We are to see the Temple as establishing, so to speak, a bridgehead for God’s own presence within a world that has very determinedly gone its own way. -N.T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms
We are the temple of the living God. –2 Corinthians 6:16, E.S.V.
As I type these words I am looking at a small Greek Orthodox Church. It could not be any bigger than 12 feet by 12 feet, with a small apse that extends the structure by only a bit. With its white washed exterior, four windows and outdoor icon, this most simple structure humbly yet forcefully proclaims God’s great glory. It feels, at least to me, like Heaven touching Earth.
When I reflect upon this small sacred structure, I am reminded of the human person. Man, referencing both women and men, is a sacred structure — the distinct image of God upon this earth. We are, as 2 Corinthians 6:16 tell us, the temple of the Living God. And, as with this small Greek Orthodox Church, our existence and expression are intended for proclamation.
We, as the church which I referenced, speak of God. In some odd way we also speak as God, albeit only to the extent that both our lips and lives communicate Holy Scripture by the Holy Spirit. It is important, therefore, that our lips and our lives communicate a cohesive and comprehensive Gospel message. To accomplish this, we must embrace transformation before we engage in proclamation. Or, continuing the metaphor, we must have a solid foundation (the transformed person) before we erect the bell tower (the transforming proclamation). The brief words which follow are sustained meditations on how, using the concept of church or temple, the transformed Man can more perfectly communicate God’s transforming message of Jesus Christ.
A HOLY PLACE
The construction of any Temple or Cathedral begins with a plot of earth, dirt, dust. This should not in any way be a surprise. God formed Man, in God’s “image and likeness,” from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:1-9). As well, God breathed into Man the breath of life and placed “them” in a well-cultivated Garden. From dust and Breath, Man became a living soul — holy ground upon holy ground. But, as we also know, human beings chose sin and its consequent separations. While in some way the image has remained, the likeness was in some way lost.
God created human beings as a cultivated field or garden within a cultivated field or garden. It was perfect for planting. It was perfect for production. Unfortunately, the Winter of Sin cast stone and debris within and upon the soil. The holy ground of our humanity needed to be cleared and cultivated in order for it to yield a crop. From an agricultural standpoint this original intention and primal loss make sense. If you prepare soil for planting, or development, the ground must be cleared. As such, before anything happens, most especially after a hard Winter the farmer must pass through the fields collecting the rocks that the thaw has forced to the surface. Often, especially in certain parts of the country, and in certain climates, this must be done every year. This can be labor intensive and back breaking-work, but it must be done. If neglected, the possibility of planting and harvest are somewhat compromised. (If you have ever tried to plow a field with large rocks and boulders throughout the landscape you will understand.)
One of our responsibilities as Christians is to clear the land of our socio-psycho-pneumatic selves from the stones of sins, separations and passions that resist the planting and purposes of God. Although God “saves” and “sanctifies” us, the labor intensive work of clearing the fields from disordered passions remains part of our responsibility. God “wills” and “works” it (Philippians 2:13), and we are called to cooperate. We can prepare the soil of our souls for planting and production in two ways: By developing humility (as well as other virtues) and by uprooting the weeds of disordered passions (vices). Any Temple or Cathedral must have consecrated and prepared ground upon which to build. The same is true for the Cathedral of Man.
A WORKING PLACE
My wife loves to cook and to bake. My wife also makes a huge mess when she is in the kitchen. After she has finished preparing, FEMA and OSHA often identifies her workplace as an emergency disaster site. I, as might be imagined, am recruited for clean-up and rescue. The Cathedral of Man is also a working place. Like any work under construction, things can become very messy. If you have ever seen the wonderful mini-series Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, you will know how messy a working site is…or can become.
Christians need to understand and appreciate that we are a “work in progress.” Although we have been “saved,” we are also being saved and will be saved. We “work out” our salvation with fear and trembling — not to mention the sweat of our brow (Philippians 2:12, emphasis mine). This can be, and in fact is, a very messy enterprise.
