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Sermon Archives

Temple Architecture

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Feb 23

Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, and 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

In 2008, I took a youth group of 40 high school students to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi to do cleanup and construction. It was three years after Hurricane Katrina and—still—there was destruction everywhere.  Bay St. Louis is on the Gulf Coast north and east of New Orleans an it was hit hard: homes and businesses lost, the town’s economy devastated.  Driving along the waterfront, trees were snapped off and huge piles of debris lay where homes had been.

The need was great and we had a variety of projects to tackle during our week of service, including some demolition and abatement, but also new house construction.  The abatement was pretty nasty.  In the aftermath of a hurricane, mold and rodents come in and they have to be dealt with!  Demolition, on the other hand, was fun!  Who doesn’t love swinging a sledgehammer and busting things up?  But building something new was the most exciting of all.  In a week we built an entire wood-frame house from floor joists to roof rafters.  It was amazing!

Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation, 

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:10-11)

In Bay St. Louis we learned a few things about laying foundations.  A good foundation is strong and true.  It anchors a building to the land and takes into account the contours of that land as well as prevailing climate and conditions.  When we arrived, the contractor had already poured the cement foundation and it was set.  Our first task was to lay the floor joists—the horizontal boards that support the floor of the house.  Mississippi building codes dictate spacing of 18 inches apart.  But here’s where it got interesting.  

Hurricanes carry a huge updraft and a potential storm surge that can lift a building right off its foundation.  So in Mississippi, each floor joist must be attached to the foundation with metal hurricane straps.  We had the job of nailing these straps into place—which meant crawling on hands and knees inside the foundation and underneath the floorboards. 

We learned about laying foundations, but we also learned a lot about Mississippi mud—a thick red clay that can suck the boots right off your feet.   

Paul uses the familiar image of house construction to speak about the church. He describes himself as a sophos architekton—a wise architect—which I suppose is a sort of a glorified Perry Neubauer.  Sophos architekton, a wise master builder. 

To the Corinthian congregations Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? ... God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”   

When we twenty-first century Christians hear words like “temple” or “church,” we tend to think of a building.  We may need to remind ourselves that the church is the congregation, not the building.  Paul was definitely not speaking about a building.  He was merely using a concrete and familiar image to speak about the gathered community of Christ.  The Corinthians themselves would not have been inclined to conflate the two.  Recall that in the first century, congregations met in people’s homes, not in a church building.   

Our first word for church, the Greek ekklesia, refers to a gathering.  The Greek word, naos, or temple, signified a dwelling place for a god.  (Picture a shrine.)  And as long as I’m laying out some terms—here’s one in Hebrew.  “In Jewish scriptures, the central building of the temple in Jerusalem was called the bet YHWH, or house of the Lord. (Kgs. 7:1, 40, 45, 51.)”[i]

How big a deal is it when Paul tells the Corinthian community, “You are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  One scholar (Richard Hays) claims that, “Not the gathered community, but the Temple in Jerusalem, was understood as the dwelling place of God.” Hays insists that, in this letter addressed to Gentile Christians in Corinth, Paul is “is making a world-shattering move, decentering the sacred space of Judaism.”[ii] 

But another commentator warns, we might be tempted to see “Paul’s imagery as more personal and a more ‘Christian spiritual ideal’ than the ‘Jewish idea’ that God lives in the temple in Jerusalem, but this would not be true.”  Kate Foster Connors insists that, “The idea of the community as a temple is an old Jewish idea, as can be seen in the Community Rule from Qumran, in which the community is similarly [compared] to…a temple.”[iii]

We can get into some serious trouble with our Jewish friends when we try to sketch complex realities in black and white.  What’s clear is that (however continuous or discontinuous with Judaism) Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, quite explicitly anchors the spiritual reality of the fledgling church in the living presence of an in-dwelling God.  The movement of this Christ’s Spirit within the gathered community is the strength and foundation of the church. 

Here’s another thing that’s clear.  Paul is not speaking of individual Christians as the dwelling-place of God, but of the whole community of Christ.  And I have to admit that’s somewhat of a relief.  I do believe that the human body is the vessel for our incandescent souls.  The breath of life winds its way through our mortal flesh.  It’s holy (h-o-l-y) and totally awesome.  But if you start calling me—this body—a temple of the holy, I might just freak out, because it makes me think of how much caffeine I drink or how many food additives and GMOs I might “accidentally” ingest, or how little exercise I’m getting. 

Fortunately I’m off the hook this time.  When Paul tells the Corinthians, “God’s Spirit dwells in you,” he’s definitely speaking of the gathered community.  WE are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in us. 

The author of Leviticus writes, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  If we imagine holiness as some sanitized and perfect condition, pure and free from every fault, we are missing the central message of our tradition—both our Jewish and our Christian heritage.  Leviticus knew that life in community is messy as can be.  And he gave us some pretty clear guidelines for what makes community holy, what makes it a sanctuary, a refuge, and a place of the in-dwelling God. 

There are some things we are not supposed to do, because they destroy community and militate against human flourishing.  Leviticus articulates commandments—proscriptive norms—what we should not do.  Don’t steal.  Don’t lie.  Don’t deal falsely.  Don’t slander.  Don’t hate on people.  (Those behaviors are like a sledgehammer.  They demolish, rather than build up.)  

But Leviticus also articulates a clear prescriptive ethic.  What should we do?  Leave the gleanings—the edges of the field—for those who have no harvest of their own, so they can be fed from your efforts.  Deal justly with your laborer.  Show loving-kindness.  Exercise impartiality and fairness in judgment.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself—both.  These are not an ethic of squeaky-clean, sanitized holiness, but principles that lead us to wholeness of life. 

These are the same signposts of life in Christ.  We cannot anticipate every storm that may come our way.  And our building codes cannot prepare us for every shift of the wind.  The prevailing conditions in Cambridge, MA are different from those in Bay St. Louis.  We hope there will be no hurricane swell to sweep us from our foundation.  And the conditions of the twenty-first century are very different from those of first century Palestine.  

In all his wisdom, even Paul (the sophos architekton—master builder) could not have imagined economic globalization, climate change, the proliferation of gun violence, or a Fukushima meltdown.  Living in this age, we must be engaged and flexible and prepared with our supply of hurricane straps for the prevailing conditions.  But Paul reminds us—as he reminded the Corinthians—that it is the foundation that determines whether the building is true and strong.  

We are a holy temple—a community built on Christ: faithful in our discipleship, just and merciful, loving and forgiving, firmly rooted in God’s wisdom.  With Christ, our sure foundation, we are equipped for every kind of weather.  We are built on something sturdier than fieldstones or concrete.  This gathered community has tensile strength because we are in relationship with a living God.  It is not the gales without, but the fresh wind of the Spirit within that marks who we are. 

Praise be to our Christ and to our God!  Amen.


[i] Kate Foster Connors, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 377.

[ii] Richard Hays, 1 Corinthians: Interpretation, a Commentary for Preaching and Teaching, p. 57.

[iii] Connors, p. 377.



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