While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Shaking the Foundations
Have you ever heard the expression: “The church is not the building, it’s the people?” It certainly gets mentioned anytime a church building is being closed, or torn down and replaced by a modern structure.
Theologically, this is quite correct. The Greek word for church, ekklasia, the word used in the bible, literally translates as “out of the people” and it was originally used for political meetings in the democratic city-states of Greece. The church is a meeting, a gathering. It is people coming together. It is not a building or a place.
Even in the giving of the Law in our Exodus reading we see something similar. Yes, it is in the context of a people travelling to a promised land, but the law is the foundation of the covenant and it’s all about relationship.
The first four laws set the terms of the relationship between the people and God and the final six are about the relationship amongst the people themselves. The whole business of faith is something to be carried out in community.
But the human need to have special places, holy places, is powerful.
King Solomon built the first temple after the people had worshipped out of doors for centuries. The second temple was tiny, built as a sad reflection of past glory after the people returned from Babylonian exile.
And then king Herod, seeking to restore the glory of Israel, set up a building project to improve the second temple that had been going on for 46 years according to John’s gospel. And all of this would come to naught between 30 and 40 years later when the Romans tore down the walls of the temple in AD 70. All that remains today is the wailing wall two millennia later. The people who first read this gospel would have known about all of this. It would have been recent history for them.
The gospel writer was giving them a new vision: a spiritual interpretation of Jesus’ message to pull people back from the longing for this lost holy place; contrasting the idea of the ruined temple with the resurrection of Jesus; overcoming physical destruction with spiritual new life and truth.
This would have been challenging to all those mourning the loss of the temple. By Jesus’ day it was established as the centre of the worship of God and John is offering Jesus himself as the new centre: replacing a holy place with a holy person.
Over the years, our faith has struggled with this idea. We’ve embraced it in some ways: it allows us to establish congregations anywhere, even in school gymnasiums or people’s living rooms. This same gospel gives us the words to describe this: We seek to worship in spirit and in truth, not in Jerusalem or on Mt. Horeb. (John 4:24)
But we’ve also invested a lot in our holy places: grand cathedrals and places for pilgrimage. Even we who are Protestants, who are not supposed to invest material things with spiritual significance, even we tend to think of a church as a building rather than as the people.
This year of COVID has shaken that tendency in us profoundly. The vast majority of our services at Knox have been podcast with only a handful of actual gatherings taking place. Not only have we been separated from our buildings, but we have been kept from actually gathering in person anywhere.
It has been helpful during this time to remember that idea of gathering in Spirit, to remind us of the connection we have that goes beyond not only walls and physical structures but also beyond face-to-face encounters.
John saw this as a vital, foundational characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. He tells the story of the clearing of the temple right near the beginning of his gospel, when we know from the other three gospels that it actually happened in the week before the crucifixion as a kind of prophetic climax to Jesus’ ministry.
John wanted his readers to think about this right from the start: to consider the way that Jesus was creating in the church something that links us to God is a way so spiritual that physical considerations like walls and foundations or even the death of physical bodies would not stand in the way of our ongoing relationship with God.
I have seen a number of churches closed over the years; buildings that were huge, much larger than the congregation contained within; and every time there has been a real sense of mourning, a sadness that is palpable. Occasionally, there is also the sense that the church itself is lost. The fellowship is somehow lost with the sale or destruction of the building.
But I have also seen what is possible when people remember the spiritual truth we embrace.
Lori’s second charge had two congregations, originally three, but two of them had just amalgamated shortly before she arrived. The Warwick congregation had moved in with the Watford congregation and proceeded to bulldoze their building so they couldn’t even consider returning. When we arrived and looked at the property, there was a sign, and a pile of bricks along with a stern comment from the Presbytery that taking down the sign would be appreciated.
But the resulting congregation with its combined Session of elders from both churches was vital and energetic. They had a big choir where previously they’d had two small ones, a bigger Sunday School, and all sorts of ideas about what they could do next.
This was a stunning contrast to what we see so often where people hang on to old dinosaurs of buildings because of their fond memories, forgetting that those memories are formed with the people and not with the bricks and mortar and stained glass.
We have done well here, at Knox. Many churches are facing the prospect of closing their buildings after this stressful year and we are far from that kind of dreadful choice. But as we hope and pray for a return to what we call normal, we should take a lesson from this challenging year.
That truth that John was trying to tell his readers right from the start of his gospel is still true today:
Our foundation is a spiritual foundation linking us through Jesus Christ to God and to each other. And as happy as we will be to gather again in a familiar space, we should recall that WE are Christ’s church and our spiritual connection has grown stronger, despite our physical separation.
This year of pandemic will stick in our memories; we will not forget it. Instead of dismissing it as an irredeemable time let’s also remember this lesson as one of the good outcomes where God has used a difficult time to remind us of what really matters.