Tag Archives: Sacred

From Bricks-and-Mortar to Flesh-and-Blood

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You shall hang the curtain under the clasps, and bring the ark of the covenant in there, within the curtain; and the curtain shall separate for you the holy place from the most holy.
Exodus 26:33 (NRSVCE)

When I was a child, I had a fascination with spaces that were off-limits to me. Perhaps it was simply part of my personality or the fact that, as the youngest of four siblings, there were so many places that were forbidden and so many things from which I was banned from touching, looking at, or checking out.

As I grew up, I was keenly aware of the rites of passage I passed through. Some where public and institutional like church confirmation, getting my driver’s license, and graduation. Others were more subtle and social, like being an underclassman invited to a party with all upperclassmen, or my older brother letting me have a beer during my weekend visiting him at college. In each of these cases there was an understanding that I had reached a new level of experience. Things that were once off-limits had opened up to new possibilities.

In today’s chapter, God provides Moses with instructions for what is commonly referred to as the Tabernacle, or the Tent of Meeting. It was basically a large, portable temple that they could take with them as they wandered their way to the Promised Land and set up wherever they were encamped.

The design for the Tabernacle included three concentric spaces. There was an open outer courtyard. Then there was a smaller covered inner section known as “The Holy Place,” with a third even smaller section known as “The Most Holy Place” or “The Holy of Holies.” This smallest area was the most sacred, and it was where the Hebrews put the Ark of the Covenant. There was a giant, thick, and colorful curtain that separated this Most Holy space from everyone. Only the High Priest was allowed in this space, and that happened only once a year. It was exclusive. It was special. It was a sacred space that constantly reminded the Hebrew people of the clear divide between them and the divine.

Granted, all of the instructions for the design of this temple tent in today’s chapter are not the most inspiring thing to read. Nevertheless, I find a really cool and inspiring lesson buried in the blueprint. As with yesterday’s chapter, the lesson is hidden in the understanding of the maturing relationship between God and humanity.

An often overlooked detail recorded in Luke’s biography of Jesus is something that happened the moment Jesus died on the cross. Luke records:

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.

I find the curtain separating the Hebrews from God’s Holy Presence was like a parent telling their young child that there are some things that are simply off-limits. When Jesus died and rose from the dead, it was a spiritual rite of passage for humanity. The off-limits curtain was torn. The Spirit of God would be poured out for any and all. Now, the focus shifted from sacred space being a 16’x48’x15′ inner sanctum fixed in Jerusalem to the possibility that sacred space could be anywhere at any time.

Along my journey, I have sat in small corporate conference rooms while clients have shared with me some of the most intimate things. In that moment, it was sacred space. I was once in a humble Junior High camp chapel in rural Iowa when Holy Spirit poured out like at Pentecost. In that moment it was a sacred space. I have communed with God and received the Spirit’s guidance driving in the car, taking a shower, and while mowing the lawn. A Volkswagen, a bathroom, and a yard were sacred spaces. Perhaps most commonly, I have experienced sacred space around the dinner table just as I shared in yesterday’s post.

I have observed that for many in the generations before me this fundamental spiritual paradigm shift was never understood. For the majority of believers I observed in my childhood and youth, the bricks-and-mortar church building and inner sanctum of the church building’s sanctuary were treated like modern versions of the Tabernacle. After Jesus’ death tore the curtain and made it possible for sacred space to be any place at any time, it seems to me that the institutional church sewed the curtain back together and hung it back up in their Cathedrals.

I believe, however, that we are moving into a time when followers of Jesus are tearing the curtain once more and rediscovering the fullness of what Jesus meant when He told his followers, “I will destroy this temple and raise it in three days.”

A rite of passage for all of humanity. From bricks-and-mortar to flesh-and-blood.

“Old things pass away. Behold, new things come.”

Want to Read More?

Simply click on the image above or click here to be taken to a page with a simple photo index to all posts from this series on Exodus.

About This Post

These chapter-a-day posts began in 2006. It’s a very simple concept. I endeavor each weekday to read one chapter from the Bible. I then blog about my thoughts, insights, and feelings about the content of that chapter. Everyone is welcome to share this post, like this post, or add your own thoughts in a comment. Thank you to those who have become faithful, regular or occasional readers along the journey along with your encouragement.

In 2019 I began creating posts for each book, with an indexed list of all the chapters for that book. You can find the indexed list by clicking on this link.

Prior to that, I kept a cataloged index of all posts on one page. You can access that page by clicking on this link.

