"Of Temples, Jesus, and Bodies" 1 of 4 in a series on Contemplation in the Bible (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, John 2:19-22, Ezekiel 43:4-7)Mark Longhurst, April 15, 2018
Part of the Easter series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page
Sermon: Rev. Mark Longhurst
Of Temples, Jesus, and Bodies
[1 of 3 in a series on "Contemplation in the Bible”]
April 15, 2018
1 Corinthians 3:16-17
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source.”
--Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
"We do not have to undertake painful pilgrimages to distant places to find the Divine. The treasure lies underneath our own house, just in our family, in ordinary life, in our beloved, ultimately in our own heart when our interiority has been cleansed of any particle of selfish dust."
--Raimon Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being
God wants to meet with us. It’s true.
And it goes both ways: we want to meet with God. We do. Something deep in our human being yearns for more, to commune, to meet with, to contemplate divinity.
But we often think of contemplation as something that only the monks do, something that is an escape, something for people who have more time, and care less about the world’s crises than we do. The ways that people contemplate, or experience God, in the Bible, however, are the opposite of our stereotypes, contemplation in the Bible is earthy, and embodied, and active, and focused on this world.
The characters of the Bible are contemplative exemplars. Not only do they love God with all their heart, soul, and minds, but they also encounter God in community and actual physical space. Because space matters in the spiritual life, and how we conceive of space can help make our ordinary lives and moments sacred.
I had the honor of blessing animals at the nearby Hancock Shaker Village yesterday, and it was beautiful. We stood in the round barn, surrounded by children and families and the sounds of sheep and goats, and it became a sacred, chaotic sanctuary. We gave thanks for and blessed animal beings. The round barn already was a sacred sanctuary, it’s incredibly beautiful and stirring, but something about intentionally blessing those baby animals helped awaken us to the fact.
We encounter the sacred in space. This is why, regardless of our faith, beauty in churches still stirs us, from awe-inspiring stained glass and frescoes to stripped-down and sparse Protestant meetinghouses. And that’s what sacred spaces are. Sacred spaces are those physical places constructed with such depth of care and attention to beauty that something happens to us when we step inside them.
The story of the evolution of sacred space in the Bible goes something like this: the ancient Israelites start meeting God in a tent, or what’s known as a tabernacle, then they have a king, they conquer some territories, they build some wealth and build a temple, they meet God in an actual building, and they create a whole system of animal sacrifice and purity laws to go along with their desire to meet God in that building, and then Jesus comes along, and Jesus critiques the ways that Judaism’s sacred building has participated in the oppression of others, and then, Jesus (a Jew) in John’s gospel claims to replace the Temple through his own ministry and body, and then, the apostle Paul writes to Jesus followers in Corinth and says, “hey, you, you are temples of the Holy Spirit.” We start meeting God in tents and then we move on temples and then we move onto a saving figure until we realize that we can meet with God everywhere.
But first, in the ancient Hebrew imagination, sacred space is physical. The Psalmist cries out, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord God!” But where is God’s dwelling place? But where is God’s dwelling place? Before we can recognize God everywhere we have to start in a particular place, and in ancient Israel, that place is the Lord’s courts in the Jerusalem Temple.
God’s space is so important in ancient Hebrew religion that elaborate rules govern the construction God’s house. We often skip over these passages, like the esoteric chapters in Ezekiel, but they tell us a truth. For example, after God liberates Israelite slaves from the Egyptian empire, Moses meets with God face to face on Mt. Sinai. The book of Exodus then spends the final third of its text detailing exactly how the ancient tribe is to relate and meet with God through physical space. These are the chapters of Exodus that we normally don’t read.
The Israelites are to create a holy place for God to reside. Before the Jerusalem Temple, while Israelite nomads wandered wilderness, there is a tabernacle or “Tent of Meeting.” The function of this tent is as it sounds: it is the place where God meets with the people, specifically through the high priest, the intermediary. And Inside this holy place are holy objects, such as the ark of the covenant.
Now, before the ark of the covenant became famous through Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, we read in Exodus 25 that this sacred box is to hold the tablets of Torah, the ten commandments. But that’s not all. The ark is to be constructed just so with a special wood called acacia wood. But that’s not all. The ark to be a specific length, two and a half cubits, to be precise, or three and three-quarters feet long. But that’s not all. It is to be overlaid with gold and then, on the ark’s cover, Israel’s gold welders are to fashion cherubim. Cherubim are, as one scholar puts it, mythical creatures which, “combined the strength, ferocity, and regalness of a lion with the flying capability of a bird and the higher reasoning of a human.” Cherubim are to sit on the cover of the ark.
But that’s not all. In between these mythical, lion-bird-human creatures, on top of the golden ark cover, is something called the mercy seat. And the mercy seat is the space in which God dwells. “There I shall meet with you, from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim.” (Exodus 25:22) And we thought picking colors for community hall was challenging.
Once the ancient Israelites meet God, in other words, they have to figure out a way to continue to meet with God. They have to build a house where God lives.
We may scoff at or ignore the Bible’s intense fixation on temple building projects and interior decorations, but a deeper truth pulses through these somewhat tedious texts: space matters because God dwells in actual space. God is not only out there, God is right here! When it comes to awakening to God, the choice of materials makes a difference, and color can either lift the heart or depress the spirit. How we arrange our homes, and conceive lighting, and pick out furniture, it all has spiritual capacity. And in our churches, how we arrange our buildings tells a story of how we meet with God. The centrality of a wooden pulpit, even, says something about how my Congregational forebears believed the people met God. God speaks to us in the Word, they said. And so they prioritized the pulpit, and put the sermon, rather than the Eucharist, at the center of the service. (I happen to believe we’re in a time when all of those assumptions and spaces need to be questioned, but this is the history of my denomination).
Space is sacred.
Which makes Jesus’s arrival on the scene in the Jerusalem Temple at the beginning of John’s Gospel that much more outrageous. John, more than the other gospel writers, sees Jesus not only as launching an attack on the economic and political system of the Jerusalem Temple, but as replacing the Temple with his own body. Jesus goes into the Temple, in John’s passage today, he fashions a whip of chords, and starts overturning tables and driving people out. “Destroy this Temple,” he says, “and in three days I will raise it up.” John the gospel writer throws in an interpretive aside. He says, “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” The sacred space of Judaism, in John’s view, just like so much toxic religion, has become corrupt and used to exclude rather than include. Jesus sees his own ministry, and his own body, as an alternative site to meet God. Nothing can stand in the way of meeting God, not even a Temple, not even a religious tradition! That’s why, by the way, I love spiritual but not religious people! Because even if they don’t know it, they are actually connecting to a core religious impulse that seeks direct experience with God.
The apostle Paul, in his letter to Jesus-followers in Corinth, takes this theme of sacred space further. Not only do we meet with God in temples, and not only is the person of Jesus a sacred site, but we ourselves are temples of the Holy Spirit. Our own very bodies are the holy of holies, the mercy seat! In other words, God is everywhere, and the whole earth, as the prophet Isaiah, is full of God’s glory, the whole earth, and all animal beings, and all bodies, including these bodies, and immigrant bodies, and black and brown bodies and Syrian bodies, all are the life through which we awaken to God's life.