Sunday, 28 October 2012

St Simon and St Jude: the dwelling place of God

Eph 2.19-22, John 15.17-27

Today’s first reading was all about building. That’s very appropriate as it happens, because we’ve just had our Quinquennial Inspection here at church, the five-yearly survey of our building to see what needs repairing. Last time round the architect spotted Death Watch Beetle – we’re hoping there won’t be another nasty surprise like that this time. Quinquennial Inspections and the work they lead to might not seem like riveting stuff - personally, I am always grateful to the churchwardens and treasurer who do the lion’s share of the work on this! But we all know that these things are important, if we don’t want the building to fall down around our ears. After 800 years, it would be a shame if that happened on our watch.  It is a building that many local people value, even if they don’t come to services. If you pop in on a weekday you’ll often find someone here who has wandered in for a moment of peace and quiet, or to say a prayer in some time of crisis.

Buildings matter to us. Places matter to us. We are flesh and blood people, not disembodied spirits, and that means that we have to be somewhere. Understandably, then, we care about the places where we are. Our homes matter, our workplaces matter, and of course our places of worship matter. We want them to be beautiful – warm and comfortable too, if that can be managed. Most of all we want them to be places where we feel we can encounter God, places we can pray, places we can hear his word and think about it, places where we can meet one another and learn together, places where people can feel welcome. We can worship God in our own back gardens, but human beings tend to want to create special places, set aside for reflection and peace, for worship and celebration and the marking of significant moments in our lives. Over the years places like this church seem to pick up a spiritual life of their own, as if the prayers offered here have soaked into the walls.

So, buildings matter to us. Places matter to us. But the Bible tells us that, understandable though this is, we need to keep our attachment to the bricks and mortar around us in perspective.
The people of Jesus’ time and culture had one building above all which they treasured; their temple in Jerusalem. It was the third Temple on that site, and it was pretty much brand new. King Herod – the one who features in the Christmas story – had begun remodelling the old Temple many decades before, but you know what building work is like… it always takes longer than you think, and by the time Jesus was grown up it was only just finished. It was one of the biggest and most splendid buildings of the ancient world, but the Jewish people didn’t just delight in it because of that. It was, to them, quite simply the dwelling place of God on earth. The Bible actually taught that the whole earth belonged to God, and it told stories of people coming across him in the most unlikely places; burning bushes and caves in the wilderness. But, as we’ve established, people like their sacred buildings, and if you had asked Jo Public on the streets of Jerusalem where you had to go if you wanted to meet with God, I am sure he would have pointed to the Temple, shining on the hilltop.

You can imagine the shock, then, when in AD 70, just a generation after Jesus, the Romans invaded that beautiful Temple and destroyed it completely.  It was a trauma which went deep; where could you meet God now, if he had no Temple to dwell in?  Many Jewish people longed for its rebuilding, and some still do. But other Jewish groups, even before the Temple was destroyed, had already begun to wonder whether it was really as important as they’d been taught. They’d started to question the way the elite groups that ran it used and abused their power, and the emphasis the Temple placed on ritual and sacrifice above everything else. Some of those dissenting groups withdrew into the desert, like the community at Qumran which wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Others shifted their focus to looking for God in the words of the Bible, devoting themselves to the study of Scripture.  One group, though, took a different line completely. They were a little band of people who followed the teachings of a carpenter’s son from Nazareth called Jesus. They believed that in him they’d seen God in a new way. God, for them, didn’t dwell in the Temple anymore, nor in the words of a book, but in flesh and blood, that of Jesus himself, and the lives of those who followed him. Because of this they’d come to believe that he could be found as much among the outcast as among the respectable religious folk, as much in the needy as in those who seemed to have life all sorted out. This belief threw them into conflict with the Temple authorities and many other Jewish leaders, and when the Temple finally fell, they were finally excluded from the Jewish faith. After all, hadn’t their leader said “Destroy the Temple and in three days I will build it up again?” Wasn’t this one of the principal charges against him at his trial? Many of these Christians weren’t Jewish by birth and didn’t follow the Jewish law, so they’d never have been allowed past the outer courtyard of the Temple anyway.

For some of the Jewish Christians, being rejected by their faith of origin must have been painful and disorientating. We can feel some of their tensions in the rather sharp words attributed to Jesus by John in the Gospel reading. But it wasn’t a fatal blow to their faith, because they had already started to accept the idea embodied by the image Paul uses in his letter to the church in Ephesus. You are the Temple, he says, one that is being built together as you learn to love each other and welcome each other, with all your differences. You are God’s dwelling place, says Paul. God doesn’t need a house of wood and stone to live in; he has you.

So, that’s fine then! But I wonder, do you feel like a Temple this morning? It’s one thing to imagine the Christians of Ephesus hearing these words, quite another to realise they apply to us too.

If someone stopped you in Seal High street and asked you to point them to somewhere they could meet with God what would you say? Would you direct them to the church building, reassuring them that it was a lovely place, tranquil, beautiful and always open during the day? It wouldn’t do any harm to do that, but according to this passage it wouldn’t be the whole answer, because they should be able to meet with God in you, and in me, and in anyone who claims to follow him. They should be able to see glimpses of him in the love and care we give them, in the welcome they receive from us, in the integrity with which we treat them, in our readiness to listen. Not that we have God exclusively to ourselves. He isn’t our property, under our control. Those of us who have been involved with Christian faith for a long time sometimes need reminding of that. We need to find him afresh all the time in the lives of others, those who come questioning and seeking, those who come to us for help, because the lovely truth is that they often help us to see God in new ways too.  But if we believe we can find God in others, then it also has to be true that they can find him in us – not just in the vicar or the Readers or the Pastoral Assistant, but in all of us. If we don’t believe people can find God in us, then perhaps we need to take another look at ourselves.

It might be that we are starting to feel a bit uncomfortable about all this. “Don’t be daft,” we might want to say, ”who am I that God should live in me? what do I know? what do I have to give to anyone else?”. If so, then perhaps it is a good moment to mention the two saints whose feast day we celebrate today. St Simon and St Jude. Who were they? What did they do? Frankly, no one really knows? They’re listed as two of Jesus’ twelve disciples, but that’s about the sum of our knowledge. Simon is called “the Zealot” or perhaps “the Canaanean”, and Jude has one speaking line in John’s Gospel, oddly in the chapter before the one we heard today. And that’s it. Tradition has it that they eventually went to Persia and were martyred there together, but there’s no real evidence, and not much even in the way of legends, as if they weren’t even interesting enough to make up stories about.

These aren’t “A” list saints like Simon Peter, James and John, who have big parts in the Gospel story. They aren’t even “B” listers, These are “Z” list saints, and their stories, if they were ever known have now been thoroughly forgotten. St Jude is supposed to be the patron saint of lost causes, and some people suggest that is because he is really the saint of last resort, the one you go to when you’ve tried all the rest and there is nowhere else to turn. You don’t think anything will come of it, but you might as well give him a go.

And yet, whoever they were, and whatever they did, the fact that their names live on is a reminder that someone somewhere encountered God through their ministry. They were the dwelling place of God for someone, somewhere who met God afresh in them and was changed because of it. They are a reminder that each of us, however insignificant and unknown we might feel, however much of a Z lister ourselves, might be the place where someone gets that vital glimpse of God that changes them.

This building is always open during the day, because we want to make sure that anyone can come in, seek God and find him here. Our Quinquennial Inspection aims to help us keep it that way. But perhaps we need to do a Quinquennial Inspection on ourselves from time to time too, to make sure that our hearts and lives are equally holy and welcoming spaces where people can discover the God who dwells in us.

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