The Reverend Billy Graham once told the story of a time early in his ministry when he arrived in a small town to preach a sermon. Wanting to mail a letter, he asked a young boy where the post office was. After the boy gave him directions, Rev. Graham thanked him and earnestly said, ‘If you’ll come to the Baptist Church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone where to find God.’ ‘I don’t think I’ll be there’ said the boy, ‘You don’t even know your way to the post office!’
People throughout the ages have been seeking God; the divine presence. The ancient Hebrew people believed that God spoke to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments to guide and sustain their people. These commandments, inscribed on rock tablets spiritually and physically symbolized God’s new covenant with the Hebrew people. Moses believed that God wanted these tablets to be housed in an elaborate box called the “Ark of the Covenant”. These tablets, housed in the Ark, were believed to be the manifestation of God’s physical presence on earth. This was a nomadic period in the history of the Hebrew people. During their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Ark of the Covenant was carried ahead of the people to lead their way in the desert. Whenever they stopped to camp the Ark was placed in a special tent called the Tabernacle. Later when they settled in Jerusalem, the Ark of the Covenant was housed in Solomon’s Temple in a section known as the Holy of Holies. The Temple, at that time, was not viewed as the house of the people of God but rather was understood literally as the House of God – where God resides. The Ark remained in the Temple until the destruction of the temple by the Babylonian empire, in 586 BCE, at which time the Ark disappeared.The rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple began in 538 BCE and the second temple remained intact until 70 CE when it was completely destroyed except the western wall which is still standing today.
It’s helpful to have this background in order to understand how radical it was for Jesus – a Jewish man – to stand within the walls of the Temple courtyard and refer to his body as God’s temple. As if driving out the moneychangers and criticizing temple practices wasn’t enough to upset the religious authorities, Jesus proclaims that God is not within the stone temple but within his body. The idea that God was housed within a human body was not only radical but was also heretical. It is no wonder that Jesus was disliked by the religious leaders of his day. Jesus was turning longstanding beliefs and practices upside down and offering new ways of understanding the people’s relationship with God.
Later in John’s Gospel, when Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, the woman says to Jesus,
‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but your people say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus answered her, ‘Woman believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. …the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth, for God seeks such as these… God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth.’ (John 4:19-21,23-24)
The growing belief that God is spirit whose presence is everywhere and in everyone is reflected in Paul’s letter to the early Christian Church in Corinth. Using the same analogy of the temple of the body that Jesus used Paul says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? …God’s temple is holy, and you are God’s temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
Paul’s letter was addressed to the whole community not any particular individual. One commentary that I read this week says that,
“To suggest that God dwells among the gathered community was radical in first-century Corinth… Paul extends the understanding of God’s dwelling place in the temple to assert a new idea: Yes, God dwells in the temple, but the temple is not a building, it is a community. Community is what we are called to build, knowing that the Holy Spirit dwells in the people of God.” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1, pg. 378, WJK Press, 2010)
The early Christian communities did not have specific buildings associated with their communities. In fact the word, church, ekklesia in Greek, referred to a gathering of people, not to any kind of structure.(Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1, pg. 375, WJK Press, 2010)
An article entitled, Where Can God be Found, by Matthew Skinner suggests that:
“Many Christian traditions reject the notion of firm distinctions separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ things. A hallowed temple is unnecessary, because God’s presence, God’s promises and our hopes for God’s future aren’t located in a specific site. Jesus, who now dwells among his people (and beyond), makes God accessible and extends God’s presence into all aspects of our lives. Everything therefore has potential to be ‘sacred’, meaning every dimension of daily living may become a place for
I met a young Anglican woman from Victoria once who told me that the most meaningful part of worship for her is at the end of the service when they are commissioned to “Go and be the Church in the world.”
A few years ago The Church of Scotland made a concerted effort to be a more visible presence of church in the world when they began their “Church Without Walls” initiative. The focus, as I recall, was to make church more accessible to others – more welcoming, more inclusive and also for church members to go out into their communities and build relationships with others in creative and engaging ways.
Some of the same ideas, like worshiping in a cafe setting or engaging young people in social justice initiatives, are currently being done within the United Church of Canada and are known as “fresh expressions” in the life of the church.
When reflecting on the evolution of thinking about God’s presence in our lives and in our world I’ve been wondering in what ways we, as contemporary Christians, sometimes put God in a box and make God seem inaccessible to ourselves and others.
In his book, The Future of Faith, author and theologian, Harvey Cox, maintains that in the twenty-first century we are entering the Age of the Spirit. Cox says that,
Faith is resurgent, while dogma is dying. The spiritual, communal, and justice-seeking dimensions of Christianity are now its leading edge as the twenty-first century hurtles forward, and this change is taking place along with similar reformations in the other world religions. …Like that of the earliest Christians, it is a movement of the Spirit that focuses on following Jesus and striving to actualize the Reign of God.” (HarperOne, 2009, pg. 218)
With this in mind,I’ll close with an excerpt from Bishop Wesley Frensdorff which speaks of a vision for the church in the 21st century:
Let us dream of a church:
in which all members know simply and surely God’s great love.
A church in which:
…People break bread, then break down walls challenged by faith.
without all the answers, but asking the right questions.
So deeply rooted in gospel and tradition that, like a living tree,
it can swing in the wind and continually surprise us with new blossoms.
…And… let us dream of a people called:
peacemakers…an open, caring, sharing household of faith
where all find acceptance and affirmation;
where all discover their spiritual gifts
and are serious about the call to ministry.
(Excerpts adapted from, The Dream of Bishop Wesley Frensdorff)
May we be church in the world
seeking always to discern God’s spirit
inspiring our thoughts and guiding our actions
this day and always.