Today is a historic day for Grace Church. As we break ground officially on our renovation project, it’s important to acknowledge all of the hard work and vision that have brought us to this moment. We’ve been working on this for three years. As I’ve said before, there have been countless meetings, hours and hours of conversation and debate. Almost everyone involved at Grace has participated in some way in the work as we’ve developed, revised, revised, and revised again the Master Plan, saw our Giving Light, Giving Hope capital campaign to its successful conclusion, and helped us prepare our facilities for construction and the move.
But this moment is not just about us and this three year long process. It’s about the whole long history of Grace Church and about its future. As I was reflecting on the start of construction, I realized that our project fits into a pattern that goes back at least 120 years, to the building of this Guild Hall. It turns out that at almost exactly 30-year intervals, members of Grace have reimagined and reconfigured their spaces to meet the needs of ministry and mission for a new generation. The Guild Hall was built in 1894. In the mid 1920s, the chapel and sacristy were added. In the 50s, it was the Education Wing or West Wing, and in the 80s, the elevator and new organ, among other things, were added. 30 years later, it’s our turn. What we begin today will help to shape the future of our congregation and indeed shape how our neighborhood and community encounter the divine presence in this place.
It’s a wonderful coincidence that we have been hearing bits and pieces from the story of the building of the temple just as we are preparing for renovations here at Grace. A few weeks ago, we read the story of David expressing his desire to build a “house for God” and God preventing him because of his sins. The lectionary skipped over the extensive detail that I Kings provides concerning the building of the temple, its furnishings and finishes (as our architect calls them). This week’s reading brings us to the dedication of the temple and to parts of the prayer Solomon offers to God.
Building the temple in Jerusalem was a revolutionary act that would transform Israelite religion. Although it would be destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again over the next millennium, the Temple would remain a focus of Israelite and Jewish religious and theological activity, and even after its destruction, would continue to influence Judaism and Christianity.
It’s worth taking a moment to recite a little of the detail about its construction. Solomon imported craftsmen from Lebanon to build the temple. He also imported cedar from Lebanon and precious metals. There’s gold, silver bronze, and immense blocks of stone. The interior walls are carved with figures of cherubim and palm trees. And everything is overlaid with gold. It was truly magnificent. Completed, it was still an inanimate, empty building.
Until the ark of the covenant was brought in. The ark represented God’s presence among the people of Israel. It had traveled with them in the wilderness, carried across the Jordan into the promised land. It led the Israelites in battle, was seized by the Philistines, and returned. We saw David bring it into Jerusalem and dance before it, and now it was brought into the temple. After the priests carried the ark into the Holy of Holies, a cloud filled the temple. It was so thick that the priests couldn’t see their way to perform their duties. With the cloud came the glory—God’s glory filled the temple.
Today’s psalm is itself a hymn in praise of the temple. The psalmist begins and ends by expressing his desire to be present in the temple: “his soul longs for the courts of the LORD.” There’s a wider connection here, however. It’s not just humans who desire to be in the presence of God in the temple; swallows and sparrows nest in the temple. God’s presence in the temple is a microcosm of God’s presence in all of creation.
We seek out God’s presence still, in sacred spaces like churches, and in nature, where for many of us, evidence of God, awe of God, is experienced in the beauty of the mountains or the ocean. For the most part, though, I wonder whether we can say the Psalmist’s words honestly, that a day in the courts of God is better spent than a thousand in our own room.
We seek God’s presence, and as we see in today’s gospel, we experience God’s presence most clearly and profoundly, not in the beauty of nature, but in Jesus Christ, who is God made flesh. We are at the end of Jesus’ lengthy discussion of the meaning of his words “I am the bread of life.” Today we hear again words we heard last week, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them… whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
But we also learn about the response to these words. Some of those in attendance called it a “hard saying”—literally, a saying that causes scandal or sin. We don’t find it surprising that some of listeners might have rejected his teaching. What might surprise us is that among those who turned away were not only idle spectators or fellow-travelers. John tells us that even some of his disciples abandoned him at this point.
So Jesus asked the twelve, “Will you also turn away?” Peter spoke for the group when he replied, “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” In that decision to stay, Peter and the twelve commit themselves to being with Jesus. The gospel of John uses the good old word “abide” to describe this. It’s a word that appears throughout the gospel, beginning in chapter 1, when Jesus calls his first disciples. Andrew and another disciple ask him when they first meet him, “Where are you abiding?” Jesus responds, “Come and see.” The gospel says then that they abided him the whole day.
Today, we hear that whoever eats the flesh and drinks the blood, abides in Jesus and he in them. When the twelve decide to stay, to abide, they choose to be with Jesus. It’s actually the heart of what it means to follow Jesus in John’s gospel, and we might think of it somewhat passively. In the past, I’ve suggested the contemporary translation, “hanging out” with Jesus. In fact, it involves our whole being. It’s much like our experience with this chapter this summer. We’ve been reading through it week after week, trying to discern its meaning, exploring the language and imagery, turning it over in our minds and hearts. As we seek that deeper meaning, we are entering more deeply into relationship with Jesus Christ.
Abiding with him. Jesus calls us, not only to experience his presence in bread and wine, but enter into relationship with him. And wherever we are on our journeys, whether we are at the very beginning, or whether we have been abiding with him for decades, there are deeper levels of relationship with him to which we are invited, deeper levels of meaning, deeper experience. As our physical spaces are renewed and enhanced in the coming months, as we hope that through these changes, members of our wider community may experience in this place the presence of God, it is my prayer that all of these encounters and our own experiences may lead us into deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and with each other, that we may abide in him and he in us. Amen.