Wineskins Archive

January 27, 2014

The Temple of God (Sep-Dec 2007)

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by Joshua J. Graves
September – October, 2007

Holy Places

New York City is one of the more interesting cities in the world. It is the ethnic melting pot of the eastern seaboard, not to mention the fact that fashion and philosophical trends in the United States must first flow through the Big Apple before making their way westward.

The “city that never sleeps” also boasts some of the most interesting churches in the United States.

The aura of Riverside Church in uptown Manhattan blew me away as I walked in and contemplated the history of this place. Founded by the well-known Rockefeller family, the Riverside congregation (formerly known as the Riverside Baptist Church) is one of the most important churches in recent American history. This is the home of one of the twentieth century’s greatest preachers, Harry Emerson Fosdick. That name might not mean anything to some, yet Fosdick influenced whole generations of black preachers in this country.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered some of his most important sermons at Riverside during the Civil Rights Movement. It was after one of his trips to Riverside that John F. Kennedy and Dr. King met for the first time, forever changing the course of American politics: in 1956 the majority of African Americans voted Republican, but in 1960 the majority of African Americans voted Democratic. To illustrate how large a shift this was, consider a shift of similar size and significance that more of us can remember: the white conservative Christian “Moral Majority” that voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980. When I consider the weighty evidence, I come to the conclusion that The Riverside Church is not merely a building; it is a people who’ve played an integral role in the American story.

Israel had her own religiously, historically, socially important center for worship during the life of Jesus. Many know this holy space as the “temple”—but it was also known as the “house of worship,” “God’s house,” “the dwelling place of God.” The Temple was not just metaphorically important, for it took up almost twenty-five percent of Jerusalem proper at this time. Jerusalem was not so much a city with a temple in it; more like a temple with a small city around it, to paraphrase N.T. Wright.

I’m close to Times Square and Rockefeller Center now and step into an icon in the American religious landscape: St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Church leaders, business entrepreneurs, famous athletes and entertainers are married and buried here. A security guard asks me to take off my winter cap as a sign of respect. I completely understood, but at that same moment a woman walked by with her cocker spaniel inside this holy place. I looked at the guy and shrugged. He gave me a look back as if to say “there’s nothing I can do—dogs don’t wear hats.”

Important people gravitated toward the Temple as well. Josephus, a contemporary of Jesus and Paul, described the Temple as a “mountain of snow” as it glittered in the sunlight. He also captured the attitudes of the everyday Jew by summarizing their temple philosophy, saying, “We have but one temple for the one God.”

Back in New York City, I was interested in visiting one more church: The Brooklyn Tabernacle, located in the heart of Brooklyn. I first learned about this church when their pastor came to a local Nashville church located near the seminary where I was a student. Pastor Jim Cymbala, had a vision to build and grow a truly diverse church that represented the ethnicity of the borough of Brooklyn.

Today, after starting with a few families in a rented facility, Brooklyn Tabernacle is a church of several thousand, often considered the most diverse church in the United States. The last two years, I’ve brought a group of students to one of their prayer services for a powerful hour and a half of imprecatory prayer. There is no “praying for the hands and minds of the doctors”—they pray in the authority and power of Jesus for healing. It is interesting how those two words function in churches comprised of minorities: authority and power. Some leading church thinkers tell us that the more and more the church is pushed to the margins of our Western “church-fatigued” culture, the more crucial it is that churches demonstrate the power and authority of Jesus over and against all other powers and authorities.

The reason I’ve walked you through these three contemporary “temples” is to bring home to us what would have been perfectly clear to ancient Israel.

First, the Temple was the one entity within Judaism that was a visible demonstration of God’s faithfulness and their place within human history. It was the one thing that said to the world, We matter; we have a story and a God who is above all other gods. The Temple was the epicenter of Israel’s life and very existence.

Second, the Temple was the center of religious life. This was the place where sins were forgiven, justice announced, and relationship restored. It was also the place where one gathered for the important meals and feasts of the Jewish calendar.

Third, the Temple was the center of educational life. This is where one learned to read Torah, memorize the practices central to Judaism.

Fourth, the Temple was the center of Jewish government. This was the headquarters for the high priest, the leader who stood between Rome and Jerusalem walking the political tightrope of loyalty to Jewish customs while maintaining allegiance to Caesar. It was quite a tightrope.

