One of the highlights of our time living in the UK was becoming a (relatively well-behaved) football hooligan for 10 years. Although you could watch the games at a local pub or at home, nothing came close to the deafening noise and electric atmosphere during the big games. Something unique would happen when a stadium full of fans sung their cherished songs of shared identity and support as one voice, some of them adapted from old hymns – at times, it raised the hairs on the back of your neck.
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been exploring what the church is for, and especially, why we gather together on a Sunday. Scripture gives us bold imagery to enliven our imaginations for this task, and we’ve already looked at the church as a family and a garden. But one of the more radical biblical images is resonant with that stadium full of impassioned fans. Paul describes the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 3:16) In this instance, he doesn’t mean each of us individually, but together, each one of us a living stone building the walls of God’s house. We, as a community, are a place where God’s presence is powerfully among us, within us, surrounding us, pouring himself into the places we gather.
This is a dramatic image for a Jew like Paul to use, and it has far-reaching implications for us as a church. Most importantly, it shapes our expectations of what actually happens during our gathered worship. The temple was the central place of Jewish religion — only one priest, once a year could enter the Holy of Holies, which was set aside for God. But, now, the dividing curtain in the temple has been torn apart and Jesus’ own body has become the temple, the living presence of God on earth. Even more than that, God’s own Spirit has been poured out on his people forever so that we are now his temple. It’s hard to grasp the full magnitude of what this means for us. Certainly, Paul’s letters express the clear expectation that his churches should experience this radical new reality through the tangible presence of God in their midst — in their teaching, prayer, worship, the gifts of the Spirit, friendship, mission — and so should we.
Being the temple of the Holy Spirit also has implications for how we move forward as a church and steward what God has put in our hands. The Jewish temple was meant to be the glory of God on display, so that the whole world could draw near to his presence. Now, incredibly, we have been given that mantle as the new temple — “the light on the hill” as St Paul’s has always been known. In Jesus’ famous prayer in John 17, he makes it clear that this glory is best expressed to those around us through the relational architecture of this living temple — namely, through the unity and intimacy among its people. In the words of Jesus: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23)
Blessings, Rev Jonny Gran