Is it wrong to build beautiful churches? Is it a mistake to create lovely sanctuaries for the worship of God? Sometimes you hear this criticism, with the implication that it is a waste of money. Yet nobody seems to find it odd that vast sums are spent on shopping malls. Cathedrals are cheap by comparison. And, for that matter, why do people lavish money on their homes to make them as beautiful and as comfortable as they can? They want their homes to be a place where they can be at peace, where they can leave the tensions of the world behind for a time, where they can build up their family life. All those things could be said of churches as well. On top of that, we could say that it is a natural desire to bring to God the best that we can. No wonder we want to create a beautiful and prayerful house of God, where the dignity of the building leads us deeper into communion with God who is not confined to any space or time but who is always with us.
The word church is ambiguous. It can mean a building where we gather for Mass, where we go to pray. The place where we go when our hearts are full of sorrow or full of thanksgiving. Or Church can mean the people of God, those gathered from every nation and race and language across the earth, baptised into the life, death and resurrection of Christ. The gospel today invites us to think about both meanings. Jesus drives the commercial activities out of the Temple (John 2.13-25). In the account given in the other gospels, Jesus quotes Isaiah: ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples’ (eg Mark 11.17). The message is clear: the prayerfulness of the house of God should allow a deep communion with God. This atmosphere of prayer and worship should help people from many nations to find a unity in their faith. Their unity will itself be another sign of God’s presence. The house of God is important.
And yet, this is not all. Faith does not depend upon a building. Our faith is in the living God whose presence is everywhere. This God meets his people even as they journey in the desert and gives them commandments and values to live by (Exodus 20.1-17). His people are the place where God is revealed, and now it is through Christ that his people are gathered. In our gospel today Jesus points forward to his death and resurrection, and says that his body will be a sanctuary. We are that body through faith and baptism. In the power of his resurrection, Christ is always renewing his people.
Even the most humble houses of God have a glory about them, because they remind us of that greater glory which one day the people of God will inherit through Christ. A church reminds us that despite our faults and frailties, we are the Church, the people called by Christ, whose presence is among us. And yet, none of this would have been possible without the cross, which to our sceptical world is still a stumbling block (1 Cor. 1.22-25). To us who believe, it is the supreme sign of God’s unshakeable love. Glory, yes, but at great cost: no wonder our churches always have a crucifix in them, to remind us how, through the wounds of Christ, we become a people and are given new life.