From today’s Gospel “Destroy this temple and in three days, I shall raise it up.” Words above the doorway of this church, from Genesis 28: 17: “This is none other than the House of God, this is the Gate of Heaven.”
65 years ago almost to the day, the then Bishop and clergy from the Deanery gathered here to dedicate this church after it was rebuilt in 1957.
On this anniversary we remember the rededication, and we give thanks for the ongoing work of the work of maintenance as it is constantly beautified to the glory of God. The boundary wall which has been restored, for the first time since St Mark’s was built in 1854, is now clean, and more importantly, safe. The careful work, undertaken by Stonedge and Tomas the mason in charge, who is here, is something we are very proud of. The wall frames and protects the church grounds so well. And our huge thanks to all who have been part of contributing to this work in relatively short order.
As the work has been progressing, I have been pondering stones, and walls; words with many Theological resonances; and the ironies of what it means for the Church itself to be a Temple not made with hands, comprising living stones – us, and yet to be reliant on stone and mortar for our in-gathering.
In my thinking, my mind has been drawn to the great western wall in Jerusalem, you have a photo of it in the order of service. On the right you see a close up of the western wall of Herod’s Temple, still not completed in Jesus’s day. Can you see at the base the massive stones which Herod’s labourers placed. As you go north from there the stones become even more enormous. What is interesting about this wall is that the portion we can see is but a small proportion of the total size. It was 105 ft 32 metres high from foundation to top, and 488 metres in length only 57 metres of which are visible. The scale is breath-taking. Much of that great wall is below the plaza in these pictures. The rubble created by the Romans first in 70 AD and then again in 135 AD, when they destroyed the temple precincts and filled the land to the west, re-landscaped of the western approach to the Temple Mount. After that the Romans then built in 135 a temple to Jupiter on the site, and expelled the Jewish population from their ancient city. Never again would it function as their most holy place.
Ever since, only this section of wall has stood as vestige and poignant reminder of once was. This contested site is an intersectional place: to the north is the Dome of the Rock, and to the South, the A’qsa Mosque, both places of the greatest significance in Islam, the latter the place of Mohammed’s night journey into to heaven, the former possibly over the site of the Holy of Holies, the place where Abraham offered Isaac before he was redeemed by a ram in the ticket. For this rock is most possibly Mt Moriah.
The temple precincts in Jesus’s day thronged with pilgrims, not least on high holy days. It was quite proper that animals should be bought with Temple money, and the costs of maintaining the Temple made our boundary wall look like a walk in the Park; so a regulated trade in currency conversion was overseen by the Priestly guardians of the Temple. John tells us Jesus comes at the Feast of Passover. There are potent echoes from the Hebrew Bible. The quote from Psalm 69: 9, Zeal for thy house hath eaten me up and Not turning my father’s house into a house of merchandise from Zechariah 14, together signal the both the day of the Messiah, and the refrain of prophetic interest from the earliest days concerning proper care for the Temple.
At some level Jesus is opposing the trade that takes place there. This is consistent across all four gospels, although the other three place this event just after Jesus has come into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
All of them quote this opposition to inappropriate trade. But beyond this, John’s memory is the more striking. The dispensation of the use of the Temple because of its prophesied destruction, at the hands of others, then Jesus’ self-identification as its successor, is John’s equivalent of the Nazareth Manifesto. This is the gauntlet Jesus throws down as his ministry starts. The remaining nine chapters to chapter 11 are the outworking of the significance of this.
From what Jesus says we learn that sacred buildings and sacrifice are no longer necessary in this new vision of the divine economy. All that takes place within them which previously connected the worshipper with God, will now happen in him and his body, of which we are the members.
It was utterly shocking to make this claim. And yet, it was surprisingly in tune with the critique of others of Jesus’s contemporaries. The Essenes, in Qumran, from what we read in the Dead Sea Scrolls, had turned their backs on the Jerusalem Temple, for multiple reasons to do with frustration with the hierarchy there. They were the voices in the wilderness before John the Baptist was, and perhaps he was even one of them.
Stones and walls were implied as coming tumbling down in Jesus’s recasting of the Temple.
And yet, in our turn, we recreate, we identify and mark out and set boundary walls around sacred space. We hallow these portals year by year in memory of its foundation, and see Christ as the bedrock of this permanence. The words of Jacob’s following his dream at Bethel where he sees angels climbing up and down on a ladder to heaven “This is none other than the House of God, this is the Gate of Heaven” are carved into the lintel of the door by which we enter.
The first Christians spent their days worshipping in the Temple in Jerusalem. They did not reject it. And for the first 100 years after Jesus’s death, Palestinian Christianity was but a sect of Judaism. We have a primitive need to set apart space which is God’s so that we can be reminded that all space is ultimately his, and so we can worship him in spirit and in truth. To be Christ’s body, we need the certainty and stability of place. The walls we build and restore to secure that holiness of place, make not just our history one of salvation, but our geography too. Those walls are not to exclude but to protect and to provide open gates of welcome, flung wide, so that all may know God’s love. “There are no secrets” one of the great dramaturges of the last 70 years once wrote and this is the truth of the sacred space we hallow. Nothing is hidden, all are welcome. The signal of a boundary is not as permanent as its construction might suggest, in circumscribing sacred space, we speak as best we can of an eternity which is assured, everything else is relative. Just as after Jesus’s death and resurrection his disciples remembered Jesus’s words “and they believed the scripture.”