The Temple of Love

Sunday 13th July 2014
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
2 Samuel 8:18-29
Luke 19:41-48; 20:1-8

There is no building on earth in the whole of history, not the Parthenon, the Taj Mahal, not The Sistine Chapel nor the Kremlin which has commanded such intense passion and imaginative commitment as the Temple in Jerusalem. Our first Reading shows its beginning in David's passionate will to build it, refused by God on the spurious ground that David shed blood to establish his kingdom and the even more spurious ground that he was a sinner - who isn't? - so the task was left to the peaceable - but still sinful - Solomon; and from then on, all the intensity of Judaism's embattled monotheism was centred on the building to such an extent that it would be more  than plausible to argue that the history of Scripture after Solomon is the history of the Temple, a history which extends into our New Testament for, in the writings of Luke we have a tenacious focus on this building right up until the end of Acts when Saint Paul is lynched, beginning the messy legal process which took him to Rome which emerged as the new centre of the new religion. And shortly after Paul's departure, the Temple, the focal point of a rebellion against Roman rule, was destroyed, never to be restored. Whether Luke, among the other Evangelists foretold this destruction, or reported on it, is a moot point.

And yet the alternative Old Testament history after Solomon might be characterised as the history of protest against the Temple and its sacrificial ritual; and it is this history which we have inherited through the prophets; for us, I suspect, the Book of Isaiah is worth 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles put together.

And yet, we only have to look around us to see, physically, in this building, how much we depend on, and invest in, our sense of place. Many non-Christians think of the history of our religion in terms of its churches and even some among us are more exercised by Christian architecture than Christian liturgy. Non-Christians will contribute to a building like this and it is much easier to raise money among Christians for a building than for anything else. I know parishes which have spent hundreds of thousands on renovation and can't afford the full cost of a vicar! And the Church of England certainly spends more, without protest from the General Synod, on building work than it does on prosecuting the Mission of Christ for which we exist.

As a society of people on the move more than any previous generation, I can understand the importance of a sense of place and why people want to invest in it and there is no harm as long as we see a place as a functional means to an end; in pure theory I might prefer to spend money on mission rather than on masonry but in truth, as corporate beings in need of the mutual support of a community of practice, only the hardiest Christian, a man such as John Wesley, can advance the mission of Jesus without a physical and spiritual base.

But in spite of all these coherent arguments I still feel the inner insistence of the prophets. The humble meal once taken round a domestic table where bread was  broken, often by the hostess, and Jesus remembered, was transformed by Byzantine imperial largesse into a liturgy which could only, until recently, be presided over by a male priest. As the Eucharist gained immense traction in the early Middle Ages as it came to be seen as the transformation of the elements into the very presence of Jesus Christ on the altar, the priest became the only significant figure in Western Christendom without whom nothing important could happen: the man who performed the Sacramental wonder of the Eucharist was the man who baptised, married and buried and, in between, most vitally of all, forgave or refused to forgive sins. And, ultimately, because priests are human beings, this last power came to overwhelm everything else so that the Christian church is most closely identified with theological nicety and moral crudity. There's precious little harm in theological pursuits which try to shape our language into the most apposite metaphors for God which we can find, but our moral crudity has done  incalculable harm, above all taking our focus away from spreading the word of Jesus who, ironically, absolutely refused to judge individual moral behaviour even on such occasions as that when he was presented with a woman, whom, her accusers said, was apprehended in the very act of adultery, the greatest sin in a society where women were property; and all that Jesus said when her accusers all left in shame, was that he would not condemn her and that she should sin no more. Well, no doubt she did sin again, and no doubt we will too, but what is striking is the democracy of sin; nobody is exempt and therefore nobody is really in a position to chide somebody else.

We are not, however, supposed to be held together either by theological coherence or by a sense of moral superiority but by love. Look around you again, at this beautifully renovated building: it is supposed to be a temple dedicated to love not sentiment, to selflessness, practical as well as pious. Buildings can encourage but they can also intimidate. We hope that many people in our village have been moved away from the latter feeling towards the former, moved into seeing that there is a welcome here and that a church is a place where troubles, triumphs, bread and beauty can all be shared.

But if we are to succeed we need more than the passion for place which King David displays, we need a passion for people which worship in this place can inspire. The Holy Spirit dwells in us in our quiet moments of prayer at home but nowhere is she more obvious than here when we worship together. Ultimately, we were created for two purposes, to worship our Creator and to establish The Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven: like all the greatest dualisms this is not a paradox but a symbiotic, a mutually reinforcing, combination of activity. Without worship we grow proud, which makes us unfit for Kingdom building, and without Kingdom building we grow self-satisfied, which makes us unfit for worship.

Look around this Temple of love and enjoy its beauty; but let us never leave it without a renewed resolve to love, particularly those we do not like.