A Church Without Walls

July 19, 2015   2 Samuel 7: 1-14   Ephesians 2: 11-22

Rev. Catherine Purves


     If you stay in ministry long enough, sooner or later you get asked to do some strange things.  For instance, have you ever been to a camp meeting?  A number of years ago I was invited to be a Sunday evening speaker at a camp meeting just north of Tarentum – a camp meeting, in Tarentum for Pete’s sake!  They gave me rather complicated directions, and on the appointed day I somehow managed to find the place.  It was like a magical little village of tiny summer cottages painted in various pastel colors.  At the center of this cluster of what looked like doll houses was a big pavilion where the meetings took place.  It was the size of a small church, but it was just a roof and a floor – no walls!  There were rows and rows of benches, a podium, and a small organ.  I had never seen anything like it.  It was obviously meant to be a sanctuary, at the heart of this little community of summer cottages, but it was a church without walls.

     The fact that this seems so strange to us probably means that our two Scripture readings for this morning will also seem strange.  The one is about whether or not a temple for the Lord should be built.  The other is about knocking down walls that divide those who should be one in Christ.  Fitting these two complicated texts together on one Sunday morning may sound like a big undertaking.  But here we see that the challenge of temples and walls and how they function in the community of faith has been part of our heritage since the days of King David all the way down to the first century experience of the early church.  These issues represent a perennial problem for us in our relationship with God.  And so, on this hot summer Sunday we are prompted to consider what it would be like to be part of a church without walls.

     In our Old Testament reading we are reminded that the urge to build a temple was not always part of Israel’s life with God.  This was a new idea that came to David once his wars were over and his kingship was being established in Jerusalem.  Up until that time there was only a tent and a tabernacle which symbolized God’s presence and God’s freedom to move about the country.  David’s suggestion that a house of cedar should be built for God was met with obvious divine displeasure.  It was presumptuous of David to think that he could act without being told by God to erect walls and build a house to replace the open air tabernacle where God’s name had always dwelt. 

     So God rejected David’s plan.  Eventually, a temple would be built in Jerusalem, but David wouldn’t build it.  David’s son, Solomon would build it.  This became part of the covenant that God established with David, a promise that God would always bless the house and kingdom of David, throughout all generations.  The notion of a temple or a dwelling place where the people could meet God was part of that promise, but it would be on God’s terms, and it would be according to God’s plan. 

     Like David, we sometimes get out ahead of God, dreaming dreams and producing blueprints before consulting with the Almighty.  The walls go up, the doors go on, the locks are made, the keys are ordered, and the tabernacle is dismantled.  But is this a house for God or a prison?  Is this a place of worship or a center of control?  Why did David want walls?  Perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe David acted with the best of intentions.  But he was on a slippery slope.  And I wonder if we realize that we too are in that same dangerous place when we erect our walls and put locks on our doors.  The double danger is that we can use the walls to try to keep God in and the same walls can also serve to keep outsiders out. 

     When Solomon eventually built his temple there were lots of walls.  The Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the building; only the high priest could go there.  Outside that was the place where the priests offered sacrifices.  Then there was a separate court where male worshipers gathered.  A barrier divided this from the place where the women came for worship.  And beyond that, another dividing wall kept non-Jews from defiling the interior of the temple by creating a separate court of the Gentiles.  And fixed to that wall was an inscription that warned all foreigners that if they went any farther into the temple they would be subject to instant death.  Wall upon wall kept the Holy One in and the outsiders out.

     But, you may be thinking, this temple represented the heart of Judaism, and God allowed Solomon to build it.  This is true, but, as Christians, we can see hidden in that covenant with David the hint of more to come.  When God promised to raise up a son of David whose kingdom would be established forever, we do not immediately think of Solomon or of all the kings (good and bad) who succeeded him.  We think of Jesus Christ.  In him God’s promise to David would finally be fulfilled, and he would build a different kind of temple.  Now we need to move to our second reading from Ephesians to discover God’s ultimate plan for a church without walls.

     When Jesus finally came on the scene, the walls were higher than ever.  Jews would have nothing to do with Gentiles.  They were called “the uncircumcision,” the absolute outsiders, strangers and aliens.  They were also oppressors and invaders, pagans who worshiped idols and who served multiple gods.  How could they possibly share in God’s covenant with David?  How could they be people of God?  It was inconceivable.  A veritable revolution would have to take place for those walls to come down.  But that is precisely what happened in Jesus Christ.  He would be Lord of a church without walls.

     Listen again to these revolutionary words:  “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  The temple that Christ has built has no walls separating Jews from Gentiles, men from women, outsiders from insiders.  There are no more strangers and aliens, no more foreigners.  All of the invisible or not so invisible walls that we erect between rich and poor, black and white, American and non-American, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic, young and old, friend and foe – all of those walls have been broken down by Jesus Christ when he formed a church without walls.  And our reading concludes, “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

     That was the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to David.  His descendent, Jesus Christ, would build a holy temple.  In fact, he would be that temple, that place where God is met and worshiped.  And he builds us into a dwelling place for God, having overcome all that divides us from God and from one another.  There can be no walls in Christ’s church; it must be open to all, just as Christ made his sacrifice for all, and now unites us all in himself, for he is Lord of all.

     When I was serving in my first church in Edinburgh, Scotland, the minister would always, always begin worship with the same sentence of Scripture.  It seemed a rather strange choice to me at the time, and soon its repetition became as tiresome as it was predictable.  I wondered why he chose that verse, what it signified to him as he looked out at his congregation.  What was he trying to tell them, or tell himself, again and again?  Every Sunday morning, without fail, he read verse 1 of Psalm 127.  “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.”  It seems like an odd warning to issue at the beginning of a worship service, but I think now I understand it a little better. 

     We must not make David’s mistake, rushing out to build a church ourselves, a church that would no doubt have layers of restricting and excluding walls.  Those who devote their lives to building a church with walls labor in vain, for the Lord must build his church.  He will do that today just as he did when he walked this earth.  And it will be a church built out of fishermen and tax collectors, sinners and those who were demon-possessed, rich and poor, women and men, young and old, Gentile and Jew.  This will be a church without walls where all are gathered in, united by one confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.  This is the holy temple, this is the dwelling place for God, this is the house that Jesus built, where all are united in him, a church without walls.  Perhaps it does make sense to remind ourselves of this every time we enter our sanctuary:  “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.”