Earlier this month I was speaking with a parishioner in our diocese, who was describing her upbringing and early life as a member of the church. “Our family was very involved in the community. When the church doors opened, for worship or education or fellowship, we were there, turning on the lights and taking up the collection. You might say my parents were pillars of the church.”
I like this description of faithful membership in the church, with its architectural metaphor, especially as we gather for this occasion, for the dedication of the newly renovated nave and chancel at St. George’s Church. Pillars hold up a structure; without the grounding provided by the pillars, the church falls down. Pillars are not only useful, they can be beautiful; in churches, they should always be graceful, opening the eyes to God and the things of God. This goes for our architecture, at least in this case at St. George’s Church; but also of course for our membership: who ought to be graceful themselves, and point others toward God.
The church, as St. Paul says in Ephesians, is built on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20), which makes it doubly fitting that we celebrate this dedication on the feast of St. Bartholomew the Apostle. Bartholomew, of course, was one of the twelve chosen by Jesus to be among his first followers. In the Book of Revelation, the prophet John extends this idea of the foundation, with a vision of the heavenly city, foursquare and twelve-gated, with a surrounding wall inscribed on its foundation with the names of the twelve apostles (Rev. 21:14). St. John’s vision gives us a picture of the original “pillars of the church,” conceived not so much as an earthly city or sanctuary, but as the heavenly reality, built on the witness of apostles and prophets, imaged forth for us tonight.
“What is the house that you would build for me, and what is my resting place?” (Is. 66:1), the prophet Isaiah asks in our reading tonight, which puts the earthly temple in Jerusalem, and indeed all places of worship, in proper perspective. It raises our eyes to heaven, but also to our own calling as God’s worshippers. “But this is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word” (Is. 66:2). We come to the sanctuary in all humility, looking for God to supply the grace we need. God will make his resting place among us, but it will not be on account of our own efforts but according to the mercy of God. We’re all called to be pillars of the church, but only God can sustain this calling.
This portion of the prophet Isaiah, drawn from the very end of the book, has a two-part message for us as we rededicate this space, and consider our calling as Christians. In the prophecy, God calls all nations and languages to Jerusalem, and then sends them out to the four corners of the world. “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory… From them I will send survivors to the nations… to the coastlands far away that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations” (Is. 66:18-19).
This rededication brings us to the sanctuary, but the words of the prophet remind us of the fundamental focus of the mission and ministry of the church: toward the world outside, to those who are not yet members of the church, to the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection which means new life for the world. Our sacred spaces are tools of our mission. The pillars endure for a purpose. In a world that has more than its share of bad news, Isaiah’s prophecy reminds us of our calling as pillars of the church, to be graceful bearers of good news.
The second part of this final vision brings us back to Jerusalem, reminding us that this mission and ministry, focused outside the doors of the church, must be firmly rooted in our worship of God. Our mission is not only rooted there, but it leads us back to the presence of God. For us, fortuitously on this occasion, the words of the prophet bring us back to the sanctuary, for worship and for praise.
Those who go forth return, in Isaiah’s prophecy, bringing the instruments of worship, and an offering besides. God chooses, from among those who return, the ones who will lead his praises. As the prophet says, “From new moon to new moon, and from sabbath to sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord” (Is. 66:23). This is the house that we would build, here at St. George’s Church, a place for the worship of God. This is the house that we would build, firmly grounded on the apostles and prophets, upheld by the pillars of the church. This is the house that we would build, a place that would inspire us to go forth for the service of Almighty God, and the proclamation of the Gospel.