An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Demolishing Sacred Buildings

A sermon on 2 Samuel 7:1-14a & Ephesians 2:11-22 by Nathan Nettleton

A few days ago I was having lunch with a pastor from another church. In the course of telling me about a difference of understanding that had occurred between him and the senior pastor, he said, “I told him that you could do that in a church of a thousand, but it is never going to work in a church of only three hundred.” And while I understood what he was saying, because there are quite different dynamics in church communities of very different sizes, there was of course a part of me thinking, “Only three hundred? He’s got a church about eight times the size of mine, and he’s talking of it as ONLY three hundred!” I don’t think my friend was actually wishing he had a church of a thousand, although his senior pastor may have been, but I did notice the tinge of envy in my own gut. I’m not sure that I’d have any idea how to operate as a pastor in a church of that size, and I do think that having five churches of sixty people is probably a far better thing than having one church of three hundred, but at the same time, I am a man in a leadership role, and there would be very few leaders, especially male ones, who never measure themselves by the size of their perceived accomplishments. Pastors who are always building bigger buildings to accommodate their burgeoning congregations are always going to be perceived as more successful. I may not believe that in my head, but I’m certainly not immune to it in my gut. I’m now closer to retirement than I am to the beginning of my career, and it it is almost inevitable that leaders in my position will, from time to time, wonder about what sort of legacy they will leave, and what sort of monuments will remain to show what they achieved. And more often than not, the people around them take that for granted – encourage it even – and go along for the ride.

We can see this going on in our first reading tonight. We heard of King David dreaming of building a huge and impressive temple alongside of his already impressive palace. Of course it sounds like his motives are good and right when he explains it. “How is it that I can be living in this magnificent house while the Lord, the God of Israel, is still housed in a tent?” The tent was no ordinary tent, mind you. It was the tabernacle that had been the mobile temple as the people journeyed out of slavery in Egypt, and it was a pretty impressive structure in itself, but now that it was standing alongside increasingly grand permanent buildings instead of rows of little tents, it was looking to David a bit tired and makeshift. And when the king is looking to build impressive structures to further solidify the power and prestige of his reign, of course a temple to the God who guarantees his reign is going to be high on the list of priorities. So the king announces his plan to the leading prophet, who happened to be called Nathan, and with barely a thought, Nathan endorses the plan. The man of power wants to build a building, and it looks good for religion, so of course it is a good thing. Or is it? Well, that night, the Lord speaks to the prophet Nathan and suggests that he maybe should have checked in with God before jumping to conclusions, and so the next morning Nathan has to go back to David with a very different message: “No, you are not the one to build me a temple. I’m still backing you as king, but I don’t want you building me a house. I’m quite happy with my tent for the time being, thank you.”

Now let me speculate a little here. I can’t claim to get what I am about to say directly from this passage, but I think you will see that it will make sense as we hold this reading up alongside our second reading, which I want to do shortly. Firstly though, let us speculate about the contrasting meanings of God’s symbolic dwelling place being a tent or a permanent stone temple. The whole point of the tent, the tabernacle, was its portability. The people were on the move, and wherever they went, God was there in their midst. But what happens once you settle down somewhere and want to build a grand and permanent home for God? Well, you begin to think of this place as God’s place, and other places as absent from God. And then you begin to think of God’s attention as focussed on the people of this place, and as alien to the people of other places. And you begin to think of the presence of the temple as guaranteeing God’s presence and protection. And perhaps you even build into the very architecture of the building your beliefs about who really matters to God and who doesn’t, with walls that only the High Priest could pass through, and further walls that only Israelite men could pass through, and walls that ensured that women and children and gentiles were kept at a distance that spoke of their greater distance from God. All of this happened when David’s son, Solomon, eventually built the first temple. Eventually the people were so thoroughly used to thinking that God resided only within these walls that when they were dragged off into exile in Babylon, they cried out “How can sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, a land where the Lord does not live?” Obviously the God who would gladly live in a travelling tent had been long forgotten.

So in light of that history, perhaps we can speculate that when powerful religious men want to build grand temples, not only are they building something to be remembered by themselves, but they are building walls that can contain and monopolise their God. They are building walls that will declare to all who see them that this God is our God, and that we are God’s people and the rest of you are not. We want to claim God and own God and use God to secure our own status and privilege as God’s beloved and righteous and saved people.