You can also access my audio and video messages, as well.

tomvanderwell@gmail.com @tomvanderwell

Taking a Wrecking Ball to the Edifice Complex of Christianity

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
Luke 21:5-6 (NIV)

When I was a child, I attended a small neighborhood church that was liturgical in practice. This meant that the sanctuary was laid out in a very specific way that catered to the ancient liturgy. There was a lectern on one side that was “lower” and served common uses such as announcements and a non-clergy member reading scripture or a responsive reading. Then there was a taller lectern on the other side which was only for the reverend to preach his sermon. There was an altar where communion was served which most people in the church believed sacred space. Children were taught to stay away and be careful of offending God by going where we weren’t allowed or treating the space disrespectfully.

As a young man, I attended a giant church that had no such liturgical trappings. In this church, everything was functional. It was all about the audience’s experience. Great lighting and great sound that allowed for a great product. The pastor of this church was rabid about building bigger and better buildings for the weekly show and attracting bigger names to perform in the area.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve had to come to terms with the “edifice complex” I was taught, have witnessed, and in which I confess I have participated. There is definitely something to be said for a nice, functional space for a local gathering to meet, organize, worship, teach, learn, pray, meditate, and serve one another and the community. More about that in a moment.

There is also the spiritual reality that Jesus exemplified and taught. It was a paradigm shift massive as to be difficult for people to believe and embrace 2000 years later. It is simply this: God does not dwell in buildings.

God is omnipresent (that is, everywhere) because Jesus is the force of creation holding the universe together: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Jesus said that after his death, resurrection and ascension, He was sending Holy Spirit to dwell in us: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). Therefore, God’s “Temple” is no longer a place in Jerusalem or a bricks-and-mortar edifice down the street. God’s Temple is the bodies, hearts, minds, lives of those who believe and follow: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

For the first few centuries after Jesus’ ascension, local gatherings of believers met in one another’s homes where they shared meals, worshipped, prayed together and supported one another. Some scholars estimate that over a million followers of Jesus were meeting regularly in tens of thousands of homes around the known world.

In 312 A.D. the Roman Emporer Constantine became a Christian and Christianity quickly became the state religion of Rome. The Jesus Movement, almost overnight, became the Holy Roman Empire.

[cue: Star Wars: Vader’s Theme]

Empires are concerned with controlling masses. Controlling masses requires authority that people will respect, follow, serve, and obey. One way to control the masses is to control their religious beliefs and routines. Therefore:

  • Only “priests” or “ordained clergy” can preach, teach, marry, bury, and absolve you of your sins. (You are a “common” person with no access to God except through the Empirical structures)
  • Only individuals appointed by the supreme authority and his minions (Caesar, Pope, Cardinal, Bishop) are allowed to be priests or ordained clergy. (You have little hope of becoming clergy unless you jump through many difficult and expensive academic and religious hoops set up by the Empire’s institutions. Probably not unless you know someone or a have a lot of money to bribe, oops, I mean, “donate” to the Empirical authorities – which is how we will wind up with wealthy children and corrupt individuals becoming the Pope)
  • The words used for teaching and the worship of God will now only be sung, written, read and spoken in Latin, which the uneducated masses will not understand. (This makes it easier for the Empirical religious authorities to control said masses of uneducated followers as they become dependent on the Empirical authorities for everything including knowledge, forgiveness, salvation, the salvation of loved ones prayed out of purgatory, and et cetera [<– that’s Latin, btw])
  • Worship must now be centered within an opulent, massive, awe-inspiring structure that stands out in the middle of the squalid little local shacks and structures people live in and use for daily business. (The Empirical institution thus reminds people wordlessly, day and night, that both God and the Empirical institution are higher, better, and different than you are in your poor little common life. It is both something for you to ever reach for and something to which you will never reach without the Empirical institution itself making a way for you)

And, that was the beginning of the edifice complex for followers of Jesus. I find it a fascinating contrast to today’s chapter. Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is the last week of His earthly journey. Jesus has spent most of His three-year ministry speaking to crowds on hillsides, fields, and from a boat to throngs of people sitting on the shore. He also spoke in small-town synagogues. His followers of backwater fishermen and men from small towns in Galilee were awed by the massive Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus, however, shrugged it off with the foreknowledge of what would become of it:

“As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

A couple of thoughts this morning as I ponder these things along side of almost 40 years regularly journeying through God’s Message:

  • I believe a functional, central location for followers of Jesus to gather is a good thing.
  • I believe that making meeting spaces beautiful, inviting, welcoming, clean, and efficient are good things, even God-honoring things, for everyone who gathers there.
  • I believe that architecture is both a highly specialized craft and a creative art form that can powerfully embody and express many things with breathtaking beauty.
  • I believe that the churches and cathedrals built throughout history are works of art that have much to offer in both history lessons and inspiring us creatively and spiritually.
  • I also believe that a building can become an object of worship rather than a setting for it.
  • I don’t believe that a church building, it’s rooms, altars, stained-glass, podiums, and decorations are sacred in any way (though they can be special in many different ways and on many different levels).
  • I believe that it is the individual human beings of simple and sincere faith who gather within a church building and it is their corporate and collective worship, prayer, and fellowship that are sacred.
  • I believe that a church building and an institution’s emphasis can subtly convince individuals that they attend the church rather than being the church as Jesus intended.
  • I have observed very sincere individuals who believe the following, perhaps without giving it much thought: God resides in the church building. I visit God an hour every Sunday to pay respect and spiritually make the minimum premium on my eternal fire insurance policy which, I hope and trust, will get me into heaven and avoid hell. I leave God there at church to go about the other 167/168ths of my week.

