It’s so good to see you on this Bluegrass Mass Sunday, a day on which we are also celebrating the beginning of preservation work on the historic church. Soon, you will see scaffolding and contractors and dust and hear the noise of tools and machinery. The good news is that through it all we will still get to worship in this space during construction.
I will never forget the first time I saw this church. Carol, the boys and I visited shortly before I interviewed at St. John’s. We booked rooms at the Aloft Hotel across the street without knowing how close it is to the church.
We checked in, went up to the rooms with all of our bags, opened the shades, and lo and behold, our rooms were directly opposite the church looking down on the bell tower. I turned to Carol and said: “Honey, I don’t want to make too much of this, but this seems like a sign from God.” We had a good laugh together.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and I could see people heading into the church for the 5:30 p.m. service. I instantly fell in love with the building and later, during interviews, I fell in love with you, the people of St. John’s.
I’m not the only one. Recently, we hosted a consultant from Charleston named Craig Bennett. When it comes to structural engineering on historic properties, he’s the best of the best.
I had lunch with Mr. Bennett and Charley Redding, the chair of our Building Committee, and delighted in hearing how much Mr. Bennett—who has visited his fair share of landmark churches—loved our church: the building and the people.
This is the way that he put it to me, and I’m paraphrasing here: “Dave, St. John’s is built on a human scale. It’s not so big that you feel lost in it, but not so small that you forget that it’s a place of awe and worship. It’s the just the right size.”
Or, to quote from a poem written about this holy place: “This architectural sacrament / is more than an antique monument, / not grandiose in Grecian style, but rustic with a Gothic smile. / Its buttressed walls gabled high / Grow naturally into the sky, / Reminding resident and passerby / Of certain things that do not die.”
Or certain people, people like you and me who share in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. “Human scale;” “rustic with a Gothic smile.” Here’s one more quote that comes to us from the writer David Brooks: “We build buildings and then buildings build us.”
Buildings built Jesus and his disciples. We witness such construction in the story we heard today. John tells us that Jesus said these things about his Body and Blood “while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.”
I have stood on the stone floor of that synagogue in Capernaum. The roof and parts of the walls have been lost to time; only the stone floor remains. It’s a building in a fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Just like our church, it was neither an immense or small structure—it’s just right to gather a good-sized group of people for worship.
We build buildings and then buildings build us: so how did this building form Jesus and his disciples? Think about this for a moment: the primary place of worship for the Jewish people was the temple in Jerusalem, a complex about the size of three of our football stadiums. It truly was a wonder of the ancient world.
For faithful Jews, the Temple was―and still is―the place where heaven and earth meet, the holiest place on earth. Yet, in the shift that took place in Jesus’ time, we move from one central temple to a network of local synagogues. After the destruction of the Temple by Romans in 70 A.D. synagogue-based Judaism becomes the norm.
Jesus was a part of this new normal in Judaism. He certainly taught and worshipped and protested in the Temple in Jerusalem, but he also teaches in local synagogues like the one in Capernaum.
We can imagine that local places of worship aren’t controlled by religious and Roman authorities to the same degree as the Temple. There is freedom for a preacher like Jesus to visit and deliver what amounts to a challenging sermon.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
This message troubles some of Jesus’ followers, so much so that they decide to part ways with him. They throw up their hands and exclaim, “All right, that’s enough. You’ve lost me there, Jesus. You’ve gone too far.”
You might be wondering what’s so challenging or difficult about Jesus’ comments about his body and blood.
Jesus’ words to his disciples are challenging because they contain a bold claim: If God is Jesus’ Father, then that must mean that Jesus is God’s son, and to claim to be God’s son is blasphemous.
It’s for this reason that we still introduce the Lord’s prayer here at St. John’s with these words: And now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say, “Our Father, who are in heaven . . .” It’s bold to claim that God is our Father, that we share in that intimate relationship about which Jesus proclaims in the synagogue.
