This week I found out a little bit about the history of this church.
As with many places of worship, there was a continual process of renewal, refurbishment and replacement, to create a suitable ‘temple’ in which the Methodist people of this area could worship and encounter God.
It was the same for the people of Israel. Their first centre of worship and encounter with God was the Tabernacle, a large tent which could be moved around with them. That was replaced by the Temple, built by King Solomon, and one of the most magnificent buildings of the ancient world. The second Temple which replaced it after the return from Exile was not so grand, but King Herod the Great was determined to equal the glories of Solomon, and rebuilt and extended it from 19 BC. This was the Temple which Jesus visited, and which he called ‘my Father’s house”. But it too was destroyed in AD 70.
But even before that destruction, for the followers of Christ, the place where they encountered God had already changed. It had become not a place, but a person. The Gospels have Jesus speaking about himself as ‘the Temple’, and the heart of Christian belief is that in Jesus we see and encounter God. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostles Paul and Peter speak about the Christian community as ‘the Temple’ where God is both found and worshipped on earth. In the passage from the letter to the Corinthians we heard today, Paul tells them (and us) that we are God’s Temple, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, filled with God’s Spirit, and holy.
So, if we are collectively and individually God’s Holy Temple, how can we ensure that we remain ‘holy’, truly a place where people may encounter the living God?
The ancient Jews came to believe that if you were to encounter God, you had to be ritually pure. So they forbade anything they considered ‘impure’ from approaching the Holy of Holies. Unfortunately, some Christians have also adopted that approach. Paul’s words about ‘being a temple of the Holy Spirit’ have been interpreted as referring primarily to sexual purity, because in another part of 1 Corinthians he refers to the human body being the temple, which should therefore not be used in immoral ways. As a consequence, Christians, too, have tried to ban those they consider to be sexually impure from the Christian community and Christian leadership. This is one argument that has been used for the exclusion of women from Christian leadership roles, and for excluding gay and lesbian people.
We don’t often read the Book of Leviticus in church, and we tend to think about it as being totally concerned with obscure issues of ritual and sexual purity. Passages about mixing two sorts of crop in a field, or two sorts of fibres in a garment and how you deal with mildew don’t seem to have much to say to 21st century Christians. But, as our reading this morning shows, it does have some passages which, like Deuteronomy, interpret the Covenant with God as being about more than ritual and exclusiveness; and what is more, it has passages which were directly quoted by Jesus.
The passage we heard tells us that if we are to be the place in which God is encountered, then we need to be concerned about relationships: relationships with God and our families first (verses 3 & 4 which we didn’t hear reiterate the commandments about honouring parents, keeping the Sabbath and not worshipping idols); but equally important are relationships with our neighbours, and especially those who are poor or vulnerable. So the well-off farmers are reminded to leave gleanings and windfalls for the poor to gather; the commercial sector is warned not to defraud the vulnerable, or use economic power to leave the workers without daily sustenance; and the judiciary is reminded that they judge in God’s name, so should not favour the rich or take bribes.
And just like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Leviticus extends obedience to the commandments to what is going on inside people’s minds and hearts. You cannot be ‘holy’ simply by doing the right things; you need to have an internal attitude like that of God: you need to be forgiving, and just, and to love your neighbour as yourself.
That phrase was taken by Jesus to be used as part of his Summary of the Law. Loving and worshipping God is important: but it is not enough if your aim is to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. Paul reminds us that, as Christian disciples, we must be ‘in Christ’ as Christ was ‘in God’. That is, we must be as much like God as it is possible for a human to be; and Christ shows us the way.
So, Jesus tells us that if we want to be like God, then when someone injures us, we don’t retaliate, and we even give the person the opportunity to hurt us again. When someone sues us for half of what we have, we voluntarily let them take the other half as well. We are supposed to co-operate when government oppresses us, give to beggars and lend to anyone who asks.
It may seem to us to be madness, a recipe for economic collapse and social anarchy; and we could debate whether Jesus meant us to take these commands literally, or whether he was exaggerating to make his point. But the point Jesus is making is the same point Paul makes to the Corinthians – God’s wisdom seems like foolishness to those who live by worldly standards. So, if we want to be the place where God is encountered, we are going to have to be thought foolish by the world too.
The passages we have been hearing over the past few weeks from the Sermon on the Mount remind us what a high standard that sets before us. The sort of ‘love’ it demands is not romantic love, or the love we have for family and friends; nor even the love it is easy to feel for those who like us and treat us well. It’s love that compels us to put the needs and preferences of others first, even of others who hate, injure and oppress us.
God doesn’t distinguish between friend and foe, righteous and unrighteous, those who acknowledge the divine commands and those who don’t. The good things of the earth, and the chance of salvation are equally open to everyone. That’s what being ‘holy’ means. That’s the difference that becoming the ‘temple of God’ demands of us.
When you read the Sermon on the Mount through in its entirety, from Matthew, Chapter 5 through Chapter 7, it is easy to become discouraged. There are 27 or more different injunctions about how you are to behave and think, each one demanding that you go beyond what is usually considered good behaviour. I don’t imagine Jesus actually ever sat down on a mountain and listed all of them at the same time – he was much too wise a teacher to do so. Matthew however wanted to present Jesus as the new Moses, and so created a new ‘Book of the Law’ to equal the books found in the Old Testament, by gathering the precepts Jesus taught into one place. It’s a daunting list!
But the Sermon on the Mount is only discouraging if you read it apart from the rest of the New Testament, and make the mistake of imagining we are supposed to do all this in our own strength. We’re not!
The Temple we are building with our own minds and bodies is constructed on the foundation stone of Jesus Christ, who has walked the path of human life, and suffered, and died, even for those who hated, persecuted and harmed him. We build it in company with many other believers, through time and across the world, who have tried that way and found it possible, so long as they remain ‘in Christ’. We build it, strengthened by the Spirit of God, who lives in us and loves through us, and empowers us to do what ordinary human beings think foolish and impossible.
The building of a Temple made up of humans who live out the message of Christ signals a new era in God’s relationship with humanity, the breaking in of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the sign that God is truly active on earth, in the living Temple, where any human being may encounter and participate in that divine perfection of love.