One of the formative documents of Christianity is the carefully constructed “Apostles’ Creed.” Similarly, the Nicene Creed is a beautifully crafted piece of theological literature. However, notwithstanding their beauty and import, controversy and much work went into their (primarily the Nicene Creed’s) construction. Establishing the Nicene Creed was messy business and messy work.
Even the Apostles’ Creed itself hints at the messy business of being and becoming the Church. While acknowledging God’s sovereignty as “Father,” “Almighty” and “Maker” in section one, we are swiftly introduced to the “mess” of Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, death and hellish “descent” in section two. This “messy” element is only intensified when we read about, in the third section, the “holy catholic church.” And, of course, we understand that apart from Jesus Christ and his ongoing mercy and grace, the Church is not really “holy” at all. Only the “Holy Spirit,” (the beginning of section three) living in and among us, makes us a holy people.
We are, as discussed by Dr. Larry Crabb, a “glorious ruin.” This said, and appreciating that we are as Christians called to be holy (Matthew 5:48 and 1 Peter 1:15), we must enter the “mess” of building holy lives in an unholy world among unholy people. We are workers and we are a workplace. This means that we are, and we make, messes. A truly Christian life requires always being “under construction.” Christian growth is always a blood-on-the-knuckles enterprise.
Whether a Creed, Council, Cathedral or Man, work is required and a mess is often created. Saint Isaac the Syrian said this: “Be at peace with your own soul, and then Heaven and Earth will be at peace with you.” We must make peace with being a working place for God— with all of its inherent messes.
A WORSHIP PLACE
Human beings, Homo sapiens, can also be understood as Homo-liturgical. We are inherently worshiping beings. We are made for worship. Every attitude or action we undertake somehow intersects with the first two of the Ten Commandments. This, quite frankly, is frightening. Nevertheless, as worshipers we must ensure that every part of our being celebrates and properly articulates God (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Cathedral of Man articulates this well.
Man as the Doors
One of the most frightening parts of Christian witness is that the Man is the message. I found this out the hard way a number of years ago. Upon taking a family member to the hospital, I found that the medical “professionals” had entirely mis-communicated and mis-documented information. As this family member was almost entirely disabled, I, quite emphatically, chewed out the staff. I was quite clear, and specific, about their medical incompetence. I was not wrong in my analysis. Unfortunately, although I made NO threats, the staff FELT threatened and called Security — as well as a friend of mine on staff who was not a Christian. Hearing me emphatically, and with a moderately elevated voice, challenge the medical staff was hard for my friend who heard this exchange. While we remained friends, I think my witness to him was somewhat compromised.
Christians are the “doors” of the Church. For many people we will be their only entry to or exit from Christianity. We will be their only entry or exit to or from Christ. We open or close doors for those who seek to enter into our fellowship. As such, by way of metaphorical illustration, we must ensure that the “doors” of our witness communicate Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” (right) and do not communicate Doors of Damnation. Like Jesus himself, we too are doors (John 10:9). Are the “doors” of our witness an opening or a closing to Christ’s “good news”?
Man as the Narthex
Question: What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist!
I have pronounced, yet biblically-informed, perspectives on worship. Physical space, structure of worship and nature of sound must each and all communicate the sacred. They must each and all communicate the sacramental.
Man can be understood as the Narthex of the Church. Of note is, like the doors, the Narthex can be a point of entry or of exit. Much attention has been given to this for many years. Greeters are (ideally) trained to be welcoming, but not too welcoming. Greeters (ideally) are trained to introduce, but not to intrude. This applies to the Man as Narthex. Christians not only communicate the Person of Christ, but the community of Christians. What we say, verbally and visually, communicates as much about the “saints” as it does about the Savior. As people enter the outermost part of the Church, as they are greeted, what is the response we seek to elicit? Let me offer an example. When I supervised counseling offices I INSISTED that our “sidewalk appeal” be pronounced. I did not want people who saw our building to be met by dirty windows, offset blinds, unopened mail, un-vacuumed floors, flaking paint, and disordered paperwork. Visual appeal (or lack thereof) had (and has) its proportionate visceral reaction. I did not want people to react to our ministry; I wanted them to respond to our ministry.
Let me provide another example more to the point. When supervising I was asked if X should be appointed as another Supervisor. My answer was swift: “No.” When asked why, I told them that the reason I would not appoint X to that position was because X wore shorts to work. They were shocked. “What,” they asked, “do shorts have to do with service?” Again my answer was swift: “If X ‘shorts’ you on professional apparel, X will ‘short’ you on professional service.” A couple of years later I needed to return to this particular office. In short order I was asked what to do about X. Apparently, as I predicted, X was not working well. X was, I was informed, shorting the agency of an “honest day of work.” All I could say was “I told you so.”
How do we “greet” or “look” to those who enter the Church? Are we communicating a “come as you are” ethic? On some superficial level this might be entirely reasonable and acceptable. It might, for a period of time, even be encouraged. However, if taken too far, “come as you are” means little more than “leave as you were.” The Church DOES NOT want people to leave as they were. We want people to encounter Christ. But, to encounter Christ, they will first encounter us — the “outer room” of the Church. Man is Narthex. What are we saying?
Man as the Fount
In more traditional churches a Baptismal Fount is found as you enter the Sanctuary. There is a sound theological reason for this. Baptism is our entry into the Body of Christ, the corporeal community of Christians. To have a Baptismal Fount placed elsewhere communicates a theology that may not entirely be biblical. Jesus entered his public ministry AFTER his baptism in the Jordan. The Apostles entered their public ministries AFTER they were baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). We enter the Church AFTER we are baptized. This is the biblical, theological and catechetical norm. And, of course, it has physical / structural applications.
The Christian Man, individually and corporately, is the fount into which new believers are baptized. The Christian Man is the (humanly speaking) fount of Christian community. People are baptized into Christ AND INTO THE COMMUNITY OF THE CHURCH. We come from, are born into, and are destined for community. Our first point of entry into the Sanctuary is the Fount of Man.
What does the “water,” also metaphorically called the Church, look like? When I was a child I lived on the banks of the Potomac River just outside of Washington, D.C. Shortly before my mother moved there, the Potomac had caught on fire and burned. The River burned because it was so polluted. Even after we arrived, although far cleaner than earlier, you could almost walk on top of the water because of its collected filth.
Some time ago I met a man who wanted to become a member of a particular church. This was very important to him because of his upbringing and, as well, because of this church’s reputation of antiquity, authority, and apostolicity. After aligning himself, however, and in short order, this man soon found that this particular church was sweltering in sin and pronounced spiritual pollution. In three short months he left this “community,” never returning.
Are the “waters” of our lives, the “waters” of our assemblies, polluted by our frightening failures and our stark sins? Are our communities so thick with socio-psycho-pneumatic poison that any right-minded person would not want to be with us? Are our churches little more than white washed tombs? They, and we, need not be. We can by God’s grace cleanse the waters. How do we do this? We accomplish this through corporate discipline and personal discipleship. We can, in spite of the fact that we will fail, in spite of the fact that mercy and forgiveness must always be practiced, make our fellowships founts of joy, justice, and transformation. We can, and we must, cleanse the founts. Are the “theology” and community we offer turbid or tranquil, polluted or pure?
Man as the Aisle
As we enter the Sanctuary, after the Fount, we reach the aisle. Depending upon the size and theological structuring of this sacred space, there may be one or many different aisles. Traditional more ancient churches tend to face eastward, with all the aisles facing the Altar and Apse which are at the front of the church. Some contemporary churches, constructed after Vatican II, tend to be churches “in the round” with the people facing each other. This, too, is a theological statement. More recently, churches have been built like gymnasiums — as pragmatic and utilitarian industrial complexes. This too, like the others mentioned, reflect a theological perspective on worship and worshipers. Regardless, all of the aisles in a church go to and point somewhere. In some way, and without exception, every church structure moves people somewhere and to a specific place and purpose.
