Vicar’s sermon 3.3.24 John 2.13-22

After Evensong (this would be 30 years and more ago) in St Mary’s, Thirsk, Elsdon would stand, leaning up against the front of the pews at the back of church and just ‘look’. He would look up at the East window from his position at the rear of the nave but he would say nothing. He was a man of few words, but on the one occasion I managed to get more than a couple of sentences from him he explained that he just liked to look the length of the church, to appreciate its space, to enjoy the light coming through the stained glass windows and to then carry something of the peace he felt in church home with him.
I get it. I know that many a vicar would love you to all sit a little closer to the front of church (and some of you do!) …but I also understand that familiar patterns of worship and our approach to worship help us in our prayers…(I feel discombobulated if I’m not in my usual seat. So I appreciate that it can be unsettling when I ask you to move…or if we do things differently) And if that means that you sit in the same pew as your parents sat all those years ago (because it helps you to remember them) then fair enough. ‘Sacred spaces’ become so because we experience God in them and they carry layer upon layer of people’s experiences that seems to seep into the walls and then reveals itself to us again when we push open the door of the church. Our visitors’ book records peoples’ impressions: peace and beauty are words that I treasure, just as they do.
We may not have a particularly strong doctrine of ‘the communion of saints’ but our predecessors in the faith are always here with us, in this place. They are present in the stones that they put together 8-900 years ago, in the changes they have made to the building down the years, in the memorials in the floor and the porch, the stained glass and the church fittings. Faith has been ‘real’ here for hundreds upon hundreds of people: births, marriages, deaths, civic pride and community disaster, all held in and by this building that we love. And so we are protective of our buildings.
There’s a debate going on in the church press about our Cathedrals. It was sparked by the report that Canterbury Cathedral held a silent disco in the nave of the Cathedral…not far from the tomb of the martyr Thomas Becket. Canterbury is not the first Cathedral to do this: there is actually a touring company that has taken this experience around any number of our great cathedrals…and another company will bring to a Cathedral near you any number of tribute bands (Queen, Elton John, Meatloaf)….these concerts are incredibly popular. We’ve got used to the Earth hanging in the nave of our great churches…and then the Moon….and now Mars (which was on show in Exeter last week when we visited)….eventually we’ll work through the planets. Was it Norwich Cathedral that hosted a helter-skelter? Some here might think these things engage with a younger demographic: better to connect folk to the church in these ways than not at all. Others might feel a little queasy at the thought of pop music in church…but that raises questions as to why Radio 3 is OK and Radio 1 not? A gospel reading about the cleansing of the temple might be thought to suggest that we’ve taken a wrong turn here. ‘Let our buildings speak for themselves we might say’, guarding our purist position…BUT with no state aid and with buildings needing tens of millions of pounds in repairs (that can’t be done on the cheap) do our Deans and Chapters have any other option? The average voluntary gift at Durham Cathedral was, until quite recently, less than 50p per person.
‘Stop making my Father’s house a market-place’ shouted Jesus. Does that mean we should never sell anything here in church, or hold a concert…are postcards OK…or bibles? There was a lot going on when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and there is a lot going on as he creates a whip out of cords and drives the animals out of the temple precincts. For a start, Jesus’ actions didn’t put an end to the traders’ activities. Rest assured, they resumed once he’d gone. What Jesus does here is ‘performative’….I hesitate to use the word, but its something of a ‘stunt’ to make a point. He knows full well that the process of buying and selling animals for sacrifice at the temple will resume. He knows too that people need to pay for the animals that they wish to purchase (so much easier to buy them in Jerusalem than to have to travel with them up from ‘who knows where’). We perhaps want to think that the merchants and the money changers were all crooks but it is Matthew, Mark and Luke’s versions of this story that quote Jeremiah’s ‘…but you have made it (the temple) a den of thieves’….those words don’t appear here in John: that is presumably significant, perhaps John is making a different point? What was taking place in the temple at Passover time was normal. People were coming to worship, to offer sacrifice, to meet with God in their sacred space. The authorities made this easier for them by providing animals for sacrifice and offering the chance to pay in money acceptable in the temple precincts (and by all accounts the mark up on the exchange rate wasn’t criminal).
With this performative action John shows us Jesus interrupting this process. The ‘cleansing of the temple’ tells us that this whole way of offering worship God has been superceded. Why? Because God is now present amongst us in the person of Jesus. We’re in John chapter 2: what has John told us so far? He has said: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us’; ‘Behold the Lamb of God’, ‘Believe me, you will see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’. What have we seen? We have seen a foretaste of the Messianic banquet (heaven and earth coming together) in the wedding at Cana and the miracle of the water being changed into wine.
So what is John showing us here? He is showing us that Jesus’s presence changes everything. Sacrifice in the temple can now cease. Why? Because the temple is no longer the place where heaven and earth come together: heaven and earth come together in Jesus. Note the way that Jesus speaks of His body as a ‘temple’: Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’
So that changes how we might think about ‘sacred space’. There’s a hymn that says ‘We love the place, O God wherein thine honour dwells’: for all that we understand this sentiment worship is now to be offered ‘in Spirit and in truth’. Worship is to be offered in and through Jesus. It’s not tied to a particular collection of stones, glass and wood either in Jerusalem or in our ancient parish churches. The worship of God is not locked in any particular building, no matter how precious that building might be to us. Particular words, particular music, particular traditions may help us but they must all give way to the presence of Jesus, the Lord. Don’t mishear what I am saying: it’s not that we throw these things out, but rather that we recognise they are not the most important thing. They are great gifts. They are not meant to be a burden.
In the end, our gospel is about Jesus, who He is, what He brings to us. It’s not about how our Cathedrals balance their budgets…or whether a shop or a place for refreshments, a concert, a film showing or a disco in church is OK or not. The leaders of our greater churches need discernment and wisdom as they struggle with the pressures upon them in both managing the buildings in their care but also as they seek to honour Jesus through the particular ministry these churches can offer.
The meeting with God takes place ‘in Christ’s body’, the temple Jesus refers to in our reading. How does that happen. It happened in His ministry all those years ago. But it now happens in the body of Christ which we call the church. The church as the people of God, not the building. Here we are, gathered together, united by our baptism into Christ, each one of us gifted with the Spirit of Jesus, bringing into the present (into this place) the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; showing through our relationships, voicing in our prayers our care for one another and for God’s world; trying to live as He did, lives of faithfulness to God and openness to one another; growing in generosity and sacrifice as a community that brings reconciliation, forgiveness and healing to all that is broken within us and within our world. We are the body of Christ: continually broken for others and marvellously raised. God is present here amongst us and it is His presence in the Christian community that makes this place ‘sacred space’: so let us pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life so that Christ might better be known amongst us.

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