This morning I imagine Jesus shrugging as he looks up at the Temple. “It’ll be a rubble heap in about 40 years,” He says to His disciples.

Then what is sacred? What lasts? What remains?” Simon the Zealot asks.

You are sacred, as is every person in whom my Spirit dwells,” Jesus replies. “What remains? The faith, hope, and love that is in you and flows out of you, Simon. And all fruit your faith, hope, and love produce in those whom you love. You are my church, Simon. You are God’s temple. And, you are more beautiful than this temple or any building a human being could construct.

What Jesus actually taught was that when individuals believe and follow, they become living, breathing, active temples of worship in which God’s Spirit dwells. What is sacred and/or profane is what we put in, what flows out and how we relate to God and others from the inside out.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

Not Bricks and Mortar, but Flesh and Blood

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.”
Acts 7:48 (NIV)

I remember going to church as a kid and being taught a certain reverence for the sanctuary of our church. It was a classically designed sanctuary with an altar that sat on a dais at the back. Over the altar hung a giant cross and from the bottom of the cross hung an old-style lamp which was “the eternal flame.” Just in front of the altar was a lectern that sat on one side from which the scripture readings and announcement were made. On the opposite side was the pulpit which was larger, and stood higher.

As children we were taught that this santuary was special. This was where you went to worship God on Sunday. There was sacredness attached to the room, the altar, and the pulpit. You were to be quiet when you were in there. No running. No playing. Don’t go near the altar unless Reverend Washington is up there serving communion.

After I became a believer and began reading God’s Message for myself, I came to realize that the entire notion of a “sacred” church building was never a part of Jesus’ paradigm. Jesus never asked his followers to build buildings. Quite the opposite. Jesus said, “I will destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.” With His death, resurrection, and the subsequent pouring out of Holy Spirit, Jesus did away with the old notion that there was a physical building that would be the center of worship. The “church” Jesus came to build is not made of bricks and mortar, but of flesh and blood.

A time is coming,” Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…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.”

In today’s chapter one of Jesus’ early followers, a man named Stephen, is dragged before the Jewish religious authority, called the Sanhedrin, in the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the same council who convicted Jesus and gave Him a death sentence just weeks earlier. Stephen, in his defense, walks the religious leaders through the Great Story from Abraham to Joseph to Moses to the Kings and to the prophets. He tells of Solomon building the Temple where he, himself, was now standing. Stephen then says to religious authorities:

“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:

“‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
    Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?’”

This morning I’m thinking about sacred spaces, and enjoying the memory of being a kid and finding out that the “eternal flame” that hung over our church’s altar was simply a 40 watt light bulb that sometimes burnt out and had to be replaced by the custodian.

Having a physical building for believers to gather, worship, and create community is a great thing. I just never want to lose sight of the truth that Jesus never intended “the church” to be a building down the street. When Holy Spirit indwells me as a believer my flesh and blood becomes “the church” because God is within me, one with my spirit. I am sacred space. “Don’t you know,” Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” So, “the church” is wherever I happen to be. It’s wherever two or more believers gather together.

I don’t go to church. I am the church.

From Bricks and Mortar to Flesh and Blood

English: The Second Jewish Temple. Model in th...
English: The Second Jewish Temple. Model in the Israel Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” Luke 21:5-6 (NIV)

 

Along my life’s journey I’ve gathered with fellow believers to worship God in all sorts of places. I’ve been in schools, community centers, football stadiums, convention centers, hospital chapels, homes, parks, and lean-to sheds. I’ve also worshipped in beautiful cathedrals of historic value, prayer towers, and multi-million dollar state-of-the-art facilities.

 

The truth is, I don’t really care that much where I worship. As with other works of art, I appreciate all the beauty and meaning that architecture can express. Yet, as with all works of human expression, there is a subtle human tendency to shift our focus from the Creator to the created work. All my life I’ve witnessed people attach to church buildings a sacredness that actually runs counter to a fundamental teaching of Jesus.

 

Jesus’ death and resurrection ushered in a major spiritual shift that Jesus hints at it in today’s chapter. Before Jesus, the center of worship and the symbol of God’s presence had been wherever the ark of God was [cue: Raiders of the Lost Ark Theme]. At the time of Jesus’ teaching, that central location had been the temple in Jerusalem for almost a thousand years, ever since King Solomon had built the original on that spot. Jesus, however, taught that after His resurrection the Holy Spirit would be poured out and would dwell in (or in-dwell) every believer. It happened 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection (you can read about it here).