Fifth, the Temple was the center of finances and economics. The temple tax was a staple in the economic vitality of Jewish religious life. It was also the slaughter house for the animals brought to be sacrificed.

To summarize, the Temple was the combination of Wall Street, The White House, Harvard and the Washington Cathedral. It was the heart that pushed blood to all corners of Israel providing life, sustenance and meaning.

Christianity and the Temple

It is therefore crucial to understand how Jesus, then Paul and Luke, take on the prevailing attitudes or “temple theology.”

Jesus is quoted in the first three Gospels (in reference to himself), saying “Tear down the temple and I’ll rebuild it in three days; something greater than the temple is here.” The Jews had been working on the temple for several generations—who does this guy think he is? He’s going for the jugular of all Jewish faith.

Stephen reminded a crowd of Jewish listeners, “however, the Most High does not live in houses made by men,” (Acts 7:48).

Paul picks up on these teachings of Jesus and uses temple language in describing the church. “ . . . In view of God’s mercy, to offer yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your act of spiritual worship,” (Romans 12:1); “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s spirit lives in you?” (I Corinthians 3:16); “For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people,’” (II Corinthians 6:16); “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit,” (Ephesians 2:22).

The church was a collection of women and men empowered with the Holy Spirit. They met in homes, synagogue, public places—wherever they met, there the church existed. The earliest followers of Jesus worshipped together, broke bread (Lord’s Supper), and told stories about their Messiah. The early church often remembered what we so easily forget: the church gathers in order to be sent. This is not to downplay the mystical relationship between the space and the people but to remember that ultimately God’s purposes in the world are accomplished through people—not brick and mortar.

Temple Mentality

The modern church often slips back into temple mentality. God was not content in being bound by a street address in the life of Israel. Remember that time in the prophetic literature when he instructs Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:1ff) to stand in front of the temple as the people are gathering to celebrate an important festival.

“Jeremiah, go and preach to them. Wait outside the walls of the temple and mock them. ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ You think if you come to the right building you’ll be safe . . . but you should know our God better than that. He cares more about the widow, alien, and invisible people among you than he does what building you gather in.”

It is so easy for Christians to slip into what Jewish persons fell prey to in the first century world. Instead of seeing God among us as a people, we relegate and confine the presence of God to only a building or a holy place.

Let me give you three pieces of evidence to support this claim.

Exhibit A: Many look upon the church as a physical location. I’m flying back to Detroit after speaking at a conference in Orlando. The woman I’m sitting next to politely asks, “So young man, what do you do for a living?”
“Well, I’m a pastor of a church,” I reply.
“Oh, that’s lovely. I’m a Christian too. Say, where is your church located? I’d like to come to your church.”

Exhibit B: Some view the church as a distribution of goods and services as if the church is nothing more than a spiritual Home Depot. “I need my kids to get spirituality mixed in with everything else.” “We’re getting married in a church.” “His funeral must be performed in the church where he was baptized.” The church is one more place in the marketplace to meet one’s needs. Sears, Burger King, Home Depot . . . now, the local church.

Exhibit C: Some Christians are more passionate about what happens on Sunday morning (in the building!) than they are what ministry takes place during the rest of the week. This can be equally true of staunch conservative churches as well as cutting-edge, culturally-savvy progressive churches.

* * *

I should be clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that the gathered assembly lacks power or meaning. That is not true of my own experience as a Christian. There is great power in the gathered assembly. I’ve seen lives changed, hearts renewed, and soul’s pierced as a result of the public assembly.

The gathered assembly, however, is only part of the story. The people of God gather in order to be sent. If the people of God gather for the sake of gathering they are no longer the people of God. It is when the church gathers in order to be sent back out into the world that our understanding of worship takes on whole new possibilities.

Let me say the same thing a different way.

There’s another church in New York City I did not take you to . . . yet. This church is not a mega church, but it is a church that has accomplished profound ministry. The church is St. Paul’s; it is located right across from Ground Zero in the heart of Manhattan. St. Paul’s is Manhattan’s oldest public building in continuous use. It also plays an intriguing role in American history.

George Washington worshiped here on Inauguration Day, April 30, 1789, and attended services at St. Paul’s during the two years New York City was the nation’s capital. Above his pew is an 18th-century oil painting of the Great Seal of the United States, which was adopted in 1782.

Directly across the chapel is the Governor’s pew, which George Clinton, the first Governor of the State of New York, used when he visited St. Paul’s. The Arms of the State of New York are on the wall above the pew.

Among other notable historical figures who worshiped at St. Paul’s were Prince William, later King William IV of England; Lord Cornwallis, who is most famous in this country for surrendering at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.

When the World Trade Center came crashing down that dark day almost six years ago, St. Paul’s was the only building in the immediate area still functional and functioning. St. Paul’s building is not an impressive place per se. I’ve stood inside it three times over the last few years. It is rather quaint, and old. Yet, she played a crucial role in the aftermath of 9/11. Here’s how the church describes the events (

After the attack on September 11, 2001, which led to the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, St. Paul’s Chapel served as a place of rest and refuge for recovery workers at the WTC site.

For eight months, hundreds of volunteers worked twelve hour shifts around the clock, serving meals, making beds, counseling and praying with fire fighters, construction workers, police and others. Massage therapists, chiropractors, podiatrists and musicians also tended to their needs.

Safety workers sought refuge in St. Pauls after 9/11.As the world around them was in shambles they became a place where people gathered in order to be sent back out. They took the pew where George Washington once sat and turned it into an area for volunteer workers to massage the feet of firefighters who were working sixteen-hour shifts. St. Paul’s understood at a deep, mystical level that the church is a people and not a place.

Fire, devastation, destruction, and death were swallowing hundreds of people right outside their building. Instead of retreating or creating a country club they opened their arms and hearts as wide as Jesus did on the cross saying, “Whosoever will is welcome in this place. But know this. If you come in here, you will be sent back out to bring in the weary, fatigued, worn-down and broken.”

While everyone was running away from the chaos of Ground Zero, the folks of St. Paul ran toward the death and carnage.

We are gathered to be sent. We come to our sacred gathering as an actor comes to rehearsal. We receive our script (the Gospel) and we return back into the unfolding drama to play our parts as actors who represent the more excellent way of Lord Jesus.

N.T. Wright points to this truth in a story about a Mozart music mystery.

One day, rummaging through a dusty old attic in a small Austrian town, a collector comes across a faded manuscript containing many pages of music. It is written for the piano. Curious, he takes it to a dealer. The dealer phones a friend, who appears half an hour later. When he sees the music he becomes excited, then puzzled. This looks like the handwriting of Mozart himself, but it isn’t a well-known piece. In fact, he’s never heard it. More phone calls. More excitement. More consultations. It really does seem to be Mozart. And, though some parts seem distantly familiar, it doesn’t correspond to anything already known in his works.

. . . What they are looking as it is indeed by Mozart. It is indeed beautiful. But it’s the piano part of a piece that involves another instrument, or perhaps other instruments. By itself it is frustratingly incomplete. A further search of the attic reveals nothing else that would provide a clue. The piano music is all there is, a signpost to something that was there once and might still turn up one day. (~ N.T. Wright, Simply Christian, pg. 39-40.)

We live under the guise of an urban myth. This myth convinces Christians that God is most interested in church attendance. The myth needs to be slain and exposed for being what it is: a counterfeit impostor of God’s message to God’s people.

Christians are not pew-sitters. Christians have been empowered to continue to live out God’s story, a story that is incomplete actors to practice spirit-filled improvisation. A story that begs improv actors, men and women courageous to imagine what Christianity might look like in our complex world today.

While many run from poverty, immigration, AIDS, the homosexual community, and debt relief—the church runs towards them all. It is a dangerous mission to be sure. But it is the mission to which God has called us. In our baptism, he calls us to a life of search-and-rescue.

To paraphrase Annie Dillard, “Anyone who wants to follow Jesus must wear a helmet.” Maybe, next Sunday, all of us who wear the name Christian should show up to church with our fatigues and helmets! Then we might remember that we are not going to church, for we are the church.

Each time we gather, we do so with full knowledge that we are being sent.New Wineskins

Joshua J. GravesJoshua Graves is a minister serving the Rochester Church of Christ in Rochester Hills, MI and adjunct professor of religion for Rochester College. Currently, Josh is a doctoral student at Columbia Theological Seminary. He did graduate studies at Abilene Christian University and Lipscomb University (M.Div.) He’s also co-written the Study Guide for Mere Discipleship (Brazos Press) with noted author Lee Camp (Second Edition, July 2008). He is married to Kara, the real theologian in the family. You can reach him at or visit his online journal at [].

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