As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” Mark 13:1-2
Last weekend my wife and I were in the beautiful little Suffolk town of Bury St Edmunds. The hotel where we stayed is in the shadow of the magnificent cathedral church of St Edmundsbury, dating from way back in medieval times as a monastic abbey.
Each morning I got up early and went for a walk around the abbey gardens or along the bank of the tiny River Lark. The view of the cathedral was wonderful, whichever angle I was looking from. (How did they manage to erect such buildings!)
Last night I watched on the news as Notre Dame de Paris burned. Onlookers on the spot were weeping. Some knelt on the pavement with their hands clasped in prayer. When the spire slowly toppled and fell there were gasps of dismay.
France, of course, is renowned as a secular – that is, non-religious – country. But you don’t need to be even remotely “religious” to be moved by that terrible sight of destruction.
The cathedral in Bury is slight in comparison with Notre Dame. But – you can see the way my thoughts are going – exactly the same response would take place if a similar thing were to happen there: shock, dismay, disbelief.
The next stop for my thoughts was something that happened two thousand years ago…
Jesus and his disciples are up in Jerusalem for the Jewish Passover – country bumpkins from Galilee soaking up the sounds, sights and smells of the ancient city and its wonderful temple. According to Mark’s Gospel they are pretty much overawed: “Look, teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
And how does Jesus respond? With what seems like a matter-of-fact, even cynical indifference: “Do you see all these great buildings?… Not one stone will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
Ouch! Talk about sticking a pin into a balloon! Jesus isn’t exactly telling his disciples off for their enthusiasm; but he is bringing them down to earth with a bump, telling them cold, hard facts which they need to look right in the face.
Christians may disagree strongly about the importance of church buildings. For some, places of such splendour are a significant part of their worship and spirituality. I know someone who enjoys nothing more than visiting and savouring as many “sacred buildings” as possible; for them it’s a truly spiritual pleasure.
Others say no. Church buildings may certainly be useful as convenient gathering-places, but there is a real danger that the more splendid they are, the more likely to act as a distraction from God than a pointer to him.
I never tire of pointing out that in the New Testament no building is ever referred to as a church. Which means that once the congregation has left after a service, the church is no longer there; the building may still be there, but the church – the people – has scattered to be about God’s business.
But whatever view you take, I think you would need to be pretty boorish not to genuinely lament a sight such as the burning of Notre Dame.
Let’s go back to Jesus (never a bad thing to do). Why did he seem so indifferent to the coming destruction of the Jerusalem temple? Answer: because he knew it had passed its usefulness – and he anticipated a new temple altogether.
A new temple? Surely not?
But yes: pressed by his opponents about his attitude to the temple, he told them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days”. How strange is that! What could he possibly mean? Understandably his opponents responded with scorn and disbelief: “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”
At this point the Gospel-writer chips in with the explanation: “But the temple he spoke of was his body” (John 2:19-21).
Ah! Once Jesus is risen from the dead, John is saying, the focus of attention must be on him, not on any building, even that great building that had been venerated by the Jews for generations.
When John has his vision of the final glorious city of God, heaven itself, he makes a point of saying, “I saw no temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22). Suddenly everything becomes clear…
So let us, of course, lament what has happened to Notre Dame, indeed the damage or destruction of any man-made beauty and splendour. But let’s get it into our heads too that even if every such building on the face of the earth were to be destroyed, it wouldn’t ultimately matter (please note those italics!).
Why not? Because Jesus is risen. Because Jesus is alive, alive for evermore.
Lord Jesus Christ, you are the pioneer and perfecter of my faith. Help me then to fix my eyes always on you, never on man-made things, however beautiful, which will ultimately pass away. Amen.