There isn’t a week that goes by when someone isn’t working practically to repair or enhance this great church building. The church has to be cleaned, the fans have to be serviced, the organ has to be cared for, the brass has to be polished, the light bulbs have to be changed and so much more; and that is all before anything goes wrong, and the roof has to be repaired, and the gutters have to be fixed, and the electrical cables have to be replaced. It takes a great army of people to keep this church building as we expect it to be. It also takes a great amount of money to do all of this, for which each one us contributes to the glory of God.
Then we want to continue to develop this building, to make it fit for purpose in our modern age, because this is a living building not some kind of a museum. Some of those changes we almost universally embrace, like the heaters on the pillars that do their best to keep us warm, and the sound system and hearing aid loop which enable us to hear more clearly; and some of those changes we may have been less certain about at the time or even now, like when the altar was moved forward in response to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, or when the lectern was moved to its current position some years before that, or when the St Barnabas Chapel was added in more recent times.
Despite all of this effort, and work and money down through the years, the building still doesn’t work for us in quite the way that we would like it to. Ideally our disabled access would be better, if we were designing things now a whole lot of Work Health and Safety requirements would be incorporated into our plans, an architect would help us to have a building that was cooler in summer and warmer in winter, we might have more comfortable seating – after all there is nothing distinctively religious or holy about pews, we would have better hospitality space for our fellowship and more welcoming facilities for families with young children and babies.
When I meet with my clergy colleagues I am always interested, as I listen to conversations, to hear which ones of them think that buildings such as Saint Peter’s are a great blessing, and which of them think that church buildings like ours are a millstone hanging around their necks. There are, as with everything, a range of different views.
Whilst some of our Protestant neighbours simply can’t understand why a cinema auditorium, or a converted warehouse is not sufficient, we as Anglican know the importance of having a permanent house for God: a place that both symbolises his presence in a local community, and in which he is truly present in his Sacraments. Building something great for God – a house for God – is something of a natural impulse if you love God and seek to be faithful to him. After all, civilisations the world over, in their various cultural styles, build beautiful places to honour and house governments, enterprises of learning and important institutions, so it is only right that God should have such buildings in his honour as well.
In our Old Testament reading today King David, many centuries before the birth of Christ, who had brought a God-centred revival to the nation of Israel that climaxed when he brought the Ark of the Covenant of God into Jerusalem, his new capital city, now ponders these things in his own time.
When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, he had directed them to Mount Sinai in the wilderness. There he had come down from heaven and met with them. It was an incredibly holy place, for God came there. But the Israelites had to move on on their journey, and they needed God to go with them. So God gave them specific instructions for building a movable tabernacle, with the Ark of the Covenant as its centrepiece. Wherever the Israelites went in the wilderness during those long years of the Exodus, and on into the Promised Land, God’s mobile Sinai went with them. And so God was at home among his people, even in a tent.
But after David was settled in his palace in Jerusalem, as we heard, he looked around him and came to the realisation that although he was living in a great house of cedar, the Ark of the Covenant – the presence of God – was still being housed in a tent. So he spoke to the Prophet Nathan, the mouthpiece of God at that time and told him that he was going to build a house for God to dwell in. The Prophet thought that this was a great idea at first. God was certainly deserving of something better than a tent, now that his people were building themselves fixed homes to live in. But God’s response to all of this was surprising. It wasn’t that he did not want a house to be built for himself, we know that because the great Temple was eventually built by King David’s son Solomon, it was more that the people weren’t ready. They themselves needed to become a house of God first, before God would allow them to build a physical dwelling place to symbolise his presence.
Here we are friends, today, in another of God’s houses, thousands of years later. This place built to the glory of God, symbolises God’s presence for the community around us, and is a holy house in which God literally dwells in the Body and Blood of his Son in the tabernacle. Today as we hear this ancient story I want to suggest to us that we have an opportunity (as we reflect on all of this in our liturgy) to give thanks for the faithfulness that led this building to be created, and the love through which it has been maintained down through the years.
On many occasion I have reminded us all that the Church of God is not made of bricks and mortar, but of lives lived in discipleship to Jesus as was expressed in this morning’s Epistle reading. We are each living stones of the Church together. But to say that, is never to say that the place in which we gather to meet with God is unimportant.
An old warehouse, or a rock concert auditorium will never be sufficient for us — although it is quite possible for us to worship in such places, just as it is possible for us to worship under a tree in a field, or in our own living rooms – it will never be sufficient for us to call it (in any permanency) the house of God, because the house of God is not just where we meet each other, it is primarily where we come to meet the living God, it is where the Divine Presence resides in a way that we can focus upon together. Just as King David was aware that a tent was not sufficient, was not worthy of Our God, that he worshipped, so we know too, if God is worthy of our praise, he is worthy of our best.
Winston Churchill pointed out that “first we shape our buildings and thereafter, they shape us.” It is certainly true that our faith is shaped by this building. The house of God is a ‘sermon in stone and glass’. It tells everyone who sees it, from the inside to the outside, that the faith of the Church is permanent and beautiful and strong. We are shaped week by week by this building not because it is old, not because it is a beautiful thing of the past, but because the living God meets us here when we gather together to worship him.
And so it is absolutely right that this should be an inspiring and beautiful and grand place, that transcends the normality of our lives and calls us to reach upwards towards heaven.
Each time we enter this building we pass the font as a reminder that it is through our baptism that we are members of the Body of Christ, and brought into an eternal and regenerative relationship with our Creator.
It isn’t the most convenient place for us to get past, and perhaps in the future we will be able to create more space around it, but it is a visual reminder – if we will allow it to be – of how we came into the household of faith.
Our windows tell the story of our salvation, they are not here for mere decoration. As we take time to see the acts of God which they depict, we find ourselves caught up in this same story.
The altar stands as the central focus of this building, as a reminder that it is there, more than anywhere else, that we meet with God and are connected with the great tradition of all those who have gone before us.
This and the other church buildings that we have known in our lives do not just offer a place for us to gather and to keep dry. They articulate our priorities and affect our hearing, through what they say to us about the God who loves us.
So here is King David, contemplating building God a house in which to dwell amongst his people; and here are we, perhaps a little more uncomfortable than we would prefer, perhaps a little colder in these weeks of winter, but nevertheless refreshed by this building. Aware of the deep truths of the Gospel that it communicates to us. Full of gratitude that others created this beautiful space before us. Today friends, is a day to be grateful. And perhaps also to take a fresh look at this building which is so familiar to us; mindful, that the reason that it is here, and the reason that we are within it, is because God promises to meet us when we gather in his House in our worship of him, in his Word and in his Sacraments.