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23rd August 2015 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
20 August 2015

Readings

1st Kings 8: 22-30, 41-43

We skip forward a few chapters to the opening of the temple and discover that Solomon has achieved the building of the temple his father David was unable to build.  In doing so Solomon has made his capital not only the political heart of the nation, but also the spiritual capital as well.  This means the monarchy is aligned with the temple thereby claiming extra authority as a nation and for Solomon, a virtual theocracy where Solomon rules on God’s behalf. 

In Solomon’s speech he reviews the past and gives prospects for the future, beginning with the duel focus of the Davidic Dynasty and the temple which he says renews the covenant with Yahweh.  Solomon says that God chose David but, as David’s son, he built the temple. [1]  Solomon acknowledges that God cannot be contained anywhere but the Temple is God’s House because it is a place where people can meet with God through prayer.  We also get a hint in this speech of a widening understanding of God as the only God therefore the God of all people.

Solomon therefore prays that God will also listen to the prayers of foreigners in this temple.  However this is not a full admission of a universal God by Solomon but more opening Solomon’s temple to pilgrimage tourism.  This has echoes in our postmodern search for spirituality where people visit everything from Indian gurus to Celtic shrines to either ‘find’ themselves or ‘let themselves go’. 

Solomon’s prayer also has a hint of Solomon directing and controlling God which is a feature of theocracies throughout history and is very much part of present day totalitarian leaders in both nations and isolationist sects.

John 6:56-69

Once again we begin the reading with a short ‘story so far.’  A repeat from last week’s episode reminding us of the difficult ‘eat my flesh, drink my blood’ passage.  We then hear that even the disciples found this hard to understand and now Jesus hints at the metaphoric nature of what he is saying by moving to the resurrection and the spiritual presence of the Risen Christ. 

‘It is the spirit that gives life’ Jesus says so what he has been saying about consuming his body and blood, ‘taking him into us’ is about taking his Spirit into us—making his Spirit our spirit.

Sermon

When we eat a pottle of chips we can talk of making those chips part of us and that is biologically quite sound.  However it doesn’t turn us into potatoes, although if we do it excessively without a suitable amount of exercise we could well end up being compared to a sack of spuds. 

Therefore we should be able to understand that we can metaphorically talk about taking the Spirit of Christ into ourselves and in so doing be ‘Christ like’ even though we retain our own identity. 

According to Wikipedia, the English word ‘spirit’ comes from the Latin word spiritus which is translated ‘breath.’  The word has many different meanings and connotations, most of them relating to a non-corporeal substance contrasted with the material body.  The word spirit is often used metaphysically.  That means it is a word concerned with abstract thought or subjects such as existence, causality, or truth.  Words that are concerned with first principles and ultimate grounds such as being, time, or substance, meaning that is highly abstract, subtle, or abstruse.  Spirit is also used to refer to the consciousness or personality.  

The idea of a person's spirit and soul often overlap, because both contrast with body.  In religion and the occult both soul and spirit are understood as surviving the bodily death.  Therefore we sometimes refer to spirit as a ghost or the manifestation of the spirit of a deceased person.  Spirit also refers to any incorporeal or immaterial being, such as demons or deities both in the Bible and on late night television.[2]

Spirit may well be a relatively short word but its meanings are many and varied.  To bring some of that meaning into Jesus’ sermon in today’s Gospel reading we need to acknowledge that we can understand ‘spirit’ in an ethereal way as a life force, the energy, the reality, the mystery that connects all life.  We can also understand spirit in the contemporary secular understanding as the essence of an individual personality.  Someone’s spirit is the ‘what they stand for’, the essential something that makes someone unique. 

We might say that Richie McCaw epitomises the spirit of the All Blacks.  Likewise we might refer to a promising young rugby player as having the ‘spirit’ of Richie McCaw. 

In many of these meanings we can understand that to consume, to take into ourselves the Spirit of Christ, can mean to make ourselves ‘Christ like’. 

When we eat the pottle of chips all that carbohydrate goes into our system and we use it as fuel.  If we don’t do enough exercise then the chips certainly become part of us, but as our own body fat, not as potatoes.

What John his having Jesus tell us is that in understanding a meal shared, bread as flesh and drink as blood, we are firstly remembering Jesus and all that he stood for, remembering his spirit.  We are also reminding ourselves of our baptism promise to live as if that spirit is our spirit. 

We metaphorically take that spirit of Jesus into ourselves, and use it as the spiritual fuel that drives us to be more Christ like.  In taking that spirit into ourselves we don’t become Jesus, we use it as the fuel that drives us to become as Christ to others.  Driven by all we understand that Jesus was we give others a glimpse of who Jesus may have been and who people can aspire to become.

