Greetings for the Feast of Pentecost!!
During the days between Ascension and Pentecost, I found myself ruminating about Exeter Cathedral as building and people. I have worshipped there on and off since 2003, and my thoughts were prompted by my lack of access, and more widely by the lack of access of most people during the Coronavirus lockdown to the church buildings we know and love. I have heard many an alliterative sermon in my life, so I was delighted to find that my ruminations resolved into three trains of thoughts, each beginning with the letters S and P!!
Spirit and Place
As part of my morning prayer time, I had been reading “On the Holy Spirit” by St Basil. He writes: “Scripture frequently speaks of the Spirit in terms of place – a place in which people are made holy… Where can we offer [the sacrifice of praise]? Only in the Holy Spirit! Where did we learn this? From the Lord himself… [The Samaritan woman] was deceived by local custom into believing that worship could only be offered in a specific place, but the Lord, attempting to correct her, said that worship ought to be offered in Spirit and in truth” (author’s italics; see John 4:24).
A physical place such as a church building is important as a sacred space. The offering of worship in one spot over the decades and centuries has formed it into what is known as a ‘thin place’ or a place where prayer is valid, to channel TS Eliot. Touch the walls and you can feel the prayer soaked into them. Yet we are not tied to the building as a place where prayer is valid. it is in the Spirit as place that we truly worship.
Stones and People
Again, Basil writes: “The Spirit is indeed the dwelling place of the saints, and the saint is a suitable abode for the Spirit, since [s]he has supplied God with a house, and is called a temple of God.” In this he is following St Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? … God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Cor 3:16,17b; NRSV)
That is, not only do we dwell in the Spirit, but the Spirit dwells in us. To contemplate is literally to ‘temple with’. In contemplative prayer, our heart is the temple where we encounter God in the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, in his first letter, Peter writes: “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet 2:5; NRSV).
The physical stones of our church buildings are not at present resounding to the sound of liturgies, organs, choirs and congregations. Yet we living stones forming that spiritual house, we who are Jesus’ disciples today, can still cry out in worship (see Luke 19.40): “O come, let us sing to the Lord… Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to God with songs of praise!” (Ps 95:1a,2, NRSV).
Paul describes himself and others, as builders on the foundation of Jesus Christ, and the building materials may be gold, silver or precious stones (1 Cor 3:10-12). Churches are often beautiful buildings, built to the glory of God. We too, if we let it happen, may form a beautiful spiritual house of precious stones, to the glory of God. And I see and hear of inklings that we are letting it happen, on Facebook, Zoom, Telegram and WhatsApp, on the telephone, two metres outside our front doors, and in periods of shared silence.
Screens and Proximity
At present we are seeing each other and attending church services through screens. But this is not new. TV has spirited us into major national services since the Coronation. In Exeter Cathedral, screens at the side of the Nave have been frequently used for big events when it is otherwise difficult to see what is going on.
I can see and hear what is happening, whether in the building metres away, or in my house miles away. So does proximity make a difference? Subjectively, it does of course feel different to be dispersed instead of gathered, to wave at each other instead of physically sharing a sign of peace. Objectively, we are separate individuals whether gathered or dispersed, yet bound together in God with a connection that transcends time and space.
When I receive absolution or the blessing at the end of a service inside a church building, I am already metres away. Watching over the internet I am miles away, but the increase in scale does not lessen God’s forgiveness or desire to bless. Whether in the building or on Facebook, I am still present in the Spirit.
We have always been members of the body of Christ (see 1 Cor 12), across all places and times. Now, the ‘cloud’ (a term for the software and services that run on the Internet) enables us to be members of the cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1) for each other, joined in prayer and worship and thanksgiving.
So take heart!
We each of us dwell in the Spirit as place.
Separately and together, we are a temple for the Spirit.
And connected-though-dispersed, together we worship God.
“Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” (1 Thess 5.11).