You shall further command the Israelites to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the light, so that a lamp may be set up to burn regularly.
Exodus 27:20 (NRSVCE)
I was raised attending a Methodist church that many would describe as “high church.” The sanctuary was designed to reflect the ancient churches of Europe complete with stained-glass and a pipe organ. In the center was an altar raised so that one had to ascend to it. Above the altar hung a giant cross and from the cross hung what appeared to be a candle holder, but was actually an electric light bulb that was always illuminated.
In today’s chapter of Exodus, God continues to give Moses very intricate and detailed plans for the traveling temple that the Hebrews will build for worship and sacrifice. Todays chapter describes the altar on which sacrifices would be burned and an oil lamp that would be placed outside the entrance to the Most Holy Place where the Ark of the Covenant was held. The lamp was to burn continuously, an eternal flame.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. An altar? A lamp that burned continuously? Those were front-and-center elements of the church in which I grew up. And yet, when I became a follower of Jesus (in contrast to simply being a member of my church) and I read Jesus’ actual words, I found it interesting that Jesus never gave instructions for church buildings and altars and choir lofts and pipe organs. Nowhere in all the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John are there Exodus-like instructions for the construction of a church, cathedral, basilica, sanctuary, altar, or an eternal flame.
In part, this is because the followers of Jesus were originally part of the Hebrew tribes and they continued to worship in the Hebrew tradition. But, as Jesus’ followers fulfilled their mission to take the message of Jesus to the world, the Hebrew believers became outnumbered by the non-Hebrew followers. Many of the letters that make up what we call the New Testament address the division and the conflict that followed. Nevertheless, the Jesus movement had no church buildings for the first three hundred years, though there were gathering places. It was only after the Jesus Movement became the institution of the Holy Roman Empire in the fourth century that churches were built for all the citizens of the Roman Empire who dutifully obeyed Emperor Constantine and signed up to become members of the new state religion: Christianity.
The Roman Empire then built churches, cathedrals, and basilicas and borrowed the basic elements of all the religions they knew including altars, lamps, candles, and incense. Fast forward 1700 years and we who belong to Christian institutions around the world continue to think of “church” a the local building where we sign-up for membership and gather to worship.
I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Jesus that I quoted in yesterday’s post in which He said that He would “destroy the Temple and raise it in three days.” That was the point of yesterday’s post, and the further I get into the description of the Hebrew Tabernacle the clearer it comes into focus for me. Jesus never gave His followers blueprints for building the church because the church was never meant to be a building. Jesus didn’t tell His followers to go to church. He told them to be the church.
Jesus promised to be wherever two or three believers gathered, which makes worship possible anywhere.
Jesus never gave instructions for lighting candles or having an eternal flame because He called followers to be the Light of the World through their acts of love for others.
Jesus never gave instructions for an altar because with His death the ultimate sacrifice had been made, once-for-all.
Jesus never talked about the designs for the central location where His followers would gather because the mission was not about gathering, but dispersing to bring God’s Kingdom to earth and to bring Light to dark places.
Please don’t read what I’m not writing. A central meeting place for believers to gather and worship is a no-brainer. Jesus prescribed the sacraments. Music, liturgy, and traditions of worship began with Jesus and the Twelve and were part of worship for believers meeting in homes for hundreds of years.
In the quiet, however, I find myself feeling adamant about a few key points. Jesus didn’t ask me to go to church, but to be the church. An altar is not a table in my local church sanctuary, it’s my life itself at home, at work, and wherever I happen to be carrying my cross and sacrificially giving myself to bring God’s Kingdom to earth. The eternal flame is not a 40 watt light-bulb hanging over the altar in a church, it’s the Light of Christ that is supposed to shine through my words, actions, and relationships with others.
I’m back to where I ended yesterday’s post. Not bricks-and-mortar but flesh-and-blood.
If there was a blueprint Jesus provided for design of the church, it would look exactly like me.