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Lent 5: Thin Walls and the Perfume of Heaven

March 17, 2013

Before coming to Harleston I lived in an end of terrace 1970’s house in Lowestoft. It was a nice house in a pleasant area. The sort of area where pushchairs and large outdoor toys are often left outside overnight because no one will take them.

I liked living there, but there was one definite down side. The party wall with the next house was not the thickest and certainly wasn’t sound proof. We got on well with our neighbours but with 5 children next door there is always going to be noise. So we always knew when the children next door had hurt themselves or fallen out, we could hear the tears and the tantrums. They were also a volatile couple and we could hear every word of every row. So I now know a lot more about them than I really want to know! All because the walls were thin. That idea of thin walls got me thinking about the church buildings that I look after because they too have thin walls.

Now anyone who knows the beautiful old church buildings of my benefice, will know that they are mostly mediaeval, impressive, and have thick solid stone walls, every one of them. They are very solid buildings that have defied the elements for hundreds of years, but I still say that they each have thin walls.

In Luke 12.3 we read that “Mary took about half a litre of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Our church buildings can be like that, places sometimes filled with the fragrance of God, at other times they are places where faint hints of the perfume of heaven can be caught.

Whether empty or full of people, when I walk in to these buildings I feel the stone and the history, but I also feel something more. I sense the presence of God. There is a sense of heaven being nearby. You can almost hear the angels singing before the throne. The walls are thin. Not the physical walls but the spiritual walls. They are places where it is a little easier to know God’s presence, a little easier to hear His voice, to smell the incense before the throne; the perfume of heaven.

So how does this sit with passages in the Bible like Acts 7.47 which says that the, “Most High does not live in houses made by human hands”? – For me both are utterly true. God does not live in our church buildings. God created everything and has no need of any food or home that we could ever make, no matter how grand they may be.

God is everywhere, and can be heard anywhere; at any time. So, those who say that we don’t need buildings are right, we don’t need them. I can pray perfectly well at home or in the garden or alone or in a small group. I was able to pray perfectly well with our new Archbishop on the steps of the Forum in Norwich last week. So, in that sense cathedrals and churches could all go and the faith would carry on just fine.

In fact I trained with many who thought that most we should get rid of most of our ancient buildings. Indeed, many considered any permanent building as an expensive obstacle to the Gospel. They saw lots of Christians spending most of their time and money maintaining buildings when all of these resources could have been better used sharing the Gospel, helping the poor, visiting the sick etc. They are right. If we spend all of our time caring for these buildings we have become an historical society only and we have stopped being the gathered people of God.

I say that, but I don’t agree that we should get rid of our buildings. I see them as assets. They are assets, but only so long as they do not take the place of God. Our old churches are places where the walls between the present and eternity are thin. But they can also be idols that get me worshipping carved stone and stained glass rather than the God who made the stone, glass and everything else, including me.

This is my struggle, this is the Church’s struggle. To make the most of the holy places that we call churches but not worship them. To care for the stone and the glass, while focusing on growing in faith and mission.

It’s a bit like a tight-rope walk; a balancing act. But when we get it right the rewards are amazing. We can worship in buildings where the prayers of centuries echo silently all around. We have buildings in which people can sit and feel themselves close to God. We have places that remind the school children of the faith and history that they are inheriting; and believe me you can see from their faces that they do feel it.

When we get it right. We also have people in our communities whose lives are holy. When that happens you and I can be portable holy places, where ever we go. When you or I are full of the Spirit, the walls between us and God are thin. Then where ever we go, we can make the walls between worlds a little thinner, and sometimes people will catch a glimpse of a better world. That is what discipleship is all about, it is about lives changed; made holy. It is about doors being opened for you and me and for the people that we meet.

So God has no need of a house, and if he did he wouldn’t need to ask us to build one for Him. Our houses of God are for us. They are places where the walls are thin, where it is just a little easier to feel God’s presence and hear His voice. They are places where we can soak up eternity, and spread it where ever we go.

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