of them. That is what makes any place ‘holy’. Not stained glass windows, church furniture, votive candles or chasubles and albs. (This means that when church buildings close we do not lose the church for the church is where the people are centred around Jesus).

Stephen nearing the end of his life by stoning made this comment to his accusers: “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands”.   (Acts 7:48). Church buildings are means towards an end. To make them an end in and of themselves is what the Bible calls idolatry. It is who we
worship that is important not where. And if 2 or 3 continue to gather in Jesus’ name then the place where they worship is as holy as anywhere else on earth.

At the moment there is uncertainty about our church buildings, some of which seem to be coming to the end of their lives because they are becoming too costly to maintain or too few attend. For those who have invested so much of their lives there this spells disaster. It is the end of their church. But it isn't the end of the church. The church has never been the building. It has never been about bricks and mortar.

In the first three hundred years of Christianity it managed to grow until it covered the Mediterranean and became the official religion of the Roman Empire. All this without any recognisable buildings only people's homes, by the side of rivers or in secret places for fear of persecution. And whenever
Christianity has been persecuted, when it's buildings were closed down or destroyed, still the church met and grew - as we have seen in what was the Soviet Union under Stalin.

So take heart when you hear of churches shutting. The church lives, because Jesus lives. And wherever people still meet with him at the centre of their life, love and worship, God is present and the church continues.

Heavenly Father we thank you that the church is not the building, it is wherever your people meet and worship you. Help us through this time of change and challenge to recover this truth. Forgive us that sometimes our love for our buildings has been greater than our love for you. Help us once again to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. Amen.

Note: Since writing the above talk - in April this year - I have been to a service which marked the last service of a church that had been holding Christian worship for 150 years. Although I stand by what I have written I would not wish in any way to belittle the sense of hurt and sadness that was felt as the above church held its last act of worship before closure. It had to close its doors because it needed to raise in excess of £500,000 just to repair it with a congregation of under 30, the vast majority of whom were retired. Practically too it made no sense to continue as there were other factors against it including lack of disabled access and the absence of parking nearby. But it was still devastating and in terms of being a physical presence in the community the church is a huge loss.

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