by Neil Richardson.
Some years ago a lorry crashed into the Methodist chapel of a village in Lincolnshire. Mercifully, no-one was in it at the time. But the chapel was damaged beyond repair. The circuit meeting urged the society, despite the loss of their building, to stay in fellowship. Sadly, they did not.
Covid 19, you could say, has crashed into church buildings across the world. In our country they were out of use for months; their future use – even perhaps their viability – is fraught with uncertainty. No wonder this crisis has been described as our Babylonian exile, echoing a time when Israel had to learn to survive without its temple in Jerusalem, destroyed as it was by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies.
It’s not easy to get our buildings in proper perspective. In a climate like ours, they are useful, to say the least. But as the house churches in St Paul’s day show, they’re not essential to worship, fellowship or witness. Comfortable, attractive premises, however, can be important. (I come back to this at the end).
Anglican priest Christopher Rowland, in his fine commentary on Revelation,[i] observes that a building can be helpful in meeting ‘the human need for reassurance’. At the same time, he contrasts the absence of a temple from the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21.20) with the ‘extraordinary’ investment of the Christian church in its buildings down the centuries. ‘A special space or place has become central to our understanding of religion’.
The New Testament starts from the glorious, simple truth: Christ is our Space. The language is unmistakable – especially in the writings of John and Paul. ‘Abide in me, I in you’; ‘I live, yet not I; Christ lives in me’. Life in Christ, with one another for the world, is the heart of Christian faith.
The origin of the conviction that Christ is our fundamental space seems to have been Jesus’ explosive remarks about the Jerusalem temple. Even if John’s version reflects later faith, its import is unmistakable: ‘Destroy this temple…. and in three days I will raise it up again’…… The temple he was speaking of was his body’ (John 2.19 and 21).
The geography of the New Testament tells its own story: out from Jerusalem, into the tenements of urban Corinth and Rome. Wherever the Holy Spirit created an ekklesia, there was the temple, (compare, e.g. 1 Corinthians 3.9-17).
Members of that Lincolnshire chapel seemed not to know that they were the temple: Christ in them, they in Christ. In fact, Christ our Space is the key to theology everywhere and always. The locative ‘Christ’ expressions in the New Testament run into hundreds: life in Christ, growing into Christ, Christ formed in you…..But this isn’t all. The panorama is cosmic as well as personal, e.g. ‘ all things created in, through and for Christ, (Colossians 1.15-20).
This isn’t primarily a theology of the head and the study, but a theology of heart and life and of the whole world, as Rowan Williams’ recent book, Christ the Heart of Creation shows. We live it, breathe it and walk it every day of our Christian life.
Other verses in Scripture can be re-expressed in Christ language: for example, ‘In him we live and move; in him we exist’ (Acts 17.28); some Old Testament psalms anticipate the ascended and risen Christ: ‘If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there’ (Psalm 139.8).
This is why Paul teaches ‘Pray without ceasing’; the living Christ centres and enables our prayers every passing moment. The same metaphor of space applies supremely to the Atonement: at the cross, God the Father and God the Son moved sufficiently far apart to accommodate e the whole world in between.[ii] The imagery applies to life both on earth and in heaven: ‘In my Father’s house are many dwelling-places’; in other words, there is room in the heart of God for all, (John 14.1).
This is where we begin and end. The mystery of Christ – God with us and for us – is our fundamental ‘space’.
The present crisis prompts searching questions . What are our buildings for? What do they mean? The more fully we inhabit our truest and deepest Space – the living Christ – the better our response will be. And that may include painting the rusty iron railing and the scruffy notice board outside.
[i] C. Rowland, Revelation, (Epworth SCM Commentaries 1993, p.157).
[ii] I owe this imagery to the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar.