Temple builders

Imagine you were given the opportunity to build a church. No need to worry about land to build on or the building budget; that’s all taken care of. Your job is to come up with the basic idea for the whole structure. Where would you start?

Perhaps you would begin on the inside, with a table placed prominently at the center for God’s people to gather, and the entire building would take its shape from there. Perhaps you would want it to be round, with doors opening in every direction, to allow God’s people to gather from the ends of the earth to worship God and be sent again to the ends of the earth to serve God. Or perhaps you would begin on the outside with a tall set of doors, and right in the entrance, you would build a pool with a fountain; it would remind all who enter that the community that gathers here finds its life in its immersion into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Or perhaps you would want the entire structure to be made of glass doors and windows to suggest that the church is very much in the world, though not of the world. Or perhaps you envision a building that is a sanctuary for the weary, where the hungry are fed, refugees are sheltered, and homeless veterans no longer have to face their demons by themselves. And on Sunday morning God’s people gather in the large dining room for worship around the big prep table that’s been brought in from the kitchen. Or perhaps you would want to design a church that looks like a ship – not a cruise ship that always returns people where they started, but an ark making its way through the waves of chaos of our days to the land of God’s promise. Or perhaps you would think about the proposal for a few seconds and say, “Thank you for the offer; I think I’ll pass. There are plenty of church buildings already, more than plenty. I’d rather be part of building the church.”

“You are God’s building,” Paul wrote the church in Corinth. There were divisions in the church, different groups aligning themselves with various leaders, and Paul wrote to remind them that there was only one church; they all belonged to it, but they were behaving like it belonged to them. He had already compared the church to God’s field where all the various leaders are field hands, working together in God’s service, doing their work as each had been assigned by God. Now he introduced another image. You are God’s building, and like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation. Others are building on that foundation, and each builder must choose carefully how to build on it. But the foundation has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. If you make your own wisdom the foundation, or the eloquence of your leaders and their success in drawing the rich and powerful into your assemblies, if you do that, you might erect one impressive edifice after the other in the city, but it won’t be God’s church. The foundation has been laid, and that foundation is Jesus Christ. Some of you may think that the skills needed to continue the work of building the church are the possession of a few – that’s how it is in the world, isn’t it? The real estate developers, the bankers, the successful merchants, the folks with the degrees, the folks with the connections in high places, the folks with the money, they are the few who determine what gets built and where, while the many hope to get a job here and there. But the church isn’t that kind of project. You are God’s building, and in God’s project the skills needed to continue the work have been given to all, for the good of all. The foundation has been laid, and that foundation is Jesus Christ, and on that foundation, we are all building: men and women, young and old, no matter where our people came from or what we do for a living. We all work on that magnificent building, and while some of you may think what others are adding to the structure is pure gold, while your own contributions look more like bricks and buckets of sand, the truth is that all of us give ourselves to the building. What we bring or think we bring is as nothing compared to the reality that we each bring ourselves to the work to which God has called us. Christ is the foundation, and Christ is the pattern for the whole structure: his obedience shaping ours, his compassion stirring ours, his forgiving embrace holding us all. So let no one boast about human leaders. Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.

And now Paul moves on to yet another image. It’s already quite clear that the community of believers whom God has called together and sent is not just any building. Do you not know that all of you together are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? Do you not know that your divisions can only be compared to the destruction of God’s temple? Do you not know that such loveless actions will not pass God’s judgment? For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Some of Paul’s initial readers had been to Jerusalem and had seen the temple from afar, glistening in the sunlight like it was made entirely of gold and precious stones; they were Jews who had entered the breathtaking building with awe in their hearts and psalms on their lips, they had stood among the crowds in the court yard, their gaze resting on God’s hidden dwelling place among mortals, the true center of creation. All of Paul’s Corinthian readers, Jews and Gentiles, had seen the many temples erected to the glory of other gods in their city – there was one on every corner, it seemed – spectacular feats of architecture and devotion. I imagine them sitting in one of the houses where they gathered on the Lord’s Day for prayers and teaching and to share the Lord’s supper, and several of them looked up at that point and said to the one reading Paul’s letter, “Wait, would you repeat that last line?”

“God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

They had heard it right the first time. Paul told them that they together were the temple of the living God, the same people he had called just a few lines before, people of the flesh and infants in Christ; now he told them that they together were God’s dwelling place on earth. It wasn’t because of anything they had done; it was because Christ had made them his own, and because Christ was the foundation, and because Christ’s holiness was theirs. “The temple of God is the holy people in Jesus Christ,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “The Body of Christ is the living temple of God and of the new humanity.”[1] The question Paul is holding up to us, all of us, the saints in Corinth and in Nashville and anywhere on God’s earth where the gospel is lived and proclaimed, the question Paul is holding up to us is, how will you continue to build? There’s a million things to do, but there isn’t a list of them anywhere. The living temple of God and of the new humanity, wrote Bonhoeffer, “is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it,”[2] and, I would add, continue to build it.

There’s a wonderful scene in Exodus 35 where Moses talks to the people and calls on all who are wise in heart among them to come and make all that was needed to build the Lord’s tabernacle.

And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments. So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and … rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, … And everyone who possessed blue or purple or crimson yarn or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or fine leather, brought them. Everyone who could make an offering of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord’s offering; and everyone who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work, brought it. … All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.[3]

It’s a beautiful scene, isn’t it, this procession of temple builders – men and women, young and old; the woman cradling her earrings in the palm of her hand, the old man carrying a piece of acacia wood on his shoulder, the little girl with a skein of blue yarn, and the boy with a rolled up goat skin. As always, some of them thought that what others were contributing to the sacred project was so much more than what they themselves could give, but I hope it didn’t diminish their joy. The important thing was not the tent, the real project was and has always been the building of a community attentive to God’s word and ways. What we bring or think we bring is as nothing compared to the reality that we each bring ourselves to the work which God is doing. We’re not just given the opportunity to build a church. We are being built into the living temple of God and of the new humanity, and we have the privilege to participate in that work with our prayers, with words of encouragement, and with acts of kindness and defiance. Even the smallest gesture stirred by the Spirit of Christ will build the living temple.

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 247.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 30.

[3] Exodus 35:21-29

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