Man as the aisle of God moves people to a particular person, place and perspective. Ideally we move people to the Person of Jesus Christ. Ideally we move people to the place of encounter with God and personal transformation. Ideally we move people toward a Christian, a biblical, worldview. Ideally we move people into a visible and viable community of committed Christians. But, as repeatedly stated, this is ideal.
In practice, as with the Doors and the narthex, the aisle leads in or out. People, through our witness, will either encounter Christ and community or, alternately, endure our meaningless and tedious meanderings. What is being said when both pastors and people have no interest in talking with and about God? What is being said when worship is makeshift or motivated by “relevance?” What is being communicated when words like redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, sanctification, and a great many other words like them, have absolutely no place in our vocabulary? Are our lips and our lives moving people toward Christ and a visible and viable Christian community, or, as I sometimes suspect, are we communicating bridges to nowhere?
Man as the Nave
One of the important lessons that Christians must learn is that we are ALL in the same boat. When Jesus got into the boat, the Bible tells us, “his disciples followed him.” If we are disciples, we follow Jesus with other disciples who are also in the same boat. It is interesting that the place in the church where people worship, the place which the aisle or aisles dissect, is called the Nave. This word, meaning boat or ship, suggests that we are all in this thing called the Church together. Disciples follow Jesus into this Nave, the ship of the Church.
This word, its implication, is quite telling. Upon being instructed by God, Noah built a boat. Those in the boat would be saved from the flood of God’s wrath. Those outside the boat would not be saved. As well, the Bible tells us, seven of every “clean” animal and two of every “unclean” animal were afforded places on the poop deck – the boat.
Now, to be sure, Man is a nave. And, equally as accurate, Man is at times more like an “unclean animal,” a knave, than (as God intends) a sanctified saint. Every boat, as we are keenly aware, has a unique collection of donkeys — not to mention a host of other undesirables. I know because I am one of them.
But this too is the Church. Let’s face it. As people in process, as a work under construction, we are not always going to be or look good. (Can you imagine the stench on the Ark after a few weeks in closed quarters with ALL of those animals!? How, as well, did Noah’s wife feel about having Noah around 24/7!? And, not to be overlooked, how did Noah’s daughters and sons-in-law feel about having Mr. and Mrs. Noah skulking about all day, waiting for the rain to stop? Such is the Church!) However, as a Nave, as women and men who are in the “boat” with Jesus and with each other, we have a wonderfully unique opportunity, through our Baptism, to be and function as a community. Man is a nave, Man is the nave called the Church. We are all in this boat, called the Church, together. Let us, therefore, make and be the best of it.
Man as the Transept
All Christians are in the Church, this boat that is architecturally called the Nave. Having just outlined the (at times) considerable discomfort this may cause, it is understandable why the aisles of the Nave lead to the Transept. In ancient cathedrals the Transept is the front-and-center part of the church building that forms an architectural cross. Every ancient cathedral was built in the form of the cross. This is good Biblical, Moral, Practical, and Liturgical Theology. The center of St. Paul’s Biblical Theology is the Cross. The center of St. Paul’s Moral Theology is the Cross. Liturgically the Cross is at the center of worship and proclamation. The Cross is, as well, central to the Gospel Narratives. The Cross is front-and-center of truly Christian Theology.
The Cross, given the nature of our human condition and predicament, is also at the center of all truly Practical Theology. Because we are all in the close quarters of the Church-as-community, we must learn to embrace the Cross in order to endure each other. There are times when I am not good. As such, you must learn to embrace the Cross of patience. There are times when you are rude. I must, therefore, learn to embrace the Cross of kindness. There are times when we try and “tax” each other. Consequently we must both learn to embrace the Cross of self-control. Embracing the Cross, Christ’s and our own, is simply a practical principle of kingdom living. If we are all in the same boat, we must all learn to creatively and redemptively get along (1 Corinthians 13). The Cross stands at the center of church architecture because the Cross must also stand at the center of Christian community.
