Thinking about Church Buildings

It seems to be the way with churches and Christian communities in general that they start out not having their own dedicated buildings for worship but acquire them in the end. In the Acts of the Apostles, we often read about the church that meets in somebody’s home or even according to one record the on waterfront.  From what we know of the early Celtic church in these islands, worship was often conducted on sites reclaimed from pagan associations in timber buildings of which only the filmiest archaeological evidence remains.

The dessert fathers in the orthodox tradition set out by worshipping in simple cell like structures, often on their own but ended up with some fantastic monasteries which can still be visited today. Here in Wales, many chapels can trace their origins back to meetings held around farmhouse kitchen tables. Their aspirations quickly grew to build the chapels that remain a feature of the Welsh landscape, their names such as Bethel and Zion reminiscent of Israel itself. Sadly, so many are now abandoned or converted for other uses after their dwindling congregations found them a mill stone around their necks. Here in Wrexham, the first members of St Mark’s Church, Queen’s Park/Caia Park speak of meeting in a community building with items necessary for worship stored in the back of a van before the realisation of the dream of their own church, opened for worship 60 years ago next year. Christchurch, Wrexham has no dedicated building meeting instead in Acton Community Centre. The leadership will freely admit that there are times when they wish they had their own building although see clear advantage in not having one.

It was perhaps a similar dilemma that David and Nathan faced in today’s reading. Last week, we saw how David transported the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, the city that David was making his stronghold. The Ark of the Covenant or the Ark of God was the large golden casket topped by two cherubim facing each other where God met with the people. For Israel at that time, it was the supreme sacrament of their faith. But as we saw last time, the ark was portable, made to be carried on two poles and housed in a tent or tabernacle.

Now that David is settled in Jerusalem with his own palace and been given rest from all his enemies, he consults Nathan, the prophet. He says to him: ‘Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.’ (2 Samuel 7.2) It all seemed perfectly natural and reasonable. Why should the King and no doubt all the important and influential people in the land be living in solid weatherproof houses while the Ark of God, the very place where God communed with his people was left to vagaries of a tent. Nathan’s first response is yes go and do it, for the Lord is with you.

Nathan does not sleep easy that night because God has something to tell him. He reminds Nathan that he has not dwelt in a house since the people came out of Egypt but has been moving from place to place with a tent for his dwelling. Had God ever asked the leaders of Israel to build him a house of cedar?  God goes on to promise the people a good future and to establish the house of David with successors to follow him. David and the Israelites will face punishment if they do not remain faithful. God further declares that he will not remove his love from David as he had done with Saul; that he will establish his kingdom forever. It is thus from this prophetic oracle that the understanding arose in Israel that the Messiah would come from David’s line. This promise so gripped the future generations, especially in troubled times that they were especially careful to record the different branches of David’s family so that when the gospels came to be written hundreds of years later, both Matthew and Luke could trace Jesus’ family tree back through David even if their intentions and the details differed.

So, what about the Ark? Should it have a home in Jerusalem, a permanent resting place? The answer is a somewhat reluctant ‘not yet’ from God.  When David takes his rest with his ancestors, and God raises up his successor, he will be the one to build a house for the Ark, a temple. While God agrees to the temple idea, it does not get a ringing endorsement.

We do well to reflect on our attitude to our church buildings. Some of the most magnificent and awe-inspiring buildings in this country, Europe and the Americas are churches and cathedrals. Who cannot but be affected by such wonders as York Minster, the medieval stained glass at Chartres in northern France or of course St Giles’ parish church the prize grade 1 structure at the heart of our town? These buildings draw people and rightly used, act as a great witness to the Christian faith as well as the springboards for amazing worship. Yet, we know that they are expensive to maintain, and to staff. It is a fine balance between them being a tremendous means to an end and an end in themselves. I guess that God feared this may well be the way the temple might turn out.

In Ezekiel chapter 10, the prophet sees in a vision the glory of the Lord departing the temple. So he foretells the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the exile of so many of Israel’s leading citizens to a strange land where they must find a new way to sing the Lord’s song without the temple.

The message seems to be from God, yes, have buildings dedicated for worship if you must, but be careful to ensure that they do not take my place; that I remain at they very heart of your worship.

What they of David? Well, he ends up agreeing with God in the words of a lovely prayer which form the second half of the chapter. When he goes in before the Lord, he prays: ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? (2 Samuel 7.18) David takes the attitude of a humble servant even though, through prophet Nathan, he has been promised a great dynasty. He defers his plans for the temple which in time would be built by his son and heir, Solomon. It is his willingness to follow God’s leading which is David’s strength, setting the scene of his greater son, the Lord Jesus. As one commentator has put it: ‘Saul, by clinging tenaciously to what he regarded as his kingly prerogative, lost the kingdom; David, more concerned about honouring the Lord than guarding his own reputation, had his kingdom made sure for ever.’ (Balwin, 1988) or as Jesus put it: ‘For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.’ (Luke 9.24)

May God give us the grace through the Spirit to have this counterintuitive attitude to our church, its building as well as so much that we plan and do with our lives that it may ultimately be his way and not ours.

Trinity 7 18.07.2021

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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