Welcome to the house of God

Article for St. Catharines Standard newspaper by Peter Youngren.

Tomorrow is Sunday, and many congregants will hear the words stated in the headline. Some pastors use this greeting as they welcome people on the front steps of the church building, and some use it as an opener for the Sunday worship.

Christianity can trace its history to a Savior born in a stable, crucified on a hill just outside the city, and ascending to heaven from a mountain. For the first two hundred years apostles and preachers conducted their services in market places, on the streets, in caves, on ships, and in the homes of their converts. There was no building called “church”, or “the house of God”, such a thought was anathema to their understanding of the Good News they had received from Jesus.

What happened? How did these two words, church and building, become so intertwined that we automatically equate the two? For many being a Christian in good standing means a weekly visit to the building referred to as the church.

Now grant it, Canada’s climate doesn’t lend itself to year around worship in the outdoors. I’m filing this article from Singapore, and frankly the humidity and heat here makes me grateful for air-conditioned buildings. My point is not about buildings, but about the annoying habit of Christians, to call a building “the house of God”.

It is deeply engrained indeed! Many think they go to church to meet God, as if He hung around the building waiting for our weekly appearance. Some even dress up; you certainly want to look your best for the Almighty.

When Christianity started it was the only religion in the world that had no “sacred areas,” no “holy” buildings. Jesus and the apostles were surrounded by religions, Jewish and Greco-Roman, that all had their sacred territories; synagogues, temples, shrines and offering places. Yet, they saw no need for these. Theirs was a message for all, preached by untrained common people, in everyday places.

By the third century Christians had began conducting worship services in cemeteries, where a martyr or an especially committed believer was buried. Soon these burial places were considered sacred. Add another hundred years and now Christianity wanted the same respectability as other religions, and to have that, you needed buildings – “holy buildings” – the kind of places you approach with reverence, and once inside you speak only in a hushed tone. Once Helen, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, returned from the “holy land”, the concept of church buildings took off. Splinters of the cross of Jesus, and bones of dead “holy people” were spread all over Europe, and each bone fragment and splinter needed a building, and it was holy in the minds of the people. Add another seventeen hundred years and today we find ourselves with many more layers of tradition.

Jesus and the apostles taught that God lives in people, not buildings; we are temples where God’s Spirit dwells. We don’t go anywhere to meet God. Why would we, since God lives in us? The meetings Christians have on Sundays are not people going to church; it is the church (the people) going to the building. The meeting place isn’t a sanctuary; it is an auditorium. We are the sanctuary. That puts a different spin to the expression “no coffee in the sanctuary”. I put at least one large cup in my sanctuary every morning. 

What’s the big deal? If we think a church is synonymous with a building we stifle our understanding. Whether Jesus talked to the devoutly religious Pharisees or to a five times divorced, now living common-law woman, his message was the same; something has to happen in you. God’s life is expressed in people, not in buildings. God is in people, not in real estate.

We call that Gospel, the Good News that God, through Jesus, has come to live in people. Imagine you can be the house of God.

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