The church is a body (and it's beautiful)
Topic: The Church Scripture: 1 Peter 2:4–2:12
The Church is a body (and it’s beautiful)
Rev. Stuart Strachan Jr
Well we are starting a brand new series this morning that is all about the church. What is it? Where did it come from? And how can we be both faithful and fruitful members of this local expression of the church here at Tower.
Now, this morning’s sermon is going to be a bit different. It is going to be highly focused on teaching but I am going to ask, please track with me. Because I believe it is possible, if we truly grasp the content of this sermon, that our understanding of the church will be different today than it was yesterday.
And it may just help us as we consider some fairly significant changes to how we “do church” here at Tower moving forward. So even as I go to some places today where you may be thinking, what is Stu talking about, please hang in there with me, and I hope, I pray that it will be worth it.
Because of course, the church, and specifically, our church is something most of us take very seriously. And I’m sure that each of us in our own way desires to serve the church as faithfully and fruitfully as we possibly can.
So with that said, let’s dive into our sermon text this morning from 1 Peter 2 verses 4-12.
1 Peter 2:4-12
4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”[b]
7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”[c]
8 and, A stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”[d]
They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
Okay, so I’ve already warned you that this morning’s sermon is going to be a little different and I want to give you some direction, some railings to hold on to so you know where I am going this morning.
The first two parts of the sermon we are going to be looking at how first the Jews, and then the early Christians worshipped God. How they thought about worship and what spaces they used to do it.
I’m actually going to show you about 8 images of these buildings to help you wrap your head around all of this. After we look at how first the Israelites, than the Jews and then the early Christians worshipped, I’m going to wrap it all up with some applications for us.
I promise, the application will come, but my hope again, as we look at all of this, is that your understanding of worship, may in fact change especially as we look at how the people of God are defined before Jesus and after Jesus.
Worship in the Old Testament
Now interestingly enough, before Jesus came on the scene, from almost the very beginning of the Jewish faith, God had a physical house in which his presence lived. Now, God of course is omnipresent, but He also existed in a special way in specific locations.
When the Isralites were in the wilderness, and they were moving
God’s house was in the tabernacle, and the ark of the covenant was inside the tabernacle.
Can you guys pull up the picture? This is a scale model of what the tabernacle would have looked like.
Later when the Jews conquered the Promised Land, Solomon built a temple for the Lord.
And at a very basic level the temple was a house of the Lord. Now remember that, because as we eventually will look at some New Testament texts, that language will re-emerge.
Now incidentally, this is the case of almost all ancient religions.
Each religion would construct temples that housed the god or gods they worshipped. And you would bring sacrifices to them as part of your worship.
Now, back to the Jews…the first temple is destroyed by the Babylonians…the Jews are forced into exile…and you can imagine how painful this was.
Somehow the resting place of God almighty has been destroyed…and it throws into question, how do we worship God when He has no House?
Then, after some time, the Babylonians are defeated by the Persians and the Persians release many of the Jews to go back to their home land and re-build the city walls (you can read about that in Nehemiah) and to re-build the temple (which you can read about in Ezra)
Ultimately, Herod, yes the same Herod that tried to kill the baby Jesus, is the one who re-builds the temple. (can we show the image up there)
This is the temple that Jesus goes to as a child, this is the temple that Jesus speaks about and actually prophesies would be destroyed (which it is in 70 AD)
Now there are a couple of things to know about the temple. For one, there were multiple courts where increasingly less people were able to enter (so you see looking at the picture, there are a number of courts, with less and less people given access based on who they were.
In fact, gentiles were only able to get into the first gate. And this wasn’t a suggestion. [Guys, could you put up the picture?] Now what exactly does this say? Let’s translate:
NO FOREIGNER IS TO GO BEYOND THE BALUSTRADE AND THE PLAZA OF THE TEMPLE ZONE WHOEVER IS CAUGHT DOING SO WILL HAVE HIMSELF TO BLAME FOR HIS DEATH , WHICH WILL FOLLOW.
Pretty gutsy move considering these are a group of people who are ruled by foreigners…but somehow the Romans went with it.
Also, interestingly enough, Paul is accused in Acts 21 of having brought a gentile into the inner court of the temple:
When the seven days [Paul was in Jeruslaem] were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him,28 shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help us! This is the man who teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.” 29 (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)
So that’s how Jews worshipped God in the Old Testament.
But this brings me to my next point which is this: For Jews, when they thought about worshipping God, when they thought about God’s presence, they always thought about Jerusalem, Zion, that great city on a hill.
And not just the city, but the temple, In other words, they thought about a building.
When they prayed, they always prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, because Jerusalem was where the temple was, and the temple was where God’s presence existed.
And we see this played out, interestingly enough, in Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. She begins arguing with him over who is correct in their worship of Yahweh, the Jews or the Samaritans. Listen to what the Samaritan woman said:
“Sir,” “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain (that is, Mt. Gerazim in Samaria), but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
In other words, You Samaritans are wrong to think that Mt. Gerazim is superior to Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been in fact God’s city, but ultimately, when I have finished my work, that is, Jesus speaking here, neither Jerusalem nor Mt. Gerazim are going to be the place where you go to worship God.
