You Are God’s House, God’s People
June 02, 2017
By The Rt. Rev. Kirk S. Smith, Bishop of Arizona
Many of you who went to Sunday School might have learned this little rhyme:
This is the church (put hands together)
This is the steeple (put index fingers together)
Open it up (turn your hands over)
And see all the people (wiggle interlocked fingers)
It’s a good way of reminding us (whatever age we might be) that the church is not the building, but the people inside.
The feast of Pentecost, one of the oldest holidays in the church which we will celebrate on Sunday, takes this notion one step further and says that the church is not just people, but spirit filled people. We celebrate the time when the Holy Spirit descended on the first disciples who gathered, confused and fearful, in an upper room in Jerusalem. The Spirit came upon them in such a way that it seemed that a “mighty rushing wind” blew through the room. They were so enthusiastic (the words en theos in Greek mean “God-filled”), that they appeared to have tongues of fire dancing on their heads! All because the Holy Spirit had come to rest on them, to inspire (in spiritus is Latin for “to be in the spirit”) them for their mission in the world. That mission they took up right away, running out into the street of the city and preaching to the assembled pilgrims from all over the world the Good News of Jesus in their own language.
There is an important theological shift going on here, which has been brilliantly described by the English theologian and former Bishop of Durham, N.T Wright. He points out that when the first temple in Jerusalem was built in 950 B.C., God’s presence, his shekinah, literally dwelt in that building (1 Kings 8:10-13).
But when the temple was destroyed and the second temple was rebuilt in 515 B.C., there is no mention in the Bible of God ever taking up residence there again. This was understandably both mysterious and unsettling to the believers of that time. Had God abandoned his people? Paul has a clear answer to that question. God’s presence is no longer in a place, but in a people, the people of God we call the church. God no longer dwells in a building–God dwells in us. We are the temple of God.(1)
The implications of this are profound. As Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr sums up:
Knowledge of this history now gives new and even more meaning to what we call Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:1-13). On that day, the fire from heaven descended, not on a building, but on people! And all peoples, not just Jews, were baptized and received the Spirit (Acts 2:38-41). Paul understood this and drew out the immense consequences. He loved to say, “You are that Temple!” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:21-22), and of course this morphs into his entire doctrine of individual humans as the very Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:14-30). We are all “walking around like the sun” as Thomas Merton says.(2)