Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the feast of the Dedication of Westminster Abbey 2014
19 October 2014 at 10:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.' But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.
King David knew that he would die soon and that God had prevented him, for his sins, building a permanent temple in Jerusalem. But he determined that, before his son Solomon came to the throne, he would assemble the materials that he would need to build a temple that would be a suitable earthly dwelling place for God. And it would be truly magnificent, as this Abbey church, whose consecration 745 years ago we celebrate today, is truly magnificent.
Solomon's temple was destroyed in the 6th century, after the Babylonian conquest, when the people of Israel were taken into exile. A second temple was built after the restoration 50 years later by Ezra and Nehemiah under the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius. But that temple was much smaller and was made only of wood. It would be rebuilt four times. Much later, King Herod, who died around the time of our Lord's birth, began a renewal and expansion of the second temple, which became again a wonder of the ancient world. That temple, which is described in this morning's Gospel reading as having taken forty-six years to build, would itself be destroyed, by the Romans, in AD 70. All that remains of that temple to this day is a part of its western wall, known, for the bitterness and sorrow of loss the memory of the earlier temple evokes, as the Wailing Wall.
For the people of Israel, the Jews, before the final destruction of the temple and their dispersion from their ancestral lands, the temple had a powerful significance. And it was significant for Jesus. When he was 40 days old, as with every first-born son, his parents brought him to Jerusalem to do for him what the law required, to offer in sacrifice for his redemption a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons. When he was twelve and visited the temple, he stayed behind after his parents had left for home, to discuss the things of God with the learned men there. Towards the end of his ministry, he spent time there disputing religious truth with the scribes and Pharisees. The apostles, after the resurrection and ascension of our Lord, would also gather in the temple to pray.
The significance of the temple for observant Jews was however much more than simply that it was a place of sacrifice, a place of teaching and a place of prayer. It was regarded as the place where God was to be encountered. In the first book of the Kings we read of Solomon's prayer to God, at the dedication of the temple he had built, 'that your eyes may be open night and day towards this house, of which you said, "My name shall be there". Hear the plea of your people Israel when they pray towards this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling-place; heed and forgive.'
This beautiful church, this holy place, where daily worship has been offered to almighty God for over a thousand years, we think of too as a place of encounter with God. And it is. Here prayer should be easy, since the building lifts up the soul to God. Here people have experienced the power and the love and the beauty of God. Here people have heard the Word of God. Here people have been fed with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Here people have received the gift of reconciliation and healing. Here people have been converted, transformed and renewed in commitment to the service of God and their fellow human beings. Here people have been transported into the nearer presence of God.
But the significance of a church building like this is very different from the significance of the temple. We see it most clearly in today's Gospel reading, in which Jesus cleanses the temple, driving out the money-changers and the purveyors of animals for sacrifice. It is not simply that they are turning the temple into a market-place, but that the whole system of animal sacrifice as a means of becoming reconciled to God is ineffective, redundant. The Jews challenge Jesus who responds, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.' They cannot understand. But St John tells us that Jesus is speaking of the temple of his body. The temple is not, Jesus says, the place of the presence of God. God is to be encountered in the body of Christ himself, the body that will be scourged and nailed to a tree and crucified, and that will be raised up on the third day. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God. Jesus Christ focuses the presence of God in the world. It is not through a building but through Jesus Christ himself that we experience and encounter the living God. The full revelation of God is through Jesus Christ alone. As Michael Ramsey said, 'God is Christ-like and in him there is no un-Christ-like-ness at all.'
Writing to the Christians in Corinth, St Paul develops this theme. He speaks of the body as having many limbs and organs. 'Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.' Later he says, to the Christian community, 'Now, you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.'
Language fails us when we speak of this building as a church. For the true Church is the body of Christ; the church building is so-called only by extension, as the place where the Church, the body of Christ, meets. So, we are bound to say that, despite the holiness and beauty and significance of this church building with its centuries of prayer and worship and transformation, it is not really at all through the building that God is to be encountered, but through the Church, the body of Christ—of which, dear friends, as we meet here this morning, you and I are individually members, the body of Christ that is brought together and made most powerful and beautiful when we meet in holy assembly to hear and heed God's holy Word and to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord's Supper and thus to be fed with the Body and Blood of our loving Lord Jesus Christ.
St Paul drives the point home when he writes, 'Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.'
After Communion we shall sing a comparatively modern hymn which refreshes this truth, using the language of a building to speak of the Church, ourselves, the human beings who together constitute here on earth the Body of Christ. The hymn challenges us to raise a living temple on the foundation of Jesus Christ the chief corner stone. We are addressed as 'living stones, by God appointed each to his allotted place' as a 'royal generation'. The hymn reflects the words of St Peter, the patron of this church, after whom we are named. 'But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.'
As we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of this holy and beautiful place, may we dedicate ourselves afresh as living stones, to be living sacraments of the presence of God in his world. 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.' But Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body.