It has become, once again, fashionable for some people to denigrate the building and maintaining of churches. The argument tends to go something like this:
“Jesus didn’t build any churches, and he didn’t command his followers to do so. He was a rebel and didn’t participate in the cult of building-worship during his own time. Churches were built only after Emperor Constantine, and that marked the end of real Christianity in most places until the modern House Church movement.”
Aside from intellectual arrogance and the enormous problems with the argument’s factual basis (Jesus cannot be forced into the mold of “rebel” like a First Century James Dean and did, in fact, participate in the worship of God in the Temple, and early Christianity—when conditions permitted—used dedicated worship spaces and built churches before Constantine), there is another problem: it simply doesn’t square with Scripture.
The Scriptures do not set up an antimony between buildings and faith. They do set up a clear distinction between Church as building and Church as Body. The Scriptures understand the Church as a body, a community, a race drawn from every tribe and nation. They do not understand the Church as a building. However, the New Testament does use building language for this Body and invites us to do so as well.
In 1Peter 2:1-10, and also in 1 Corinthians 3:9-17, we see very clearly that the language of Temple and building is to be applied to the Christian Church. It is a spiritual architecture that is being spoken of, and Christians are called individually to live out this architecture.
But that is far more easily said than done. The “lone ranger” Christian is doomed to fail. Ours is a corporate faith, and Christ commanded us to share in a common life in order to be his disciples. Christians from the beginning have gathered together for worship, instruction, and fellowship—forming liturgical communities grouped around the Eucharist from the start. When conditions permitted, they built churches for the Church to assemble in and for the Body to receive nourishment.
These buildings were both related to and distinct from the stories of holy places and temples that preceded them. They were understood as places of special significance and given considerable care and attention, like their ancient sacred ancestors: but in the case of the Church, they were holy places not because of the stones used to build them, but because of the Life celebrated within those stone walls. The difference may seem subtle, but it is essential.
Authentic Christianity has no qualms about asserting the holiness of Creation, and using that Creation in loving and faithful ways to honor God and the Communion of Saints and sinners that makes up the Church now and until the end of the Ages. It also is very desirous of using those church structures to minister the Gospel in creative and holy ways; for as St. Augustine reminds us in the sermon below, this Temple is still being built. It is an unfinished structure, awaiting the unique and essential contribution of each new member.
But an authentic Christianity is also deeply aware that these holy places, consecrated to God, are there first and foremost for the Body of Christ—the living stones in a living Temple—to gather, be fed, and sent forth to live and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a pilgrim people, setting our sights on no earthly city, but on the City of God. It is the experience of that Heavenly Citizenship which we know and enjoy each time we enter into one of the Church’s places of earthly worship—access to the Mystery of God and salvation by Divine grace and using the things of this world to point beyond the world.
It is for this unique intersection, this extraordinary hostelry of God’s mercy that we give thanks each year on this occasion. And we do so completely in the spirit of the ancient and undivided Faith of the Apostolic Church, and completely to the Glory of God. Amen.
From a sermon by Saint Augustine, bishop
(Sermon 336,1,6: PL 38 [edit. 1861]. 1471-1472, 1475)
The building and dedication of God's house within us
We are gathered together to celebrate the dedication of a house of prayer. This is our house of prayer, but we too are a house of God. If we are a house of God, its construction goes on in time so that it may be dedicated at the end of time. The house, in its construction, involves hard work, while its dedication is an occasion for rejoicing.
What was done when this church was being built is similar to what is done when believers are built up into Christ. When they first come to believe they are like timber and stone taken from woods and mountains. In their instruction, baptism and formation they are , so to speak, shaped, leveled and smoothed by the hands of carpenters and craftsmen.
But Christians do not make a house of God until they are one in charity. The timber and stone must fit together in an orderly plan, must be joined in perfect harmony, must give each other the support as it were of love, or no one would enter the building. When you see the stones and beams of a building holding together securely, you enter the building with an easy mind; you are not afraid of its falling down in ruins.
Christ the Lord wants to come in to us and dwell in us. Like a good builder he says: A new commandment I give you: love one another. He says: I give you a commandment. He means: Before, you were not engaged in building a house for me, but you lay in ruins. Therefore, to be raised up from your former state of ruin you must love one another.
Dear brethren, remember that this house is still in process of being built in the whole world: this is the promise of prophecy. When God's house was being built after the Exile, it was prophesied, in the words of a psalm: Sing a new song to the Lord; sing to the Lord, all the earth. For a new song our Lord speaks of a new commandment. A new song implies a new inspiration of love. To sing is a sign of love. The singer of this new song is full of the warmth of God's love.
The work we see complete in this building is physical; it should find its spiritual counterpart in your hearts. We see here the finished product of stone and wood; so too your lives should reveal the handiwork of God's grace.
Let us then offer our thanksgiving above all to the Lord our God, from whom every best and perfect gift comes. Let us praise his goodness with our whole hearts. He it was who inspired in his faithful people the will to build this house of prayer; he stirred up their desire and gave them his help. He awakened enthusiasm among those who were at first unconvinced, and guided to a successful conclusion the efforts of men of good will. So God, who gives to those of good will both the desire and the accomplishment of the things that belong to him, is the one who began this work, the one who has brought it to completion.
Collect at the Feast of Dedication
Almighty God, to whose glory we celebrate the dedication of this house of prayer: We give you thanks for the fellowship of those who have worshiped in this place, and we pray that all who seek you here may find you, and be filled with your joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.