Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Holy Place, Holy People, Holy Time
July 4, 2011, 8:37 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 3rd July 2011

Today we are remembering and celebrating the Dedication of this House of God. Two themes run through the Scripture-readings appointed for the day: that of the Holy People, and that of the Holy Place. Of these two, the most important is that of the Holy People. God creates individual human persons as images of himself, and calls them to know him, to love him, and to find their fulfilment in union with him.

We are called to know him with our minds- discerningly, thoughtfully.

We are called to love him with our wills- freely, wholeheartedly and generously.

We find fulfilment when our whole self is in harmony with him.

But if God creates individual persons as images of himself, he intends that they should also be in harmony with one another. The God who is a Unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; of Origin, Image and Gift; of Power, Wisdom and Love- this God of ours intends us and invites us to be a People. Not just a random collection of individuals, but a true Community, an ordered Community, his Church.

In Hebrew, the Holy People is called the “Qahal Yahweh”, literally “that which is called by the Lord”. The word for “called” went into Greek as “Ekklesia”, and so we get the French “Eglise”, the Italian “Chiesa” and so on. The word for “of the Lord” went into Greek as “Kyriakos” (as in Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy), and so to the Scottish “Kirk” and the English “Church”.

Many things making one thing. There are various images in Scripture expressing this idea. Two of the most important are the Body and the Building. Today, we are mainly thinking about the second- the Building, and particularly the Temple. The House of God. The Temple in Jerusalem was the representation in stone of the ancient Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting which marked the presence of God among his People. Inside the Tent was the Ark, the decorated wooden box containing the stone tablets on which the Law was written, the expression of God’s Word to the people, the rules that bound them together as a Community, and bound them to God as a Holy Community. Only the priest ever entered the Tent, the people only gathered around it. When the Temple was built, only the priest entered the “Holy of Holies” that replaced the Tent. The people met in the various courtyards that surrounded it.

The prophet Ezekiel saw, in a vision, a spring of water coming from the doorway of the Temple, flowing abundantly down to the barren waters of the Dead Sea, to bring them back to life. In years gone by, we used to sing about this in Eastertide, when the people were sprinkled with holy water at the beginning of Mass.

“I saw water flowing from the Temple on the right side, alleluia;
and all to whom that water came were saved, and they said: Alleluia!”

Water in the natural order is necessary for life. Water flowed from our Lord’s side on the cross, fore-shadowing the life-giving grace of the Sacraments which flows from Christ.

A Temple- any building- is not just a random collection of stones and wood. It has a plan, a structure. There are foundations, walls, roof; large and small rooms; load-bearing pillars and decorative embellishments. There are doors and windows, bricks and tiles. They all have their proper places, they all contribute to the totality; but they each have their distinct usefulness and beauty.

This present building, forty-four years old, replaced one first erected a hundred and forty-three years ago. The new building is not a copy of the old one, but in its structure it follows the same pattern, because it has the same function.

At its centre there is the Altar, the place at which we offer our gifts to God, in recognition that we have first received them from him. Near the Altar, as in ancient Israel, there is a Tabernacle. It no longer contains stone tablets with God’s Law written on them (sacred though that Law was). It contains an even greater Mystery: the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood. The Union of the created with the Creator, of the human with the Divine, reaches its ultimate expression in the Incarnation, a Person who is both God and man. God becomes man. God takes to himself an individual human nature, so that all human beings may be united to him. Jesus, in the humility and obedience that he showed so completely on the cross, offers himself as man to the Father, and offers the whole human family in union with himself. At Mass, we offer Christ and he offers us, to God.

This Church is named for all the Saints, all God’s holy ones. It is a Holy Place. It is concerned with holiness. Holiness is the characteristic of God as he is in himself- awesome, pure, utterly beyond our grasp. But, in another way, holiness must be our characteristic too, as we strive to become fit for union with God, by becoming day by day more like him. In this, Jesus Christ is our model. He is “God’s human face”, and we become more God-like only by becoming more Christ-like. Each of us, and all of us together, are the Temple of God, the place where God’s Spirit dwells. He is building us up, singly and separately, as well as all together. Unless each of us, individually, is holy, how can we form a holy community? How shall we be numbered among the Saints?

To become holy, we must fix our minds on God, listening attentively to his voice, his Word, and seeking to understand it. And to become holy, we must also fix our hearts on God, wanting only what he wants, willing ourselves to be what he wants us to be. “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like to thy Heart.”

In this morning’s Gospel, we heard how Jesus found in the Temple many things that were not fitting- thoughtlessness, greed and malice. Concern for worldly advantage rather than concern for the poor and vulnerable. Jesus drove it all out. Holiness of worship can never be separated from holiness of living, religion cannot be separated from morality. “Zeal for your house consumes me.” Zeal not just for a material building, but for the building up of the whole Household of God, which is the human race- which is in a way the whole created Universe.

Jesus’s final, mysterious words, “Destroy this sanctuary and in three days I will raise it up,” remind us what a costly business the salvation of the world is. Only through the cross, the destruction of his earthly, physical life, could Jesus enter into the eternal Temple and take us with him. This is the paradox of Christianity: it is in giving that we receive gifts; it is in forgiving others that we ourselves find forgivenness; and it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life. I think of T.S.Eliot’s poem, “Journey of the Magi.” The Wise Man reflects on his journey to Bethlehem, many years before. He muses,

“Were we led all that way
for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
we had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
but had thought they were different; this Birth was
hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.”

You could very well say that Jesus was born only in order that he might die. You might say that we are all born only that we may die. Holiness is a call to Life beyond this finite, measurable life. A Holy Place is as it were an area taken out of this world. It is like a foreign embassy, a space that belongs to the country whose embassy it is. This Place is God’s Embassy, and the gateway to our true native land. I spoke at the beginning of Holy People and Holy Place. There is also Holy Time. Each Sunday is a piece of time claimed by God, and our Festivals are also reminders of God’s Time. Today, this Dedication Festival, we are setting aside some Holy Time to reflect upon the significance of this Holy Place. It is a reminder that though we are in the world, we are not entirely of the world, not meant to be too much at ease here, in the old dispensation.


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