That is not unlike what Solomon prayed in our Old Testament reading.  When David aspired to build a temple he referred to a house for God.  He spoke of his belief that on the wilderness journey God had lived in a tent.  This was referring to the Ark, the symbol that reminded them of God’s presence.  However Solomon in verse 27 says ‘But will God indeed dwell on the Earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built.’(1 Kings 8:27)

That was a rhetorical question; Solomon knows the answer and assumed everyone else did too.  Solomon then goes on to pray that God will listen to the prayers of the people when they pray facing the temple.  He even puts in a plug for religious tourism by praying that God will listen to the prayers of foreigners when they hear about God and the power of those prayers that are prayed in the temple.

But apart from some cunning tourist promotion, and elevating the spiritual significance of his capital city, Solomon is recognising the very human need for a symbolic representation of the divine presence. 

As New Zealanders, we recognise that even without a perfect flag we, the citizens of ‘God’s own,’ can find God on a mountain top or as the sun sets on a deserted beach.  However we are not always on a mountain top or bathed in the splendour of the setting sun and all too often the Silver Ferns don’t win the World Cup.

Therefore we like to build our cathedrals and churches in a way that supports the worship they are designed for. 

The basic requirement for a place of worship, particularly in our part of the world, is that the worshipers are shelter from the elements.  However architecture is as much an art form as painting, music, writing and preaching.  The reformation rebelled against elaborate places of worship in the mistaken idea that they distracted from ‘the word’ and was simply idolatry.  The reformers were also alert to the practice of totalitarian rulers to claim divine sanction for oppression by aligning themselves with the deity by sponsoring a temple or cathedral so the rebellion against gregarious structures was not unfounded.  Fortunately most churches have abandoned that aspect of Puritanism that builds boring buildings although we have the new auditorium trend that sees worship as a rock concert. 

Nevertheless even in the humble building with its focus on mission to the community that we are building Charles Thomas and associates have incorporated enough of the symbolic to inform the neighbours that our building is a church. Such symbolism will also add to the feeling of divine presence for the worshipers.

When we pray and worship, when we listen to a sermon, reflect on scripture that whole worship process will be deeper and richer if the divine presence is made real to us in whatever way possible.

Nobel Prize physicist Werner Karl Heisenberg said that ‘The reality we can put into words is never reality itself.’  Therefore if worship and prayer involve a meeting with ‘reality itself’ then we need all the help we can get and great buildings, lavish artworks, outstanding music and theatrical worship are all part of the search for the reassurance of divine presence, a reaching for reality itself.  

But what the reading from first Kings also reminds us is that creating a spectacular place of worship invites political sponsorship and sponsorship is not altruism.

When the man from Heineken makes his incredible journey to the sports stadium with his special Heineken coin for the match opening coin toss the message is clear—you can’t have a world cup without beer.  Furthermore you aren’t a real supporter and you won’t have a great time unless you drink Heineken beer.  We just haven’t got the time or money to roll out a screening process for bowel cancer but we can change the liquor laws under urgency so people can drink beer while they watch the Rugby World Cup.

Building the Jerusalem Temple gave the Jewish people a focus for their faith but it also enhanced Solomon’s power as an absolute monarch.

By contrast the Gospels make the point that the power of the temple was broken by Jesus’ death.  ‘And the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom’.  (Mark 15: 38) Matthew has a similar verse (Matthew 27:51) and they both make the point that, at Jesus death, the curtain that separated people from God was opened.  It no longer needed a priest, or a temple to intercede on behalf of humanity. Jesus’ life had opened the way for humanity to understand that we are all close to God.  The reality we can never put into words is nevertheless a reality that is with us and around us.

The way to come close to that reality is not to travel to some special place but by bringing the Spirit of Jesus—all we know about Jesus, into ourselves. 

We are challenged to make Jesus’ Spirit our Spirit.  We are also challenged to live that Spirit into our world, to hold our own banquet of open hospitality and make our religion, our faith, something present and meaningful in our world.

Of course that is as hard to understand as reality itself but as Christians the ultimate reality is imaged for us in Jesus Christ.  Rather than a great building in a special place the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel gives us some special theatre to act out whenever we share food together. 

The Jesus of John’s Gospel gives us a symbolic play based on nothing more complicated that a shared meal, a picnic where everyone is welcome and not only fed but twelve baskets of leftovers are collected for the food bank. 

In a symbolic shared meal we remember Jesus.  We remember who Jesus was and we are reminded that Christ’s Spirit is within us and lives through us. 



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand  (Wellington: DEFT 1999),  pp.241.

 

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