Please don’t just come to our church
I have a sign that I use when I’m out and about, sometimes talking about Circle of Hope, that attempts to explain the basics of our theology. It says something like, “Please don’t just come to our church.” It’s a little confusing because when I’m talking to people about Circle of Hope, I hesitate to make it an us/them thing, where they can only follow Jesus or they only count when they attend our arbitrary meeting (arbitrary in the sense that we decided to do it, rather than it being meaningless). The content of the truth is not exclusively contained in our Sunday meetings.
It’s definitely meant to intrigue, but at its core the idea that the church isn’t a building, it’s a body, is something that is both deeply biblical and also what the revolution of Pentecost is all about. When someone says they are going to church, and by that they mean the Sunday meeting, you may have heard a snarky person kindly correct them and say something like, “we are the church.” And that isn’t just to contrast being the church from going to a meeting; it also extends to contrast that you are the container for the content of the truth of God, and it isn’t held captive in a worship meeting, a liturgy, doctrine, theology, universities or seminaries.
It’s really hard to undo the idea the church is one thing and you are another, and amid all of your consumer and temporal choices, attending a meeting is just another one. Not only has our contemporary environment made that a very likely dichotomy, but so has thousands of years of history after Jesus and thousands of years of history before Jesus.
If Pentecost is simply understood as another one of our assorted options, it can become another random holiday that we celebrate, reduced down to nothing, since unlike Christmas and Easter (other big days around here), it doesn’t have explicit cultural connections. We can enjoy refocusing Easter and Christmas because the advertisers offer us a distinct expression of those holidays. As soon as the back-to-school sales end, Christmas’ commercialization immediately begins. Similarly, as long as Peeps remain delicious, we’ll have something to push back against on Easter. Nevertheless, Pentecost doesn’t have those kinds of pagan counterparts, so we have some work to do if we want to bring this holiday into contemporary relevance. I may have to convince you that it’s relevant, too.
The Temple becomes God’s locus of activity
Let’s begin with the story of Exodus. The Israelites, a down-trodden group of people with no edifice in which to worship and not much of a physical representation of their God (unlike their Near Eastern contemporaries), are in captivity under Egyptian slavery and they don’t have a place to call home. Moses is called by God to leave his comfortable agrarian shepherding life, and go back to Egypt where he is a convicted murder. God famously appears to him in a burning bush and commissions him to go do this incredible task. This story of salvation is elemental to the Jewish faith and to our faith too.
He goes back to Egypt and frees his people, who are promised a place they can call home. As the Israelites, led by Moses, leave Sinai and move to their promised land, their home, God dwells among them. They wandered through the wilderness and looked for their home (you might be able to relate because listening to me give a history lesson is like wandering through the desert sometimes.) You might be able to see this journey as a way to find a home for God too.
This is a real-life rendering of what is called the “tabernacle.” It is God’s dwelling place. It’s basically a lightly constructed tent and in the middle of it is the “Holy Place.” If you go into the “Holy Place” you’ll find the “Holiest Place.” That’s where God is. Only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, could the High Priest enter. The Ark of the Covenant is in there also, with the tablets of Ten Commandments, as well as some other stuff.
Day and Night, as they journeyed, they’d carry the stuff to assemble this tabernacle, this sanctuary, and God would appear among them. They literally housed God where they went and they moved his Temple. When they settled, they actually built a Temple where God would dwell (and there was a holy of holies in there, too). The Babylonians destroyed it, leaving the Jews without their own residence or one for God. The Old Testament writers, notably Ezekiel, tell us it was Israel’s disobedience that caused God to allow the Babylonians to destroy their Temple. In other words, they had already destroyed it. Maybe the way that the Temple symbolized their strength and nationalism was their sin—not relying on God but on worldly structures of power. This was a huge deal, as you can tell already. The Temple itself was a cultural center for the Jews and a real symbol that they’ve found home.
When Herod promised to reconstruct the Temple, the higher taxes he waged on people were met with less resistance because such a large project would restore the Hebrew sense of nationalism.
Jesus destroys the Temple, and rebuilds it.
You can imagine then the resistance that Jesus himself faced when he said he would tear down the Temple and rebuild it in three days. That’s one of the quotes that is used to incriminate Jesus in front of the Jewish authority that sentences him to death. Such destruction was predicted by the Chronicler, at least, who argued that the reason the first Temple of Solomon was destroyed was because of disobedience. When he’s writing to his audience, it’s after Jewish exile when the Jewish people are free to sojourn back to Jerusalem to restart, but generally are still spread out all over the region. He’s making a strong call to reunite the people back to a Temple and back to their home.
It needs to be noted, though, that not all Jews thought having a temple was the greatest idea. And in fact, the entire Old Testament is really something of a dialogue between the pro-Temple people (who are called Sadducees by the time of Jesus) and the anti-Temple people (called the Pharisees). The book of Deuteronomy and the books that follow make a strong argument for centralizing power and worship at the Temple.
