Sermon - 23rd August 2015
Jesus, present in the simple things
1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; John 6:56-69
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Look at this (picture of the Houses of Parliament).
We all know where it is? Just down the road is Downing Street (picture of map) and it’s clear that the executive of our government in Downing Street and Whitehall are only minutes away from the Legislative centre of our government at Parliament. This makes sense – after all ministers have to be either MPs or Members of the Lords. I’m sure in George’s time in parliament ministers would walk to the Commons or Lords for votes – these days I suspect security concerns mean that they are driven there in armoured cars.
But there are other buildings in very close proximity to Parliament and Whitehall that reflect our national life. (Picture of the Supreme Court). Does anyone know what this is? Middlesex Guildhall used to be a humble Magistrates’ court but is now the building which houses our Supreme Court. So another branch of government is grouped together – the judiciary just opposite the legislature and around the corner from the Executive.
But then there is this (Westminster Abbey). The oldest building here, in fact. Parliament originally met in a church – the choir aisles being the seats for the MPs. So the Church (or at least one part of the Church) is located in the heart of the establishment. Interestingly the Methodists built their premier building here too (Methodist Central Hall).
- Is it good to have the Church so closely identified with the Establishment like this?
- Why/Why not?
The URC and the traditions that make up the URC have always been a bit suspicious of the Establishment. I’d like to say that this has always been because we want the freedom to be critical of government not part of it; but under Oliver Cromwell the URC was in charge – or at least our predecessors were – and we made the Church of England look very much like us.
Of course this didn’t last, and after the monarchy was restored our predecessors left the Church of England to become independent. I don’t know the history but I wonder if Methodist Central Hall was situated where it is in a desire for the Methodists to be a bit more visible at the heart of the establishment. As we shall see it’s been an ever present temptation to the Church – and to religious authorities – to be at the centre of things; it doesn’t always do us any good in the long term. GK Chesterton recognised this in his rather prophetic hymn, O God of Earth and Altar.
Solomon’s rather self-satisfied prayer in our Old Testament reading was delivered at the opening and consecration of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple was, first and foremost, the place where the Ark of the Covenant – the chest holding the tablets of stone with the 10 commandments chiselled upon them – was kept.
Since the entry into Canaan the Jewish people kept the Ark in the Tent of Meeting – the makeshift sacred space they had carried with them through the wilderness. David, Solomon’s father, had built a wooden Temple next to his palace and moved the Ark there, rather neatly consolidating his rather tenuous claim to the throne by ensuring the religious centre was next to the royal palace – in much the same way as our state institutions are next to the most important church in the country.
The wooden Temple, however, wasn’t good enough for Solomon and he wanted something rather more grant that would attract people from other countries. We know that the people groaned under the taxes and forced labour that Solomon imposed, so his feelings about this Temple were not universally shared amongst the people.
However, over time the Jewish people came to see the Temple as incredibly important. It was the centre of Jewish worship; it was the only place sacrifices could be offered to God and it was seen to be God’s residence on earth. When the Babylonians invaded. the Temple was destroyed. It was built, destroyed again, rebuilt and then, finally, destroyed by the Romans in the 60s. After this the Jewish religion became centred on Synagogues as places of worship, teaching and community life and no longer centred on the Temple and sacrifice.
The tendency, however, to create grand buildings to honour God has never really gone from the Christian church. When Constantine made Christianity a legal religion the church become popular, pagan temples became churches and new church buildings were built.
One of the most famous was The Church of Holy Wisdom in what is now Istanbul. The original church on the site was built by Constantine in the 4th Century, Justinian rebuilt it in the 6th. It still stands but after the Turkish conquest in 1453 it became a mosque. It is now a museum.
We have built our grand cathedrals and places of worship to inspire people, to honour God and, sometimes, to show sorrow for sins. Sacre Coeur in Paris was built as a sign of penitence for the sins of the Parisians during various revolutionary periods. The building of St Peter’s in Rome led directly to the Protestant Reformation as the Germans resented the way the Pope raised money for his building – just as the Jews long ago resented the way Solomon paid for his building projects.
The readings set for today are interesting in that they have some deep contrasts within them. The Old Testament reading is about the grandeur of the Temple, the Psalm which we sung as our second hymn, praises God’s dwelling place – originally seen as the Temple but the Gospel reading reminds us that God is not bound in buildings.
In a difficult passage from St John, Jesus talks about feeding people with his body and blood – Christians generally see this as a reference to the Eucharist where the bread and wine we eat when we celebrate Holy Communion is a way in which Jesus is present amongst us. The URC believes that, in Holy Communion, his people show forth his sacrifice on the cross by the bread broken and the wine outpoured for them to eat and drink, the Lord himself, risen and ascended, is present and gives himself to them for their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.
It isn’t in grand buildings but in the simple things of life like bread and wine that Jesus is present.
Last week there was much talk in the press about Songs of Praise coming from the ramshackle church in the Jungle at Calais where people who have fled their own countries are camped whilst waiting for a chance to come here. Now I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of the lives of those poor desperate people – I’m as confused as everyone else about why they haven’t claimed asylum in France or some of the other European countries they’ve travelled through but I was amazed at the reaction in the press to the idea of Songs of Praise filming a service here in this makeshift church.
I then read a blog post by Adrian Hilton. Hilton is a commentator who writes for the Spectator and the Mail and blogs as Archbishop Cranmer. The blog page – which is well worth a read – assures us His Grace is both Christian and Conservative. I was told about this particular post, which I’m going to read to you, and I approached it with some trepidation as I’m not a regular reader of either the Daily Mail nor the Spectator, but his took my breath away:
“The Lord is here,” intones the vicar at thousands of services of Holy Communion week after week. Except He’s not: His Spirit might be brooding in the chocolate-box parishes of England, but the Lord is actually in Calais; walking the streets with the homeless, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, comforting the destitute and dying.
If the Lord were to visit the Vatican, He’d tear down the papal portraits and smash the marble statues, barking something about idols and dens of thieves. If He were to enter Westminster Abbey, He’d refuse point blank to pay a £20.00 admission fee, daring to remonstrate with the Dean about the righteousness of royal peculiars and the hollowness of the dead curating the dead. He’d attend no banquet at Lambeth Palace, nor feast on a state dinner at Windsor Castle. He’d decline invitations from princes to chat about the need for benevolence; and from prime ministers to pore over political policy.
He’d prefer instead to meet some of the Kids Company family – not the boss in all her Widow Twankey finery, but the kids, who have been stripped of care and ousted from their homes of fellowship. He might descend on an inner-city church; not to mount the pulpit and deliver a tea-and-biscuit sermon, but to serve hot soup and help pick up the detritus of drug abuse from the urine-drenched rags in the graveyard. He’d listen to tales of loneliness and misery, and then fall asleep in the porch with the stinking down-and-outs, shivering in a sack as the bitter night freezes upon Him.
This is the Church of Jesus Christ. It is for the poor, the weak, the lonely, dispossessed, hurting, grieving and broken. It is for the desperate and oppressed; the destitute and dying. Hold your nose and avert your eyes: it is the swarm of humanity in the cesspit of life. You might prefer to sing your songs of praise to private entrepreneurship as you bask in the benefits of economic growth. But the Lord sings His songs of praise in the cardboard church of Calais. The Lord is there. His Spirit is with them. Glory to God in the lowest.
Whose presence is known
In the structures we build,
And also in their collapse;
Establish in us a community of hope,
Not to contain your mystery,
But to be led beyond security
Into your sacred space,
Through Christ Our Lord,