Man as the Quire / Choir
Man is the place (Quire) and people of worship (Choir). Upon Man, as on a page in a book but also inscribed upon the heart, the song of God is written. I might say, and I believe this with my heart, that Man is the song of God. Furthermore, through the Holy Spirit living within us, God has one essential and eminently personal life-song for us to sing. We find it in that place between suffering and speech, between Transept and Pulpit.
Caedmon, an Anglo-Saxon Monk, had no gift for song. When the round of singing would begin, or when asked to sing a song or recite a poem (so very central to Anglo-Saxon life), Caedmon would skulk off to the barn to be with the cattle. This was a great grief to him because, without a song, he felt he was not part of the community. His deep suffering led to prayer. One night a miracle occurred and he was able, on the spot, to recite poetry and sing songs — all of his own making. Caedmon is now considered to be one of the greatest singers and poets who ever lived.
But what is of great interest is this: We only have ONE of his songs. Everything else was lost. It is as if he had one song to sing, sang it well, and influenced generations. The sorrows that he converted into supplication resulted in Spirit-inspired (it is believed) song. And what is his only recorded song about? Caedmon’s hymn is about the Cross of Christ.
We too have a song to sing, and our struggles and sufferings are God’s means of tuning us up and keeping us in tune with the human community in which we are placed. The Choir is a place embedded within ancient churches just like our song celebrating Christ is embedded in each one of us. We must sing the Lord’s song, the song God has given and made us to be, in this foreign land among other pilgrims —- before we speak to them.
(An Interlude: I think that organs should be banned and bagpipes should be brought into the Church as THE instrument of choice. The bagpipe is a perfect instrument, metaphorically illustrating how God works with Man, for communicating the vast and varied range of human emotions. Consider: God takes this bag of disjointed pieces and breathes into it. What a wretched sound emerges when you first play the bagpipes! But, with time and talent, the bagpipe “sings” like none other. This is us. God has a song for each of us. In order to get us to sing, God squeezes us. And He squeezes us again. And again! We do not like this at all. We cry. We moan. We squeal. We squeak and make all sorts of unpleasant sounds. With time, and with more squeezing, we begin to sound better. Soon, when we have been properly tuned (because the squeaks have been squeezed out of us), we too begin to sing like no other instrument. Bagpipes are good for births, weddings and funerals. Bagpipes are appropriate to all of life’s seasons. Such is what God wants for Man.)
Man as the Pulpit
Man is the Pulpit of God. Within the Orthodox Tradition, the icon plays the critical role. If you ask an educated Orthodox person about h/er Theology, they will point us to Holy Icons. If you ask an Anglican about h/er Theology, they will point to the Book of Common Prayer. If you ask a Roman Catholic about h/er Theology, they will point to the Altar. If we ask most Protestant Christians about the center of h/er Theology, they will point to Christ as found in Scripture and as preached (by word and deed) through Pulpit. (Of course, it must be understood, that all true Christians will in some way embrace the Evangelical Protestant emphasis and ethos.) When we ask God about the center of His theological enterprise, God points to Man. This is hard to fathom. It is almost beyond belief. Think about it: The Theology of God is Man.
But let’s not take this too far. The Psalmist rhetorically asks this important question: What is Man / that you are mindful of him?” This is an important question. But Man must be defined within the context of God. Man does not stand alone. In fact, Man does not stand at all without God as h/er Eternal Referent. God is “mindful” of Man for many reasons, one of which is that we are God’s creation. We uniquely share God’s image and likeness. What God creates, God cares for. As well, however, and most importantly, God is “mindful” of Man because of our identity in Christ.
This is made most obvious when the Psalm then identifies “The Son of Man.” Who is this “Son of Man?” The Son of Man is Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. He is the Logos, the Word. He is the Word and the Message. Man is Man as identified with Christ. We must be “in Christ” to be truly human. Only by this identification with Christ can we faithfully give articulation of Christ. Man is as Pulpit when he speaks the Word — Living (Savior), Written (Scripture) and Preached (Sermon).
