“This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”.
This quotation from our first reading today is often put up on church doors, as a way of welcoming visitors into the sacred space within. It acts as a reminder that churches are set aside for God and so become holy, a special place where we might encounter and draw closer to God.
The quote seems particularly poignant at a time when we are still exiled from our own house of God. But the time is drawing near when we will be able to return, so this seems like a good time to think about what our church building means to us.
There are some places in the world where God seems closer, where the veil between this world and God’s seems slightly less opaque – a thin place, as the saying goes, between us and the kingdom of heaven. This is often true of churches. When we enter there is often a shock of silence, as the walls, the dim light and the empty spaces contrast with the busyness, crowds and noise outside. There may also be a sense of awe, especially in a cathedral– it is impossible to enter St Paul’s without being a bit taken aback by the scale of the place.
But the sacredness of a church goes beyond physics. It comes, I think, partly from years, sometimes centuries, of prayer - from the knowledge that people have stood, sat and knelt in the building and offered their prayers to God, that they have sung and worshipped, celebrated weddings and baptisms and lamented over coffins there.
And it comes from the presence of God. For the Jewish people of the Old Testament, God was physically present in the temple. Not contained there, of course – God is and always was too big to be confined – but physically present nonetheless, a literal, not metaphorical, presence. This is true for us too, though in a different way – no pillars of smoke for us, but the real presence of Christ in the bread of the Eucharist which we keep from week to week in the sanctuary.
Of course, God is with us always. Of course, we don’t need a special, sacred place to worship God. Of course we can find God in the world, wherever we are. We are, as St Paul reminds us again today, the children of God, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – all we need is found in God and we are brought to God’s kingdom through the death and resurrection of Christ, drawn by grace and God the Holy Spirit.
So no, we don’t need a special, sacred building and the last four months have shown us very clearly that we can still pray, read God’s word and worship without a building in which to meet. And yet we miss it. We are still drawn to church, still find ourselves longing for the quiet holiness of our church building, in which we can sit quietly or worship together, leaving renewed and restored, at peace and closer to God and one another.
St Aldhelm’s is not just a building – it is us, the people, our fellowship and our prayer, But it is also a building, and that building is none other than the house of God, and the gate of heaven, and on 6 September we return. Thanks be to God. Amen.