29th October 2023
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Last Sunday I had a Sunday off, as most of you know, and I found myself in the relatively unusual position of being able to choose where to go to church. I decided for a change to go to St Barnabas Jericho, in Oxford. And it turned out to be a good choice, as I discovered when I got there that they were keeping their Dedication Festival that Sunday, with their choir singing a lovely Mozart Mass accompanied by a small string orchestra.
For a Victorian church such as St Barnabas, it is usually possible to celebrate the Dedication Festival on the Sunday nearest the actual date of dedication of the church. And very often it is possible to remember some of the individuals associated with the church’s early history – major donors, the first vicar, that sort of thing.
For us it’s very different. The history of the church buildings and people in this Benefice are ultimately lost in the fog of early medieval history, and so we simply celebrate our Dedication Festival on the first or last Sunday of October.
We do not know how it came to be that this particular spot, this particular patch of land close to the river Thames, would become the place chosen to be set aside for the worship of God; we do not know who contributed funds, who built the walls, who celebrated the first Eucharist. We do know some fragmentary bits and pieces of history over the years, and the names of more recent benefactors can be seen in the memorials that adorn this church and churchyard. But we can still be grateful to our unknown forebears who established this place with God’s help as a place of worship, and all those who through the generations have kept and maintained it for our benefit and to the glory of God.
There is both similarity and contrast in the two readings we have heard this morning.
The first reading is a part of the Revelation to St John, and he tells us of his mystical vision in which the heavenly Jerusalem is revealed to him. Jesus here is not mentioned by name, but is rather presented as the Lamb, and the Church is described as His Bride. It is a vision of perfection and beauty, the fulfilment and consummation of the love of God. The New Jerusalem is radiant in beauty, perfect in order.
There is an obvious point of connection with the gospel reading, which finds Jesus not in the heavenly but rather in the earthly Jerusalem. In this story, Jesus is not presented as the cosmic figure of the Revelation, but very much as a man – a man in something of a rage.
In our day such behaviour would certainly get one arrested and branded a religious fanatic, and likely prosecuted under any one of a number of laws designed to protect the general public from offense or inconvenience. In Jesus’ day the authorities were slower to act, but the consequences were more brutal.
It is obvious that Jesus’ cares passionately about the Jerusalem Temple, despite His prophecy of its destruction. He cares deeply that this place set aside and dedicated to the worship of God is being misused and mistreated.
I remember a couple of years ago some visitors coming into St Mary’s and telling me that they found it a wonderfully peaceful place. And I’m sorry to say that my feeling in that moment was “well that’s jolly nice for you, but it doesn’t mean peace to me, it means work, struggle, stress, worry”. I think I was probably just having a bad day, but actually I think there is something quite important here. Our churches are places of beauty and peace: our forebears had more sense than some in our own generation in recognizing that a church building should be a place that points us to the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, that there should be order and beauty in its design, and that this order should be orientated to the worship of God rather than the comfort or convenience of man. And so I praise God that people are able to catch a glimpse of the peace and order and beauty of the heavenly Jerusalem in our church buildings and I hope in our worship too: here the Lamb is adored as we await the fulfilment of the kingdom.
But our churches are also places of work and struggle. That is perhaps most obvious for me and the little band of churchwardens and PCC members and volunteers who give so much to the life of our churches. And although I do feel a little guilty for the way I reacted to those visitors who so admired the peacefulness of St Mary’s, in a way I feel that Jesus’ rage in the Temple gives me permission to feel that our churches can also rightly be seen as places of work and struggle.
Our churches are little outposts of God’s kingdom in a world that is darker than perhaps we even realized, and so the church cleaners and churchwardens and flower ladies and all the rest are not merely working to maintain a nice old building and some quaint traditions, but are in fact engaged in the same struggle as Jesus Himself, safeguarding the dedication of these buildings to the glory of God from the encroachments of dust and decay and corruption, both literal and metaphorical.
So today we rejoice in gratitude for our forebears in the faith who have handed these churches buildings on to us, and we pray that they may continue to be places dedicated to the glory of God. And we also dedicate ourselves afresh to serve and struggle alongside our Lord Jesus, that we may be living stones built into a spiritual house to the glory of God the +Father, to whom with the Son and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.