‘Built together into a dwelling place for God’
If you ask most people to draw a church, they’ll draw a building – and usually they draw one with a great big spire – even if they regularly worship in a tin tabernacle or school hall and even if they know deep down that the church is the people – and not the building. Lots of writers of the early church were rather keen on understanding the church as a building. In fact in the passage we heard read earlier the writer says to the people, ‘You are being built together…’
But, there is an important difference between the way the New Testament talks about the church as a building and the way that a lot of people do today. People today tend to think very literally about church buildings, but in the New Testament this talk of buildings in connection with the church is entirely metaphorical – and symbolic. There were no church buildings then in the sense that we have them now. For centuries. None at all. The early Church, the church of the apostles, the Church on which we are founded, knew absolutely nothing of Gothic architecture, flying buttresses, listed buildings or property committees. They met in their homes, on street corners and wherever they could find a place to assemble. That’s what the Greek word for church means – an assembly, a gathering, a meeting. It doesn’t mean a building. So whereas we have got used to thinking of church and building being the same – for them to think of the church as a building was a really striking and even shokcing metaphor – just like the other metaphors they used for the people of God; and there are so many in the New Testament alone. We, the church, are described as ‘salt of the earth’, ‘light of the world’, ‘sheep of Christ’, ‘branches of a vine’, ‘God’s field’, ‘Christ’s body’, a living ‘letter from Christ’, a ‘mirror of God’s glory’, ‘ambassadors for Christ, ‘Christ’s bride’, ‘living stones’, ‘soldiers of Christ’ and the ‘household of God’.
I think each of those metaphors and images could inspire a whole sermon by itself, but I wonder what it meant to those early Christians, in those first centuries, when they didn’t have church buildings, to think of the church as something built, as a temple, as a building? And what might it mean today when we have so many church buildings even on one street in Taunton that we hardly know what to do with them?
In those early years of the church it must have been quite shocking to think of the church as a building – because it wasn’t one! They were even mourning the loss of a great building – the huge Temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed in AD 70. Paul and other church leaders were having to say to the people all the time something like – God doesn’t need a building like the Temple in Jerusalem and you can be the church without a building – because you are God’s building, you are the Temple. You are the holy place now, the place where God is worshipped, where praises are offered, where sacrifices of lifestyle and offering are made. You are the Temple, you are God’s building. There is a holy temple and … it’s you. That must have been quite astonishing and life giving, to think that their bodies, their meetings, could be the church being ‘built’ into something…
And perhaps for them the image of the church being built made a great symbol precisely because they had no actual buildings – for them it was obviously a living metaphor – while for us it has become a rather dead one. I can imagine, and it has be imagining, that for them it was a powerful encouragement to know that weak and small though they looked, they were becoming as strong and amazing as a building. And a building that was built on the foundation of the apostles and with Christ as the cornerstone. Built on a crucified prophet and on frightened women, some ex-fishermen, reformed sinners and remnant taxcollectors – that this could be the church… it must have been amazing to compare the church as it was then with something as robust and strong as a building.
But what about us? For us this dead metaphor needs to be woken up. And perhaps we need to think about some of those other symbols more. We are called to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ , a ‘vine with branches’ and so on. But perhaps it also true that in a time like we are living through, when some church buildings are closing or being boarded up, when some are falling into disrepair, or being converted into desirable dwellings, or echoing in silence during the week, perhaps in such a time as this we need to hear this message very closely again – and we need to hear that it is not the buildings that are the church – but it is we who are being built into the church, that our bodies are the real bricks, that Jesus is the real cornerstone and the apostles the vital foundations. We are blessed with this privilege and this identity. And we are called to build on the work of the apostles before us. And if we do not, in our building (in every sense) set free the oppressed, bring healing and wholeness, bring light and laughter and joy – then we must tear down and build again. But where God’s people find new life, where hope is restored, where freedom is claimed at last – then we rejoice and stand firm on our foundations.
So today, let us receive again this wonderful text from the letter to the Ephesians. And whether we have literally a tent, a tabernacle, a temple or a tower to point and paint and polish, let us rejoice that we (our bodies, our lives, our prayers) are being built into the church and that we are actually becoming a dwelling place for God – all of us, all the people. Imagine that. Thanks be to God, Amen.