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THE MEANING OF THE FUNCTIONING CHURCH

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock

2024.0303.Lent 3.B.Temple

[Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22]


What does it mean to be a functioning church?  I want to focus on this question in three parts, finally circling back to St. Philip’s.  Stay with me.  


Part one of this sermon’s answer to this question comes from one of the most enduring theological lessons I ever learned.  My teacher was my mother.  Little could I have realized then how the little rhythmic, hand game she taught me would lead to a lifetime’s work.  (Thanks, Mom!)  So, here is the first point I want to make – a visual demonstration -- into what it means to be a functioning church.  Try and stay with me!  This heavy stuff!


Here is the church; here is the steeple.  

Open the doors and see all the people.


This hand-game rhyme is more formally expressed on a poster that hangs on the parish hall wall, to the immediate right as you enter the room.  The poster poses four simple questions, which challenge us to have clear insight into what it means and takes to follow Jesus.


At coffee hour, I hope that you will take a look at the poster for yourselves and at least wonder about how you would respond.  As a preview, here are the questions: 


1) What is the nature of your God? 

2) What is the content of your faith? 

3) What is the purpose of your prayer? 

4) What is the function of your church?1


These questions represent an important sequence, with each response building upon the others.  For instance, we can’t answer the question I am raising with you about the function of the church without first dealing with the previous three.  So, how we think of God, what details of faith speak to that knowing, what place prayer plays all of this, and – finally – what does the church do as a result of what we have learned from the previous inquiries?  


In terms of the three parts of this sermon and what it means to be the church, I’ve just touched on the basics of the first part: The four questions.  The second part stems from the issues raised in this morning’s gospel, a story about Jesus “Cleansing of the Temple”.  I think this gospel story is the lynchpin to answering the question of the church’s function.  So, let’s move into this second part and see what the “Cleansing of the Temple” has to say about us as a church.


There are two important details in this gospel’s story that provide crucial insight into our question about the church’s function.  The first comes as St. John tells us that the story is set at the time of the Passover and that Jesus went to Jerusalem, where as a good and faithful Jew, we can safely assume that he would participate in the Passover feast in the City of David.  So, we need to know what Passover is.  Of course, Passover is all about liberation from enslavement, specifically God’s deliverance of God’s people from oppression.  From this, perhaps we can also refresh our awareness of the reason in our Eucharistic celebration, at the Fraction specifically, when you and I proclaim: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”2  To what extent are we celebrating deliverance?  From what?  But the main point of noting the Passover setting is that it provides the proper background for understanding Jesus’ unusual -- even disturbing -- actions in the Temple.  


In addition to the Passover, the other fundamental detail in this Temple story is the Temple itself.  We need to know what place in Hebrew life and Jewish faith the Temple played?  What was the Temple’s meaning and what was its function?  Only with clear answers to these questions can we begin to understand what Jesus did in the Temple and the reason he did it.


For the Jews, the Temple was the beating heart of Judaism.  It was the center of worship, Hebrew culture, politics, and economics.  The Temple was the place that represented national identity, a place where God’s covenanted people came both to celebrate and to mourn their lives.  But above all these distinctive qualities, the Temple was essentially viewed as the place where Israel’s God had promised to live in the midst of the people.  The impact of this view is alive even in our own day, as what is left of Solomon’s Temple – the Wailing Wall – elicits profoundly deep and emotional responses from the people as they offer their prayers to the Holy One.


OK: with a recognition of “Passover” and the “Temple” in hand, we can now move to Jesus and his actions – actions that we commonly refer to as his “Cleansing of the Temple”.  Why did Jesus do what he did?  What was wrong with the Temple?


Suffice it to say for now, on the one hand, Jesus’ actions acted as an indictment of the Temple and of those who were in charge of its life and purpose.  Yet, on the other hand, his “cleansing” actions also comprised a new and daring proclamation about Emmanuel: God with us.


The indictment of the Temple speaks to the fact that its function and sense of purpose as the place where God’s life overlaps with the life of the people had been lost.  Consequently, it is important to recognize that Jesus’ turning over the money changers’ tables is not simply a matter of him being some enraged, puritan reformer, although reform was surely necessary.  No, there is something much more significant – and more dangerous – at hand in Jesus’ “cleansing” actions.  And what that is emerges in his seemingly oblique (if not practically ridiculous) statement about tearing the Temple down and rebuilding it in three days.3


Even John (the gospel’s author) can’t stand the tension of such a baldly untended statement.  So, as this Temple episode closes, John offers a “spoiler alert” so that no one can miss the point.  John omnisciently narrates and says: “But [Jesus] was talking about his body as the Temple.  Later, after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this.  They then put two and two together and believed…”4


