Sermons

Sun, Jun 07, 2015

Focussing on the eternal

167th Church Anniversary
Series:Sermons

From far away, it looks like an ordinary church…

it looks like any of the other churches that dot the countryside of that particular region of Belgium.

But, as you draw closer, you realise that it isn’t.

The building begins to disappear into the landscape––

because it’s not, in fact, a solid building.

It’s a ten metre high sculpture in the shape of a church…

constructed of horizontal metal planks…

laid flat…

upon irregularly-placed metal spacers…

creating see-through, sort of lattice-like walls.

Entitled, “Reading between the Lines”…

it’s a project of two young architects…

who are trying to make a statement about the way that Belgians see religion today.

Nearly a third of Belgians no longer identify with a particular religious tradition…

and many of the little parish churches…

which dot the landscape…

are falling into disuse and disrepair.

These two young architects created this sculpture both to highlight this decline…

and, in a sense, as a concretising of memory––

a memory that is often both tangible and vague.

 

That sort of decline, of course, is not unique to Belgium.

It’s replicated in most parts of the world.

We certainly see it, here, around us.

Buildings that were once churches now serve as restaurants…

or offices…

or even homes;

or, if lacking any real sense of historical or architectural significance…

have simply vanished from sight and from memory.

Of course, none of us would want that to happen to this building.

With its beautiful stained glass windows…

its magnificent organ…

its wonderful acoustic…

its unique architecture…

and its long history and connection with the life of this city…

we would hope that it would live on long after us––

not just as a memory, or a memorial, or as some sort of museum…

but as a place of worship.

There are, of course, no guarantees.

We don’t know what will happen––

and what will be the fate of this building––

in one hundred years’ time…

let along in fifty or even twenty.

 

Now, on a day like today––

a joyful day…

a day of remembrance and thanksgiving––

I don’t want to be a party-pooper…

and to dwell on such things…

to dwell on the negatives.

And yet, in the end…

what we’re celebrating today is the one hundred and sixty-seventh anniversary of the North Adelaide Baptist Church…

not the anniversary of this church building.

And one of the things that has always impressed me about North Adelaide Baptist…

is that the church’s anniversary dates from the founding of the congregation…

not from the erection of its building––

as do most other churches that I know.

This church has understood…

and continues to understand…

that the Church is, ultimately, people.

We

not this building…

are the Church.

It is in our gathering together…

and in our going forth to live as people of God…

that we are Church.

And that, we would hope, would continue in some shape or form.

And yet…

as Paul reminds us in our reading this morning from the Second Letter to the Corinthians…

we are mortal.

Our bodies are decaying.

The span of our life is finite.

And that’s also true of all material…

physical…

and worldly things.

That’s even true of the Church––

certainly conceived of as a material building…

but even conceived of as a group of people.

Who we are, as Church, is not who our spiritual forebears were, as Church;

who we are, as Church, is not who our spiritual descendants will be, as Church.

Nothing on this earth…

nothing of this earth…

is permanent––

not in the grand scheme of things…

not when seen from the perspective of the God who is above…

and beyond…

and beneath all that we experience.

Thus, Paul urges us to see beyond the limitations of our existence…

and our experience…

and even our conceptualisation…

and to focus upon that which is eternal.

 

Many, of course, interpret Paul’s words here in an individual and individualised sense.

They assume that he’s speaking of our individual human existence…

of our individual life experience.

They assume that he’s urging his readers to be strong…

to endure the trials and tribulations that they experience now…

because of the glory that they will experience hereafter.

They assume a sort of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die theology.

But that’s not Paul’s point here, at all.

It’s significant that he uses, here, the image of “tent”.

Although it’s the only time that Paul uses the term in any of his writings…

elsewhere, in the New Testament, it always refers to the tent or tabernacle…

the place of worship of the people of Israel in the Wilderness.

And he speaks, here, of the tent, singular…

in which we, plural, dwell.

The image is intentionally corporate and collective.

Similarly, he suggests, that…

in contrast to this earthly, temporary place…

there is a solid, permanent, eternal place of worship in which we will dwell.

The image is subtle but evocative.

Drawing upon the thought of Plato––

on the idea that…

for everything that we see and know here, on earth…

there is, in heaven, a perfect model or ideal…

of which the earthly is but a pale and poor copy––

Paul suggests that Church…

as we know it now…

is but a pale and poor copy of the heavenly, universal Church––

not unlike the imagery that we find in the Book of Revelation––

the idea of a heavenly new Jerusalem…

a realm where God’s love, and peace, and justice reign…

in which God’s people will dwell, permanently…

having unfettered access to God’s presence…

and reflecting God’s glory.

That, for Paul, is the perfect church––

of which the Church, here and now, is but a pale and poor copy.

And yet, Paul claims

“we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day”.

In effect, Paul suggests, that something of what Church ought to be…

can be…

even now…

whenever we, as Church, reflect––

even in small part––

something of the nature of the Church eternal;

whenever we, as Church, manifest the loving, peaceful, justice-filled reign of God.

 

While the philosophical underpinning of Paul’s thought, here, is not one that we would share today…

nonetheless, it’s helpful metaphorically.

In the end, the Church is not a building;

nor is it even a group of people, gathering for worship.

Rather, the Church is an in-breaking of the eternal into the temporal…

of light into darkness…

of hope into despair…

of compassion into hard-heartedness––

a mortal manifestation of the person and nature of God.

That is who we are, as Church.

That is what we are called to be.

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