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The Revd Canon Dr Nicholas Thistlethwaite

The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts … (Haggai 2:9)

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?  (I Corinthians 3: 16)

Temples and places of worship generally have always provoked controversy.  On first hearing, this evening’s two readings express apparently irreconcilable understandings of the nature and meaning of the temple.  For the prophet Haggai, whose ministry took place in Jerusalem following the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon in the sixth century B.C., the temple was Solomon’s Temple: a building of extraordinary grandeur and ambition, with, at its heart, the Holy of Holies where the glory of God (his very presence) dwelled.  It had been desecrated and burned by the Babylonians in 587, and now Haggai urged his fellow Jews to rebuild it in all its magnificence so that God might once again dwell with his people.

For Paul, by contrast, the temple was not a building but a gathering of people: the ‘place’ where God’s Spirit dwelled, certainly, but not a construction of stone and wood, ivory and bronze.  Paul’s temple was a shifting, itinerant community of believers, privileged by baptism to encounter God in new and different ways; ‘living stones’, as another New Testament writer put it, who constituted a spiritual temple, and were unconfined by geography, space and time.

Paul’s view represents a complete reversal.  The Jerusalem temple, which had loomed large in the Jewish imagination for centuries – the place of the cult, where the sacrifices enjoined in the Law were presented, and where priests and singers offered worship – had become an irrelevance.  Jesus, too, had had an ambivalent attitude to the temple.  A few days before his crucifixion (according to the synoptic Gospels) he entered the temple and began driving out the traders and over-turning the tables of the money-changers in a prophetic action which exposed the failure of the temple to fulfil its primary calling to be ‘a house of prayer’.  And when, at the moment of his death on the cross, the curtain in the temple was, in Matthew’s words, ‘torn in two, from top to bottom’ (27:51), the way was opened for God’s people to approach him in ‘a new and living way’, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it (10:20).  Hardly surprising, therefore, that the Christian community in Jerusalem confidently identified the destruction of the temple by the Romans in A.D. 70 as an act of God.

The rending of the temple curtain remains a powerful symbol.  On the one hand, it exposes the futility of human attempts to confine God; on the other hand, it obliges us to consider a radically new way of thinking about holiness.  Holiness is not something to be feared (as when the unfortunate man who attempted to steady the Ark of the Covenant was instantly struck dead for his temerity), nor is it something that needs to be hidden or concealed.  Rather, it is to be seen in human lives touched by God’s Spirit, and to be a transformative, healing power for good in the community of Christian people, the Church.

Perhaps it was here that the seeds were sown of that ambivalence towards church buildings that characterises Christian history.  For if the temple of God – the place where the Holy Spirit is encountered and experienced – is the baptized community, what need is there for buildings?

Christianity is not alone in having concerns about buildings.  When the peoples of the Ancient Near East wanted to warn against the potentially fatal consequences of overweening human ambition and arrogance they told a story about the building of a great tower.  Hubris is man not knowing his place in the divine order, and the catastrophe of Babel was the result.  Haggai may have urged the Judaeans to rebuild the temple but another strand of Israelite religion remained deeply antipathetic to all that it represented; to that more austere theological outlook, the temple and its ceremonies were all too reminiscent of Canaanite religion.  Centuries later, when Christians could finally worship freely and began to build churches, they carefully took as their model, not the pagan temple, but the Roman basilica, the place of assembly, exchange and justice.  Church buildings provoked intense controversy during the Reformation period.  Here in Cambridge, the notorious William Dowsing, systematically worked his way through the college chapels in 1643, smashing what he believed were superstitious images.  He found the Fellows of Caius ‘great favourers of Popish doctrines and ceremonies’, and on his visit to the chapel, ‘tooke down 68 cherubims, with divers inscriptions in letters of gold’.  (They have since flown back.)

Despite his reputation, Dowsing was not a pantomime fanatic.  He was a godly Puritan and a well-read yeoman-farmer from Suffolk who was genuinely shocked by what he believed to be idolatry.  In his opposition to what others claimed was ‘the beauty of holiness’, captured in sculpture, glass, painting and religious ceremony, he no doubt   honestly thought he was standing with Paul in identifying the body of believers as the temple of God, not a painted tabernacle.

Yet Christian history shows us that it is not so simple.  Human beings value places.  The shrines of the saints; chapels along the roads trodden by pilgrims; the cathedrals that are mother churches of their dioceses; religious houses that offer hospitality; burial grounds where the faithful departed lie.  Then there are the Romanesque fonts in which successive generations of a particular village or hamlet have been baptized for nine hundred years; Saxon churches in which the eucharist has been celebrated for a thousand years; and countless churches throughout the land in which monuments and memorial inscriptions embody the collective memory of a community.  They are not only physical landmarks: they are spiritual landmarks, too. 

For many, these are holy places.  But what does that mean?  And does it not contradict Paul’s contention that God’s spirit dwells, not in a temple, but in a gathered people, the people of God?

In his poem, ‘Little Gidding’, T.S. Eliot wrote,

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report.  You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Eliot was writing about the chapel at Little Gidding, near Huntingdon, where, in the early-1600s, members of the Ferrar family devoted themselves to a life of prayer and useful activity not unlike that of a monastic community.  (Needless to say, William Dowsing and his co-religionists were deeply suspicious of them.)  Today, little remains except the simple brick chapel, but Eliot’s phrase,

You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid …

hints at a solution to our question.  Holy places are authenticated as sacred space, not because some terrifying divinity lurks behind a curtain, but because those in whom the spirit of God dwells (to use Paul’s definition) have made them so through the practice of prayer and sacrament.  As a contemporary theologian puts it:

The Christian tradition substituted the holiness of people for the holiness of sacred places.  Places could be said to be sacred by association with human holiness. [1]

Whether it is the site of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral or the reconciling symbol of the cross of nails rescued from the debris of Coventry after German bombs destroyed the cathedral, we recognise the presence of the holiness of God who has revealed himself in transformed human lives.

The Easter event, when human beings tried to confine God to the temple they had built, and to dictate the pattern and terms of his relationship with the world he had created, teaches us once and for all that (in the words of Stephen, the first martyr), ‘the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands’ (Acts 7:48).  Freed from the grave’s shackles, God in Christ goes about his business in the world, unconstrained by time, space and matter.  In the words of the psalmist:

Whither shall I go then from thy Spirit: or whither shall I go then from thy presence?

If I climb up into heaven, thou art there: if I go down to hell, thou art there also.  (139: 6-7)

Yet we also encounter him in the particular: a particular place, a particular time, a particular life.  And sometimes, in those special places, things become clearer.  The Welsh parson-poet, R.S. Thomas, who wrote frequently and fearlessly about doubt and the elusiveness of faith, concludes one of his poems like this:

… after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

In the presence of God and the awareness of the risen Christ, many of our troubling questions fall away, quietened by the revelation of unconditional, sacrificial love.  The God who dwelled in awesome splendour in the Jerusalem temple now wills to share in the intimacy of human lives, and touches our world – in all its flawed materiality – with holiness.

 


[1] Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the sacred (SCM, 2001), 38.