We build buildings and then buildings build us. In that synagogue, ordinary people like us are being built into God’s people, sons and daughters of the Living God.
Some of those sons and daughters are turned off by Jesus’s bold message. They head for the exits and decide to stop following him. It’s like they can’t conceive of a God who would relate to them as members of God’s own family.
Jesus spots those who are heading for the exits, looks at the twelve and inquires, “Do you also wish to go away?” Peter speaks up: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus is building up the twelve to trust that he is the temple of God, that he is the place where heaven meets earth, that he is the Holy of Holies. But not just Jesus: by extension, the twelve are beginning to comprehend that Jesus is including them in this renovation of humanity. Through him, they will be adopted into God’s own family and reconciled to God through his life, death and resurrection.
Which brings us back to our church, to this holy ground on which the people of St. John’s have worshipped since 1829. One of the questions that we might ask ourselves today is this: “In what form, in what shape has this building built us?”
The answer is before our eyes: St. John’s, like many churches, is built in the shape of the cross. Right here in the center aisle we can see the vertical line of the cross, and right here in the transept, we can discern the horizontal axis.
As we congregate in this space, we are literally formed into the shape of our crucified Lord. In this building we learn that our Christian journey is one of ongoing cruciformity; that is, we live most abundantly by freely and generously offering ourselves to God and to each other.
This vertical part of the cross reminds us of our deep and abiding relationship with God. We experience this vertical relationship as we offer up our hymns and prayers to God during worship.
The transepts of the church, the horizontal axis, symbolizes our vocation to serve each other and the world with Christ-like humility. The Peace, during which we shake hands and embrace, reminds us of our common humanity, our horizontal relationships with each other.
In the Eucharist, the picture of our crucified Lord is complete. We come to this table to be nourished vertically by the Living God, yet we also come forward horizontally, side-by-side, equally in need of forgiveness and God’s sustaining love.
Vertical and horizontal: God and neighbor come together in the Body of our Crucified Lord. As members of the Body of Christ, we are crucified with our Lord. This is what Jesus means when he says: “In order to find your life, you must first lose it.”
At the foot of the cross, we can summon the courage to let go, as Cynthia Bourgeault reminds us, of all our inordinate need for power and control, affection and esteem, security and survival. God knows we need those things, but they will never save us.
Only Jesus can do that, his crucified arms on the hard wood of the cross open to embrace every child of God.
Like Peter and the other disciples, we’re presented with a choice today: we can either head for the exits and grasp after worldly power, esteem or security or we can turn to Jesus and proclaim along with Peter: “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.”
Here’s the best news: if we are built in this church into the shape of the cross, if we are crucified with Jesus by letting go of our obsessive need for control, esteem and security, then we will be raised with Christ, too.
Here at St. John’s, we’ve experienced crucifixion and resurrection many times in our history. After this church burnt down in 1879—one week after the vestry decided not to renew the insurance policy—the congregation didn’t lose heart. Instead, we learned anew to trust fully in the power of God to raise up what had been cast down.
In 2005, when a substantial group of St. John’s members left to form a new church, many of you experienced pain, confusion and grief. Strangers weren’t leaving—these were friends, siblings, colleagues, and neighbors. These are brothers and sisters in Christ.
In the wake of that crucifying experience, you responded not with despair, but with faith and hope. Through the hurt that still hurts, Jesus took us by the hand, raised us up to new life and ministry and invited many new members into St. John’s. And we know that God isn’t done with us yet.
That’s why we’re going through all this trouble to put on a new roof, to protect our stained glass windows, and to fix our masonry and foundation. In the coming months, we will discern together other areas of our campus that we can enhance and improve.
We build buildings and then buildings build us. Thanks be to God for this building in which we can journey together vertically and horizontally into cruciformity.
This is where we meet Jesus, our crucified Lord, and say to him together: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on August 26, 2018.