What Jesus was saying – what in fact he was proclaiming -- is that his life, his very body was the new Temple, that he was the “Lamb of God” whose sacrifice was God’s own, once-and-for-all sacrifice, an incarnate sign and demonstration of the Holy One’s love being stronger than fear and death.  In short, Jesus’ actions signified that his life fulfilled and expressed the mission and purpose of the Temple itself.  As John’s Prologue puts it: “…the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; and we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”


It was Jesus’ own life that literally embodied the place of overlapping the God-life and the peoples’ lives.  It was his life, given as God’s sacrifice to and for the people that revealed the irrevocable truth of Emmanuel: God with us.  And that this message was received (at least intuitively) by the religious establishment with more clarity than Jesus’ own disciples had at the time is evidenced by the fact that from this Passover intervention, this Temple cleansing, the clock was running on Jesus.  The authorities knew that Jesus had to be eliminated.  It was just a matter of time.


Now to the third and last part of this sermon.  It’s short and to the point!  Its focus is: What about us?  What about St. Philip’s?  Given Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, what is the function of our church?


Lots of church buildings are being shuttered and for obvious and painful reasons.  These closings mark not only the shrinkage of supported churches; but more to the point such decline might indicate a loss of functioning purpose and mission.  Here’s an example of what I am getting at.  


About a year or so ago, The Gazette covered a local example of a church closing.  The story spoke about the closing of the big, Roman Catholic church that stands across the street from Smith College in Northampton.  Aside from a feeling of compassion and sadness, what struck me most was the published response to this hard news.  When the Springfield Diocese announced that the congregation would be reconfigured with another worshipping community and the building put up for sale, the Letters to the Editor were full of understandable and deeply emotional protests against this action.  Clearly, for a very long time the building had housed so many important experiences and memories; and to lose that outward and visible sign of history and identity was nothing short of a death for many former parishioners.  Yet – and sadly so – in all the heart-felt expressions about this church’s closing, not one word was ever mentioned about losing the mission and ministry that that building housed and represented.  Nor was there any expressed awareness as to what extent that church’s functioning would be missed by the surrounding neighborhood, including Smith College.  As someone who entered the Episcopal Church and ultimately its ordained ministry through a church on the edge of my University, I am not neutral about the impact of the church on its environs.  And so it is a painful, frustrating thing that in today’s gospel lesson the Temple’s problem reverberates in our own time.  


The church is the people, to be sure; but in what way does the structure that houses the Godly mission and purpose stand as a beacon of hope and light to those who can see it steeple and note its open doors?  How does the physical building itself stand as a reminder to everyone about God’s call and God’s presence?  And if that building – and others like it in our own Diocese – are turned into needed living quarters, that could be a good thing, but in turn what would be lost?


In the last two parish Canvasses at St. Philip’s, we not only asked each member to support St. Philip’s mission and ministry specifically in terms of financial support, but we also raised this larger question: What would it be like – for you and for the City of Easthampton – if St. Philip’s weren’t here?  That is a question that certainly involves finances that support our life together, including our physical plant; but there is a larger and too often an unrecognized issue at hand.  Yes, there may come a time when supporting the buildings that visually comprise St. Philip’s is not faithful stewardship; but what would be lost to the neighborhood, to the city, if our buildings were turned into apartments or a daycare center?  What would be lost?  Let me report to you  a glimpse of a possible answer to what would be lost. 


The City of Easthampton is entering its third of three, sequential urban redevelopment projects.  The first focused on the redevelopment of Cottage Street.  The second is underway presently and involves Union Street’s remake.  The third and last project concerns the Main Street corridor, from the Green to the old Library.  The plans for this third project are in process, and the fact that there are two major and visible institutions that anchor this Main Street corridor – both of which are churches, ourself and our neighbor’s – speaks to the significance of our presence and what both church’s outward expression of function (especially through our buildings) means to the larger city.  


This conversation with the city and our next-door neighbor is emerging as a new aspect of our outreach mission and ministry that (to the best of my knowledge) St. Philip’s has never considered, much less wrestled with.  At the Mayor’s invitation, representatives of St. Philip’s are very much considering and wrestling with this possibility of an expanded and faithful function as a church for the sake of the world around us: namely, the City of Easthampton.  Stay tuned.


Let me close by saying that I believe that this is a matter of having our church -- our steeple, our doors, and all our people -- function “sacramentally”.  By this I mean that what is seen outwardly and visibly by the public is a congruent reflection of what we are – by the grace and mercy of God -- inwardly and spiritually.  How does our knowledge of God, the content of our faith, and the purpose of our prayer show up publicly?  


In whatever form it might take, how does the “Temple” that is St. Philip’s function as one place where God is at home?  Amen.

 

1. From the writings of John Dominic Crossan

2. Book Of Common Prayer. page 364

3. John 2:19

4. The Message. John 2:21-22

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