Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 1 Kings 8:22–30, 41–43; Ephesians 6:10–20 & John 6:56–69
Where is God?
My answer to this question as a young boy was, “He’s in heaven”. And heaven of course was up above me in the sky, and my image of God being in heaven was one of Him reclining on a large, white cloud.
Several of my school friends answered the ‘where is God’ question by saying that God was in the church building of our parish.
When the ancient Israelites were led out of Egypt by Moses, God went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. After God had revealed himself to Moses on the top of Mt Sinai, and given Moses the two stone tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments, God instructed Moses to make the Ark of the Covenant in which to house the tablets. The Israelites then carried the Ark with them wherever they went, and it signified God’s presence among them.
Once Solomon had finished building the Temple in Jerusalem, he brought the Ark to be housed there, in the place that was referred to as the ‘Holy of Holies’, the place where it was believed God’s presence appeared.
In today’s reading from the First Book of Kings, Solomon is dedicating the Temple now that the building is completed. Having built the Temple, as a house where God can live among His people of Israel, Solomon now acknowledges that God cannot be contained in heaven, let alone in a house built by human hands. He prays to God that God will always keep His eyes on the Temple, so that when the Israelites pray towards the Temple, God will take note of their prayers.
Solomon’s prayer is a reminder to us that the church is not where God is confined, waiting to hear our requests for a nice, easy life. Rather, the church is where we gather to encounter the living God. It is the place where God meets us, where we can know and be known by God and each other. It is where we come into God’s presence as the gathered community to worship, pray, and offer thanksgiving. The church then, much like the Temple, is a symbol that points to a bigger reality.
Many Christian denominations today are wrestling with changes in how people understand church. Some now speak about clusters or gatherings of people and are looking for ways to do away with the need for church buildings. Some also talk about doing away with certain church traditions that may prove to be obstacles to new people coming to the church.
Solomon’s example of acknowledging the historic symbolism of the ark, while dedicating a new temple, was a very wise way of embracing both old and new generations. While many churches may feel pressure to change to get new people in the pews, we should have the wisdom to bring all of the people of God along with us as we go into God’s glorious future. Rather than abandoning traditions and rituals that have been meaningful in the past, we should find ways of building on them, even as we embrace new and diverse ways of being.
One of the more challenging traditions of the Christian Faith is the Eucharist or Holy Communion, and the notion of eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood. In today’s passage from the Gospel of John we see that Jesus’ teaching about eating flesh and drinking blood is so hard to accept that many of his disciples decide to stop following him.
John’s solution to the problem is to understand that the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah is based on the principle of incarnation, that is the divine being permanently present in the human. John wants us to consider how we might confuse the body as flesh without spirit, with the body as incarnate, flesh with spirit. By inviting us to eat and drink of his whole person, Jesus challenges us to become whole in both flesh and spirit, which is the way to our salvation.
With just a few words about his body and blood, Jesus manages to offend other Jews and alienate everyone else. He gathers great crowds around him but little by little, as they listen to his message, the people turn away until only a few of his closest disciples remain.
This is the first time in the Gospel of John that Jesus’ closest disciples are named “the twelve”. Their decision not to turn away like the others, but to continue on the journey with Jesus, ultimately draws them together as a community of faith. It is not any particular creed, mission statement, style of worship, or service program that unites them as the body of Christ. It is their willingness to follow Jesus that makes them a community of faith. It is our commitment to follow Jesus alongside others in our church that makes us the people of God.