We Are the Temple of God
When Presvytera and I moved to Boston to attend the seminary, it was the first time that either one of us had lived anyplace other than the Twin Cities as adults. Both of us had moved around quite a bit as kids but Minnesota was definitely home. Many new and different things caught our attention. One of those was an old church building in the city. As we were driving by, I was anticipating getting a closer another piece of early American history. However, as we drew near, I could see that the large structure of this historic church was just a façade for upscale condominiums. The church had been converted into residential living. I was kind of shocked. I had never seen a church temple used for anything other than for worshipping God. Now living on the East Coast I would learn that former church temples were being used for far worse. Some in New York city had been sold and converted into nightclubs.
Can you imagine our temple of St. George here in Saint Paul turned into nightclub? We could turn the altar into a bar. The chalices could be used as cocktail glasses. The solea could become a dance floor or a stage for a live band. The kitchen could become the grill for a food menu. Now as I am describing this transformation of our church temple, many of you are growing more and more uncomfortable, perhaps with a sense of indignation, a feeling that what I am suggesting is very wrong. A few others might be thinking this would be another good fundraiser for the church. But if the idea bothers you it is because we Orthodox have a strong sense of sacred space, a sense of distinction between the holy and the profane.
So, if we feel that way about our church temple buildings, why do we at times not feel the same way about our own bodies? After all, this is what the Apostle Paul is saying in today’s Epistle reading for the Ninth Sunday of Matthew, from 1Corinthians 3. He says at the end of the passage: 16Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? 17If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple. The point is we may treat our body as holy when we come to liturgy on Sunday morning but how did we treat it the night before or the night before that? We drink the Holy Eucharist this morning but what did we drink, eat or smoke beforehand?
Now some of us might be too old for drinking and partying, or that’s just not our thing. But, what about sexual activity? Sleeping around, hooking-up, the so-called “friends with benefits,” living together, fooling around; these are all euphemisms for physical intimacy outside of the Sacramental bond of Marriage between one man and one woman. Listen to what the Apostle Paul says about this: 13Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body (1 Corinthians 6:13). 18Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. 19Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? 20For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's (vv.18-20).
Some of us might not do any of these things but if we are the temple of God, then there is a hierarchical structure to our body just like our church temple. It has an exo-narthex, a narthex, a nave and an altar. Just like the synagogues and temples of ancient Israel, it signifies a hierarchical progression of intimacy with God. They represent leaving the world, cleansing and purification, enlightenment and union with God. Thus, we human beings, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26), possess a hierarchical structure that begins with our bodies, how we act, continues into our mind, what we think, then into our heart, what we feel, and finally into our soul, the holy of holies, where God Himself seeks to take up His throne in the core of our very being. Thus, I might say, “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t commit sexual immorality. I am holy.” But listen to what our Lord Jesus Christ says, 18But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. 19For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. 20These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man." (Matthew 15:18-20). In other words, it’s not just our words and actions that can defile the temple of our humanity, but our thoughts and feelings as well. And typically when we commit sins by what we say and do, the sin was already committed in our heart and mind first.
Fr. Anthony Coniaris, in his book, Homilies from an Orthodox Pulpit, reminds us that when a church temple is consecrated it is literally baptized and chrismated. It is washed and anointed to be set apart exclusively for God’s purposes. When a person becomes a Christian, they are baptized and chrismated, and thus set apart exclusively to serve and glorify God. In fact, St. John Chrysostom teaches us that our bodies are even more honorable and more revered than a temple building. For we are living and rational temples, while a building is lifeless and irrational. Christ died for us, not for buildings. If then, we are set apart for God, why do we spend most, if not all, of our time doing things for everyone and everything except God? Listen to Jesus again: 23Jesus answered and said to him, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him (John 14:23)
Yesterday, August 1st began our two week fast period before the Feast of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary on August 15th. One of the reasons we revere and honor the Theotokos is because she is the example par excellence to us of being the temple of God. She is the image and prototype for all of us to follow, to become holy and pure and have God living and dwelling within us, to give birth to Christ in our thoughts, words and actions. Fr. Alexander Schmemann that the Virgin Mary is not the great exception but the great example to all of us. Knowing that each person is a temple of the living God, we understand better why Orthodox Christians defend the sanctity of life, from protecting tiny babies in the womb of their mothers, all the way to prohibiting cremation of persons heading for the tomb.
Fr. Coniaris shares several biblical passages that reiterate our being temples of God: 19My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you, (Galatians 4:19) and 20For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself (Philippians 3:20-21), and 1For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2Cor.5:1); 9 Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. 10For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad (vv.9-10).
As we conclude today, we must remember one more thing, that not only are each one of us individually a temple of God, worshipping in a temple building, but that all of us together as a community of believers in Christ are a temple of God. Thus, everything that has been said today applies to us as a group of people. We must continually ask ourselves, is everything we do and say as a church community, set apart exclusively for the worship, glory and service to God? Let us close with another two passages from the Apostle Paul:
1I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)
13And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. (Romans 6:13)