Opening the Church

by Eddie Short

Could you still be a Christian if you were stranded alone on a desert island?

This is a question I was asked as part of the Foundations for Ministry course I did a couple of year’s ago with St. Peter’s college, the diocese of Sheffield’s learning community for mission & ministry. At the time, I remember thinking there was obviously a really clear-cut answer, but I was surprised to find that a few of the others on my course didn’t all hold this same view. I’ll tell you what I originally thought, and how my fellow students challenged my thinking a little later, because it ties into today’s theme. But first, let’s start with a little bit of background on the new series we’re starting today looking at the story of king Hezekiah.

Hezekiah was a king of the kingdom of Judah, which had separated from the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He was the son of Ahaz who had not been a good king. Ahaz had made idols and encouraged the worship of foreign Gods. This had led to God allowing his army to suffer a crushing defeat in a battle with another nation. Ahaz’s response was to double down in turning his back on God, offering sacrifices to the God’s of the other nation and desecrating and then shutting the doors to the tem ple. Which was the situation when Hezekiah ascended to the throne.

And his first act as king – the bible tells us it was in the very first month of the very first year of his reign – was to repair and open the doors of the temple. So, whilst the reasons behind the suspension of in-person corporate worship that we’ve experienced over the past 18 months and the closing of the temple prior to Hezekiah’s reign may be quite different, there is a clear parallel. Our doors have been largely closed for over a year and we need to re-engage and reform as a community in worship. And so there ends the sermon!

I’m sure that we’re all eagerly awaiting the day when the COVID restrictions are fully lifted and we can gather together again in church – young and old – with no masks, with no social distancing, with no attendance limits. And, as the vaccine roll out continues to be moving fast, and the government road map seems to be on track, I think we can be hopeful that we won’t have much longer to wait.

But actually does ‘opening the doors of church’ really parallel ‘opening the doors of the temple’, or is there more to it than that? I think there’s deeper meaning, a deeper level of understanding, a deeper message for us to unpack. Let’s start by thinking about exactly what the temple was.

It was a sacred building in Jerusalem, constructed during the reign of king Solomon, as a permanent successor to the Tabernacle, that portable holy place that God instructed Moses to create for housing the Arc of the Covenant during the Israelites’ wilderness years. It was also more than a building, it was a gigantic symbol that visualized God’s desire to live together with his human creations. If you were to ask any ancient Israelite to tell you the most important place on earth, you would get a clear and consistent answer: the temple in Jerusalem. It was the place where heaven and earth meet, where the creator God had chosen to take up residence among his people. The Holy of Holies, the inner most part of the temple, was home to the tangible presence of God. It could only be entered once a year, on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would walk through the curtain, the veil that separated it from the rest of the inner space, to sprinkle the blood of the atoning sacrifice. This was because the people were separated from the presence of God because of their sin.
So the Temple was at the centre of the relationship between king Hezekiah and his people, and God. God resided in the temple, and through their priests, the people worshiped and met with Him there. That was their story, that was their identity that was their relationship with their creator God. But it isn’t ours. Because Jesus came and changed everything.

John 1 v14 says “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The glory of God was no longer constrained to the Holy of Holy’s separated from the people, but it was embodied in a man. Jesus became the living temple, superseding the physical one.

Before his death Jesus said, as recorded John 2 v19, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Which both predicted his resurrection and asserted His identity as God’s new temple.

This was confirmed at the moment of His death, when the veil covering the Holy of Holies was torn in too. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross meant that the people were no longer separated by their sin from God. And as we celebrated last Sunday, on the day of Pentecost the Spirit of God came to reside within the new temple built on the foundation of Jesus.

Peter says in the bible: “4As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—5you also, like living stones, are being built into a temple of the spirit to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ So for us today, the temple isn’t a building, it is us, together, as a community, together as the people of God, filled with the Spirit of God. We are the temple.
Which brings me back to the question from my Foundations course: Could you still be a Christian if you were stranded alone on a desert island? The answer that came to me instantly back then, was: yes, of course you can, because Faith in Jesus is what makes you a Christian. And I still stand by that answer. If any of us ever did find ourselves stranded alone on a desert island, I’m sure God’s grace would cover us in that situation, as it has over the period when we haven’t been able to meet together in person during the pandemic.

But faith in isolation is not the ideal; we are called to be God’s temple in community; built together – as Peter describes – like living stones. God created us in His image; but God is infinitely bigger than any one of us. God also created us uniquely to be who we are, so we all have a unique identity and relationship with Him.

This means that we can see and experience different facets of God through relationship with other Christians. In the way he made them and in the way He reveals himself to them. That’s why it’s important to be part of the temple, to come together as brothers and sisters in faith, to worship together, to love one another and to serve together. So, while we would still be Christians living on that desert island, we wouldn’t be able to live out the fullness of what it means to be a part of the temple of God, standing side by side with other believers.

So, finally, if we – together – are the temple of God, what does it mean to open the doors of the temple? Well I believe that it’s about finding ways of opening up the people of God – our church community – to those who are not yet a part of it. It’s about welcoming in with love and going out in faith to share the Gospel with those who don’t know they need it, but desperately do. It’s about making the temple – which is the people of God and our worship of Him – as accessible and welcoming and loving and accepting as possible.

Yes, we’re all longing for the time when we can get back to worshiping in our church buildings with no masks and no social distancing, hugging each other and singing at the top of our lungs, but to truly open the temple, we also need to be doing all we can to invite other people – who don’t yet know Jesus – to discover Him for themselves.

That is a temple with doors wide open.