Jesus predicts the destruction of this Temple as his disciples marvel at it. In fact, in Matthew 24 and the other Olivet passages in the Gospels, Jesus seems to even predict the end of the world when he is talking about the fate of the Temple. The main reason is that for the Jewish people it is like their end of the world. The end of their culture, their nationalist Spirit, the one thing they have that binds them as a people in the Middle of the Roman Empire. When those Romans destroy that Temple, it’s a major reminder of what happened to them in Egypt and in Babylon.
At first Christianity was about people, not buildings
Judaism became a religion centered on the Temple. Jesus changes all of that. Christianity, it can be rightly said, is the first non-temple based religion. In the minds of the early Christians, it wasn’t a sacred space that constituted the temple, but rather a group of people, together, they were the temple and the house of God. The writers of the New Testament don’t use the word for church, temple, or house of God to refer to a building, but rather one another. Even by the year 190 CE, when Clement of Alexandria uses that term “ekklesia” (ἐκκλησία, a Greek word that is typically translated as church), he isn’t referring to a church building but rather a house church, not unlike our cells. The church itself was a home-centered movement, and the body of Christ was the Temple of God.
When Christians started to honor the dead, much like their foreign contemporaries, they not only had a place for worship in their homes, they also had them at the cemetery. The cemetery was then known as a sacred place. Over where venerated people died, they began to put gravestones and decorate them and eventually constructed shrines. Those became holy, too. This mimicked the behavior of the Romans around them at the time, both revering the dead, the decorations, and the building. Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of Rome, borrowed a lot from his pagan background and instituted a large building program in the empire. He built nine churches “worthy of an Emperor.” The buildings themselves had a lot of Greek and Roman influence. Under his reign, Christianity became legitimate. Christians enjoyed peace and prosperity, and the faith itself rose to a privileged status higher than Judaism and other religions.
Even during the Reformation, when guys like Martin Luther were explicitly against the idea of a church as a building, they couldn’t not get rid of the building, fit with Egyptian obelisks we call steeples. We could go further, but I hope you are getting the idea that I’m talking about.
From the start of it, the Israelites were an assembly of people. Solomon’s temple had political and national significance. And even when Jesus did away with it, Constantine brought it back, and even the so-called Reformation couldn’t get rid of it.
So when I say you are the church and the church isn’t a building, it’s a radical statement. Radical, in that it is the root of what we are talking about.
For the Jewish people, even the turned Christians, it was equally radical and I think that’s why Pentecost is so important.
Longing for a savior
As I said earlier, writers of the Old Testament, who were composing their works of prophecy and history after Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, were calling for a time with a new ruler and a new temple. They really were seeing through a glass darkly. They couldn’t really understand or even predict what that looked like. They didn’t know that their ruler would be Jesus and their temple would be based on the togetherness of the assembled people. I’m not even sure Jesus’ followers knew what to expect when he was on earth.
And so a radical, wild thing needed to happen to cosmically shift how the movement was getting started and that is Pentecost. The Jewish people may have expected something like this to happen, if their prophet Joel was to be believed, but perhaps not in the way that it did.
During Pentecost a wild rushing wind, raining fire, visits the gathered assembly. The diverse group of Jewish people gathered from their far-flung places all over the region. Come together, able to speak to each other, not to assemble in a building but to form a body.
You are the main event
They didn’t need to go to a building where God dwelled, because God dwelled in them. But they couldn’t do it alone or express it alone, but it needed to be expressed together. It’s a radical statement of being the church. This is our birthday. It’s a big deal and I hope you are getting that at this point. That being the church is not only what God is giving us to do, but it is denuded and diluted by the idea that worship happens in the confines of a building or as a product that you consume.
Whether you like it or not, the Spirit is in you and you matter. You are making all of this happen. And I’m not just saying that. I’m not ready to throw out the building altogether, because it was some practical aspects that are good, and unfortunately, probably too much cultural meaning to just do away with it.
But I think the point of Pentecost resonates with us today. The Spirit is in you and you are bringing something to the table. You are the church. And our community allows you to practically express that reality. It’s a chance and opportunity to do it. And I think for you to take that seriously, you have to believe that God has given you something worthy of sharing, and an identity worthy of holding on to. If you don’t think you matter, if you are caught up on your own problems, and inadequacies, you might not think you are that important to this. That the Spirit of God isn’t in you and that you aren’t a dwelling place for God. But you have all that it takes. You can be deployed and do something great because the Spirit of God is in you and in all of us.
I hope then you find an opportunity here to express that. That you can express the fullness of the Spirit that God has given you. That you can play your part because your part matters. Never mind the building, the sermon, the worship, all of those potentially consumeristic things that we “shop” for when we “shop” for churches. You are the main event. When I share about us, I share about you. We are the main event. We are bringing the Spirit of God to the world, that thinks it’s relegated to a tiny consumer choice in the arbitrary form of a building or a meeting. Pentecost brings the Spirit down to earth and unites us together to be a collective expression of God’s dwelling place. You are worth connecting to, even if you don’t think everything else in the faith, including a building, is. That’s the revolution of Pentecost and why it matters.