The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
Print This Page

Evensong      30th April 2017

Andrew Penny

What did building a new the temple mean to the both demoralised but now optimistic Jews returning to Jerusalem, and those who had managed not to leave? It was I suppose first an initiative which would motivate a divided people; a symbol national revival and restoration of the old country and the old ways, knit together by the theocratic institutions that had their raison d'etre in the Temple and its worship. No doubt there was a strong spiritual motivation too; the Temple was where the Jewish people met their God; it was his dwelling and nowhere else could the feeling encounter with God be so strong: it was alone they could sacrifice and offer thanks and seek reconciliation.
And yet in a sense this Temple building was a somewhat reactionary movement -, looking back to a golden age of David and Solomon, from which the Jews of the diaspora in their exile in Babylon had developed and progressed (at least as we see it) into a more sophisticated religion. Away from their homeland and among an alien people they had begun to write the Bible, preserving oral traditions in writing, lest they be lost. So, I think, began the feeling that it was the Word of God that had formed them; that it was a contract, a covenant, which made them special; that righteousness was not simply a matter of going through the motion of sacrifice (nor even perhaps conforming to ritual requirements) but of conducting oneself with respect and love for fellow creatures and creation. I imagine too as their identity was threatened in an alien land, this was when distinctive rules like keeping the Sabbath and dietary rules were developed, or reinforced to maintain their special identity. The tendency was to begin to see religion as a matter of how you lived and a matter of sacrifice and ritual in a temple, which in Babylon was not a possibility.
When Paul was writing to the Corinthians the third Temple, built by Herod and the one which Jesus frequented, was still standing, indeed relatively new. Haggai's Temple had been destroyed as some two hundred years earlier as the result of a revolt against the Seleucid rulers, and shortly Paul writesthe third Temple would suffer the same fate when the Jews revolted again against the Romans.
Paul, however, can use the construction of the Temple as metaphor when remonstrating with the Corinthians. The problem with the Corinthians was that they were divided, with different groups owing allegiance to the different missionaries who had converted them. Paul tries to bring together them using the building imagery that we heard. He says he laid the foundation stone while others with God's help construct the one building, which however strange and diverse the building materials unites and concentrates God's people just as the Temple would for Haggai.
But the most interesting thing about the metaphor is the way it twists into something that has become much more significant, and which reflects perhaps the intellectual developments that started in Babylon. This is that the people of God, in our terms the Church, are themselves where God resides. He is not only to be found in a Temple (nor, I, suggest, a church building) and the ritual of sacrifice-or indeed anything else- is not the only way of approaching and relating to him. But Paul has moved way beyond the Babylonian tendency which maintained the special position of the Jewish nation in its observances, such as circumcision, keeping the Sabbath and so on. Paul has swept those away along with the Temple. They are replaced by belief in the redemption of the cross and the new life of the resurrection of Christ, and those are open to anyone who will believe. No rules and ritual and no further sacrifice are needed.
Can any of these strange ideas still speak to us? We are not very like the 1st century Corinthians still less the 4th century Jerusalemites, but there are features of their predicaments that we share. We are certainly a fragmented church; never mind other denominations, there are Anglican congregations that would not recognise each other as Christian. As a reaction to the movement of peoples, we have, as a nation, become obsessed with exclusivity, sovereignty and “British” values, while at the same time relying on “strangers” to do the jobs we don’t want to do ourselves but, not just in metropolitan centres like London, immensely culturally enriched by the diversity of those “strangers” in our midst.
Strange as it is, Paul’s idea of Christ as the foundation stone, and of Christ as living in the Christian body is still, I think, powerful. The structures that have, we over two thousand years built on that foundation are quite as peculiar as the odd mixtures which Paul lists, from precious metals down to hay and straw. As Paul suggests, we shouldn’t be thinking about what the human made superstructure is composed of, but whether or not that structure remains rooted in Christ and thus is one in which God can live and the Holy Spirit can work.
How do we tell if that is so or not?  It is perhaps not the only way, and I don’t mean to belittle the more introspective spiritual life of a church, but the clearest indication is surely the practical fruits which we see. How well have we allowed ourselves to be the home and the base for God’s work? In a word, how well are we loving our neighbours?
There is certainly no room for complacency, and there are many failures, often to be found in the disintegrating Anglican family, but there are good fruits to recognise as well. As chair of its trustees, I can’t resist mentioning C4WS, the Camden Churches Winters Night Shelters. Here is an initiative bringing together churches of widely differing traditions, as different as Silver and Straw, all prepared together to extend a welcoming and healing hand to our homeless neighbours from near and far, and in so doing to contribute in a small way to the healing of our national failure to encourage the integration of “foreigners” and prevent the isolation of minorities. In a small way too these initiatives begin to put Christ back in the centre of society, not propping up the establishment- as the Tory party at prayer-but in infusing and inspiring society and politics with God’s love of his creation. 
Compared to this sort of activity- and C4WS is far from unique-, the individual churches’ obsession with their own ritual and buildings seems as ephemeral, with hindsight, as the ancient Jews’ obsession with their short lived Temples. Tradition, a sense of continuity with the past and community with the present matter, but only I suggest as fostering that feeling of a foundation in Christ, not as nurturing the funny way “we” have of doing things. Our more important identity is to be recognised as places that can be the home for God, and where we can be effective agents for the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Print This Page


Sermons from previous years | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005