 

With the pouring out of Holy Spirit, the shift of worship moved from a central location (the temple in Jerusalem) to, as Jesus put it, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name.” The temple was no longer a building made with human hands. The indwelling Holy Spirit transforms our very bodies into the temple of God. Paul wrote to Jesus’ followers in Corinth:

 

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?

 

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?

 

The implications of this shift are profound. Jesus says to His disciples that the temple in Jerusalem with all its history, importance in God’s story, and splendorous beauty is simply nothing more than bricks and mortar than will end up on the rubble heap of history. [Note: That very temple was indeed destroyed some 40 years (or one generation) later in 70 A.D., fulfilling Jesus’ prophetic words.] Worship is no longer to be centered in a building but in believers gathered together, and that can happen anywhere. God’s Holy Spirit is not located in this or that place where we must make a pilgrimage to visit. When we invite Jesus into our hearts and lives, the Holy Spirit indwells us and transforms our very own bodies into a mobile temple that we take with us wherever we go 24/7/365.

 

Today I’m grateful for the beautiful facilities where I get to regularly worship, but I am even more grateful that Wendy and I can worship anywhere and anytime with any other believer. God is not confined to a building, but present wherever we gather and acknowledge His presence.

 

Not Bricks and Mortar, but Flesh and Blood.

English: Western wall in Jerusalem at night
English: Western wall in Jerusalem at night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Exalt the Lord our God,
    and worship at his holy mountain in Jerusalem,
    for the Lord our God is holy!
Psalm 99:9 (NLT)

I have a bit of a rebellious streak in me. I quickly get irritated by senseless rules and misplaced religious orthodoxy. We as humans tend to want to wrap rules around principles and attach sacred  meaning to silly things. I remember a crotchety old fart who got mad at me for letting children run and play in the church sanctuary instead of getting mad and giving them a stern rebuke. In his mind the kids were desecrating the holiness of the room. I told him that the sanctuary was nothing more than a gathering place (adding that I’d be happy to prove the point scripturally) and the sound of children laughing, running and playing where we met to worship was music to my ears. If there are a lot of kids having fun in the place the church just might have a future.

He didn’t like me very much.

In the ancient days when the psalms were written, there was central place where God was to be worshipped in Jerusalem at the temple. One of the things I love most about Jesus  is that he blew away old rules and established radical new paradigms. When a woman asked Jesus about worshipping in Jerusalem, Jesus said, “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem….But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”

In the new paradigm that Jesus ushered in, those who believe are indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit and we ourselves become God’s temple. We don’t go to some church building that is somehow special, holy and sacred – we ourselves – our bodies – are the temple. We are made special, holy and sacred by God.  We don’t go to church. We are the church. It’s not bricks and mortar. It’s flesh and blood. Every time I hear a pastor telling me to invite my friends to church I shake my head and groan. Jesus’ intention was never for believers to bring friends to a central location to worship Him. His intention was that believers would worship Him by spreading out into every neighborhood and loving people.

Chapter-a-Day 2 Chronicles 5

The choir and trumpets made one voice of praise and thanks to God—orchestra and choir in perfect harmony singing and playing praise to God: Yes! God is good! His loyal love goes on forever! 2 Chronicles 5:13 (MSG)

I grew up singing choral music. When I was a kid I sang in a robed church choir. Each Sunday morning we would make a processional up the center aisle to the altar before taking our place in the choir loft. We sang classic and choral music. In high school I sang in the robed choir as we belted out classics, many of them sacred pieces.

Today, the worship I experience on Sunday morning is contemporary and I enjoy playing my electric bass and rocking out. But, I do miss the sacred atmosphere of the traditional liturgical service with its formal processional, order, and sacred rhythm. I still have sacred music and gregorian chant playing during my personal quiet times. I get chills hearing certain sacred pieces.

I read today’s chapter about the triumphant procession bringing the ark of the covenant into the temple. I picture the pomp, the ceremonial grandeur and imagine the sound of the sacred music. It reminds me of my love of what contemporary worship often lacks. It’s not that contemporary or traditional is “right” while the other is “wrong” (despite advocates and critics on I hear on both sides). It’s just different, and they each have their strengths when it comes to a worship experience.

Tonight I go to worship rehearsal. I’ll plug in my bass, play with my whole heart, and experience the blessing of worship. At the same time, a part of me will wish I was standing in a mass choir singing a beautiful, sacred choral piece.

The worship of an omniscient God can’t be confined into one box. Worship of the Almighty, by necessity, must come in all sorts of styles because God can’t be defined by a single standard. The key is not to find the “right” way to worship, but to appreciate and experience the worship of an unlimited God in worship’s ever expanding form and style.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and danagraves