Now when we turn to our second reading, which came from the letter to the Ephesians, Paul does not begin with talk of walls and temples, but he is talking about who is in and who is out, and how the gentiles have long been regarded as aliens and strangers to God’s covenant promises. At first in our reading, he ties this to a debate about circumcision. Some traditionalist Jewish Christians are arguing that the new gentile converts must become circumcised Jews in order to become followers of Jesus. Paul makes a very clever derogatory remark about their argument when he describes circumcision as a “physical thing made by human hands” because this is exactly the phrase that Jews regularly used to dismiss the idols that were worshipped by so many gentile nations. They are not real gods, they are mere physical things made by human hands. So you can see that we are on familiar territory here, arguing about the ways that we do things to mark out who belongs to God and perhaps who God belongs to.

But then Paul changes his metaphor and does begin to talk about walls and temples. “For Christ Jesus is our peace; in his flesh …” – you can see how he segues from his “physical things done in the flesh” image to his physical walls image – “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” I wonder if Paul had in mind the memory of Jesus looking at the walls of the temple with his disciples and predicting that despite their impression of solidity and permanence, not one stone would be left upon another, and all would be torn down. Maybe, maybe not. But clearly Paul is seeing how walls functioned in the temple to divide people and keep them at their various distances from God. Indeed he goes on in our reading to speak specifically of these distancing ideas. “Jesus came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.” And of course this issue of access to the Father was exactly what was being symbolically nailed down in the varying distances and their dividing walls. The walls that powerful men build to prove themselves as God’s special favourites, as God’s successful chosen ones, these walls are broken down in Christ Jesus so that those who were being kept out might now have the same access to God as those who were the privileged insiders. “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…”

And then having torn down the walls, the Apostle Paul metaphorically builds a new temple in which everyone has equal access to God. “You built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” He doesn’t specifically mention walls – just foundations and cornerstone – but the implication is that we, both Jews and gentiles together, are the building materials of the new walls. So instead of the walls being something that divides us, some on one side and some on the other, now the walls become the very place where we are bound together, so that surely, if we try to divide ourselves again, the whole new temple will come crashing down.

Which is very interesting if we come back to my opening comments about big churches and ambitious pastors who are keen to grow them bigger and bigger like the ancient kings with their temple building projects. Conventional church growth wisdom says that churches grow faster with a clear sense of who’s in and who’s out, and when the in-group are fairly homogenous, that is they are recognisably similar to one another and so readily feel comfortable and at home with one another. So if you want to quickly grow a large church, you don’t target diversity, but a particular demographic group. And furthermore you strengthen the identity of the in-group by uniting them in a hostile rejection of “others”, of those deemed to be evil, to be lost, to be “aliens and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” And we are then in serious danger of re-erecting exactly the wrong kind of walls, the very walls that Jesus poured out his life to tear down.

If you have always seen yourself as one of the privileged insiders, you may struggle to hear this as good news. You are still welcome on the inside of God’s beloved temple, but that is no longer an exclusive privilege. It is one you now share with all manner of aliens, strangers, and undesirables. But if you are one who has previously been made to feel like an outsider, like one who could never make the grade or be accepted or hold your head up, this is very very good news. If you have found that the imposing walls of religious law and righteousness defined you as unacceptable and unwelcome, this is very very good news. If you have had biblical law or religious tradition or just church practice brandished at you to prove that you were excluded on the grounds of your race or nationality or gender or sexuality or personal history or social background or biblical ignorance or whatever, then this is very very good news indeed. In Christ Jesus, the dividing wall has been broken down and you are now being securely built, with everyone else, into the gracious love of God.

Sure, in practice, sometimes this can be uncomfortable and a bit frustrating. Our little congregation here is as good an illustration of this as any. We are a rather odd assortment of people who probably wouldn’t naturally gravitate to one another if we were just looking for easy comfortable friendships with like-minded people. But comfortable friendships with our own kind is not what being the church is all about. We are here as a sign and a seed of the emerging culture of God, a culture of radical reconciliation where we learn to love and care for one another across every boundary that might previously have divided us. And with the boundaries crossed and the dividing walls pulled down, we and the big church people and the alienated and unclean and the powerful kings and everyone else are gathered into the to the one great temple of God’s love and grace, the kind of house God is delighted to dwell in.


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