Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148: 14-29; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Last summer, while on sabbatical, our family travelled to Paris, among other places. While in Paris we did the usual touristy things – we visited the Eiffel tower, the Arc de Triumph, and Louis IV’s massive residence, Versailles. We also toured several grand churches, Saint Chapelle, and of course no visit to Paris is complete without a stop at the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Notre Dame is an architectural masterpiece in every sense of the word. It is beautiful sight to behold. And yet as I was walking through it, there was this feeling I had of sadness. That’s the only way I know to describe it. As beautiful and opulent Notre Dame was, it felt empty to me. I didn’t leave there feeling warmth or connection with a God greater than I. I left instead with little more than a realization that while it is a beautiful building, I felt further, rather than closer to God, as a result of my visit there.
Months later, I along with millions of other viewers, watched the video of that strange yellow smoke emerging from the burning roof of Notre Dame. I watched as the spire tower engulfed in flames, eventually toppled over. That image struck me as a metaphor for something, though I’m not sure what.
Church buildings are strange animals. For centuries, Christians have built churches to worship God. And for centuries, Christians also have succumbed to worshipping the building, beautiful though it may be, instead of the God for whom the church was built.
This is my way of introducing the reading we hear from Revelation this morning. Revelation is the final book of the New Testament. It is a widely misunderstood book, and history is riddled with attempts by “experts” who have attempted to explain its unusual and sometimes disturbing imagery. I do not personally believe that the unusual images in Revelation were ever meant to be interpreted literally. That doesn’t mean that the images of dragons and seals and angels blowing trumpets are not true. They absolutely are. But they are true in the way that a contemporary American political cartoons, featuring a donkey and an elephant locked in struggle with each other, are true. Readers of those cartoons don’t read them literally, believing that donkeys and elephants roam the floors of the United States Senate or House of Representatives. Readers understand what those animals represent. The same applies to the images in Revelation.
Today we hear from the next to last chapter of the book, chapter 21. In that chapter the author shares a vision with us of what he calls a new Jerusalem. This new Jerusalem, as described in v. 2, reflects a belief in early Judaism and early Christianity of a heavenly counterpart to the physical, earthy city of Jerusalem. In describing this new Jerusalem you might notice what is absent. There is no mention of a temple or a church building.
Interesting. In the new Jerusalem there is no temple or church because there is no need for it, because the glory of God pervades the whole city. There is no need for an opulent, architecturally massive structure to communicate God’s glory. This ambivalence toward buildings in Revelation raises a question about the enormous investment in its buildings by Christian churches throughout history. Sadly, the history of Christianity is in part a story of Christians prioritizing buildings over relationship and real community. The need for Christians to build holy spaces often betrays our failure to understand that the true holy space is not a gilded cathedral, it is the body of a crucified man and the people who identify with him.
When I used to walk into large opulent churches, I used to think: “Wow! How exquisite! Wouldn’t it be great to be a priest in this place!” Now when I find myself in such opulent places, I find myself asking instead “what are they hiding that demands such an expensive building to disguise? What are they afraid of that they believe such a display of wealth will protect them from?” The church is not a building, it is its people.
I close with these words on religion, said by the Dalai Lama: “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” AMEN.