To speak the Word well, we must incarnate God. More precisely, God must incarnate himself in us. Christ took on human flesh, God became man. In order for us to be most effective we must (properly) become like God. This occurs through the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). This original and unique reception of the Holy Spirit was more fully realized in Acts 2. It was only AFTER this, the Disciples’ reception of this “Promise of the Father,” as evidenced especially in Peter, that they were able to properly speak. In short: No Spirit of Christ = No speech from Christ. Christ must reside and rule within and among us before we speak from and for Christ. When God came upon Man through the Holy Spirit He, properly understood, mounted the Pulpit of Man. With this, the Voice of Man became the Voice of God.
Man as the Table / Altar
On his way to be martyred, one early Father of the Church asked God that his own sacrifice become sacramental bread and wine for a lost world. He was, in imitation of Christ, asking God to make his life and his death a living sacrament. This is not a bad way to live and to die (Colossians 1:24).
In Roman Catholic Theology, Eucharist, Holy Communion, is “the source and the summit” of the Christian life. This is not, only, a theological idea. It is, along with this, a lifestyle. Christians are intended, like Christ (albeit only of distant and secondary effect), to become the body and blood of the world. We are to be the life-bread and life-blood of new life for others.
I love and celebrate bread. When I go out to eat, and bread is provided, I frequently take the bread, feel it, break it in half, put it to my nose, smell it and celebrate its existence. Then, after this, I taste it. It is very disappointing to go to dinner and be presented with second rate or stale bread. In some way the bread makes or breaks the meal.
Similarly, wine is very important. The right wine must be consumed with the proper meal. They must match. My wife, like me, is not a connoisseur of fine wines. We have no idea about what goes with what — and why. What we DO know is what we like and what we do not like. For me, as an example, I do not like wine enough to drink it at all. I stopped drinking wine years ago. When my wife was in France she went to a very nice Bistro and ordered a meal with wine. When the meal arrived, the waiter brought her the “wrong” wine. No matter what my wife said, the waiter REFUSED to bring her ANY other wine but the one he brought. In retrospect, he was not being rude. Rather, as an expert on wine, he KNEW that my wife had chosen the wrong wine for the meal she had purchased. He insisted that the meal and the wine match.
As we now approach the end our journey through the architecture of the Church, from the exterior up through the interior, we are in fact at the beginning. The Christian life begins, and is completed by, our Lord’s matchless offering on the Cross. He, Christ, is the “author and finisher” of our faith and our life in God. But, in imitation of Christ, we too are the Altar of Sacrifice. We too are the Bread that is offered. We too are the Blood that is shed. Sacrifice is central to the Christian life. As we are bread and wine for a lost world, we must make sure that the “bread” we provide is not stale, the “meal” of our life be most perfectly presented, and the “wine” we offer is of the finest quality. That is, in other words, we must ensure that our lips and our lives set the finest “table” of theological, moral, apologetic and practical “victuals” so that everyone will want to sit down and “eat” with us at our Lord’s Table. If such a human table is set, according to Divine appointment, people are then ready, willing and able to receive and offer the Benediction: “Go into the world, in peace, to love and serve God….”
Man as the Cross
At the front of many churches is a cross. This is the focus and the function of Man. With “the Lamb who was crucified from the foundation of the world,” we are called to the crucified life. If the “Son of Man came forth to die,” this should be our intention.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.
I do not always like or live the crucified life. You do not always like or live the crucified life. We do not always like or live the crucified life. The good news is that Christ came to fulfill this calling for us. The good news is that, by the Holy Spirit, this calling can be fulfilled in and through us. We enter the church in stages. We grow in God in stages. If the Cross is central to the “architecture” of our lives, so is mercy and grace.
“…Thanks be to God!”
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a widely-published author, is Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church and the Order of Saint Benedict, and is connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California.