The shift away from a building in the New Testament
Because God is no longer going to be housed in a building, he will be housed in us, through the Holy Spirit. And so that’s what he means when he says God’s worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in Truth”
And what we don’t often get is just how revolutionary this was to someone living at that time. For both Jews and Greeks, the prevailing understanding of God is that if you want to worship a god or The God, your mind instantly would think of a temple. The house of God.
But with the advent of Jesus’ building, something very different is beginning to take place.
So…one of the things we see throughout the New Testament in writers, like Peter and Paul, is this idea of a spiritual house as a metaphor to help these early Christians understand this huge shift away from God being in a building and instead being inside of us.
In 1 Corinthians: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.”
In Ephesians 2, our first scripture reading, he says:
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
So over and over again, in the New Testament there is a movement away from God’s presence in a specific location i.e. the Temple, and moving into the people of God.
Peter, in our sermon text, also uses this metaphor of a temple with Jesus as the cornerstone
And we see this right at the beginning of our sermon text, let’s look at what it says:
“As you come to him, (that is to Jesus) the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
Now, I want to come back for a moment to this question of buildings.
And this time, I mean it in the literal sense. If gentiles couldn’t worship in the temple, and churches were springing up all over the Roman Empire, where did Christians worship? And what kind of buildings did they use?
Well the answer, to begin with, is houses and fields. Remember, at first the Christian faith was illegal. Romans were very suspicious of Christians because they wouldn’t take part in aspects of the culture, like Gladiatorial games.
So having a building wasn’t exactly a good idea. So the earliest churches worshipped primarily in homes and in fields. In other words, there facilities costs were very low.
But here’s another really interesting aspect of the early church, the word in the Greek which we translate “church”, literally means “assembly”. As in, the people were gathered in an assembly.
It doesn’t mean a building…it’s a gathering.
Gathering of what you might ask? Those who call themselves followers of Jesus.
In other words, you all remember this nursery rhyme, (and pardon my hand gestures, I’m not an expert).
Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people. Close the doors and listen to them pray, open the doors and they all walk away.
Now what’s wrong with that? It assumes that the church is a building. But the true church, from its inception, is not a building, but the people, who each, being different parts of the body, form the whole.
Now eventually churches did begin meeting in buildings. When Constantine legalized the Christian faith in 313 AD, all of a sudden money started coming in to build Christian churches. But what kind of building would they construct?
Well, there really wasn’t any obvious candidate of building structures that made sense. Jesus did tell Peter “on this rock I will build my church” , but he never said it will be this many feet long and this many feet wide, and don’t forget to use blue carpet and stain glass windows.
Now creating something akin to the Jewish temple didn’t make sense for a lot of reasons, one being that only the priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, separated by the veil.
Well, when Jesus died the veil was split. As Paul says in Ephesians, the dividing wall that kept out gentiles had been destroyed..
None of the pagan temples made sense either. They had the same problems structurally.
And so the answer, in terms of a building, what they ended up with, came not from the religious world, but from the civic world. (Guys, can you show the picture of the layout of the Roman basilica).
And you can see why. The basilica. So it was pretty much long and rectangular, and could fit a lot of people.
Now originally the Roman basilica was a building used to gather people for various purposes, for meetings, for court cases, for elections. And it was chosen, not because there was something intrinsically holy about it, but because it would accommodate this growing faith as people came together to worship.
And there was something wonderful about this. Over time, Christians began to add what they called transepts to the sides of the basilica, and what that did was turn the basilica into the shape of a cross. (Guys can you show the next image) here’s one of the earliest remaining basilicas in Rome, it’s called St. Sabinas.
Now why do I tell you all this? That is a pretty extensive history of worship buildings Stu, I’m a little lost.
But it comes back to this question that I brought up at the very beginning of the sermon…what is the church?
And the hope here is that as you see how we’ve come from a variety of different buildings in which God was worshipped, that you may also see our building in the same way early Christians did, as a place where the church gathered.
Because the building isn’t the church, we are the church, we the body of Christ are the church gathered in this place and time.
And sometimes I think because of our own experiences we mistake our traditions for how we “do church” for the essence of what the Church really is.
In other words, what Dr. Paul Borden said a few weeks ago is true, as beautiful and historical as it is, this building is not the church, it is a tool that enables us to gather as the church.
And as we consider some of these changes, some are, as Paul said, some pretty big gulps, this building has to be understood not as “the church” but as a building in which the church, the body of Christ gathers.
And my hope, is that as we embrace that truth, as we embrace the reality that while the gospel never changes but culture changes constantly, that we will be willing to make the big changes that will ultimately enable us to live out our calling as the church, as those who come together as the living stones, built on the cornerstone, which is Christ.
I love those words from the classic hymn, “the solid rock”. “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand”.
I believe Jesus was telling the truth, when he told Peter that “on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it”.
And the question for us is this, who is our rock? Is it Jesus? Is he the one whom our faith is built? Or is it on something else, because if it is, we must remember those words from Edward Mote’s great hymn, “all other ground is sinking sand”.
Brothers and sisters, the church is not a building, it is a body, and it is beautiful.
Let us build on the living rock, who will never disappoint us and may we be willing to take whatever steps are necessary for us to continue to be built up as the church as the Holy Spirit dwells within us.
Will you pray with me?