How Awesome Is This Place!

July 11, 2015

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Preached by the Rt Revd Geoff Annas, Bishop of Stafford, using 2 Chronicles 7.1-4, 11-16 and 1 Peter 2.1-10, at Evensong on Saturday 11th July 2015.

Jacob said: ‘How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’  (Genesis 28:17)

Scholars may wish to argue, but clearly Jacob was dreaming of Winchester Cathedral as he lay on his stone pillow at Bethel.

‘Awesome’ is a word I heard many times when I was doing my stint as a  Chaplain here and encountering people from all the continents of the world – usually wandering around the Cathedral at the same time.  Often they would be so overcome with the atmosphere, they would speak in hushed tones – apart from one poor lady who let out a screech when having asked me where to find the grave of Jane Austin was horrified to discover she was standing on it!

Filled with awe – there is something about any building where prayer has been offered daily over a long period of time that seems to pervade a real sense of the Presence of God.  But that sense is heightened by great architectural beauty where every stone seems to proclaim all the amazing things that have been witnessed over the centuries.

How awesome is this place and how grateful are we to you and all who have been Friends of Winchester Cathedral.

But this place is more than just awesome – this is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.

The main purpose of a Christian place of worship has to be to offer prayer, praise and thanksgiving to God and to be a vehicle for enabling people to discover the love that God has for them – nurturing and encouraging  their Christian Faith.

Thanks to a favourable international situation, Solomon was able to embark on an ambitious twenty year building programme.  The Temple in Jerusalem was actually overshadowed by other parts of Solomon’s building projects.  He devoted thirteen years to constructing his palace and government buildings but only seven to the Temple. Yet for the historian writing the First Book of the Kings, it was the Temple that was most important and so Chapters 5 – 7 are devoted to a detailed description of how it was built and its design and furnishings.  Modest in size, nevertheless for its time it was a great architectural achievement.

But however awesome it must have seemed to the people, the Chronicler, writing the account of the Temple that we have heard in our first Lesson this afternoon, wanted to remind his readers that the Temple was primarily the house of God – and the account is presented from a priestly perspective.  Hence those beautiful verses 15 and 16 when God says:

‘Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place.  For now I have chosen and consecrated this house so that my name may be there for ever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.’

The Chronicler was convinced that Israel was itself called to be a ‘church’ – a worshipping community – a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ – a living community centred on the Temple.

Such an understanding is reflected in our Second Reading from the First Letter of Peter.  The followers of Jesus are urged to be ‘like living stones…built into a spiritual house’.  Christianity is about being in community with one another with Christ himself as the corner stone.

If I had a £1 for every time I have heard someone say “Well, I believe you don’t have to go to Church to be a Christian” I would be able to make a very generous donation to the Cathedral Fabric Fund!  You do not have to go to Church to be a good person – but belonging to a worshipping community is an essential part of what it is to be a Christian.  We need one another – we belong to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

If the stones of this building did not support each other we would be in a pile of rubble and I have to say that at a time of enormous transition and change for the Church, especially within the Anglican Communion, we need to remain united and stand together allowing our community in Christ to take priority over our differences of understanding.

One of the most amazing things about creation is that although we are made in the image of God, we are each of us unique – Christian Community is about bringing together individuals who share a common commitment to Jesus expressed through Baptism but who retain their own personality and understanding.  As Christians we are called to respect the views of others even if we do not agree with them and such mutual respect should be at the heart of that Christian Community which we call ‘the Church’.

I well remember a good – hearted discussion about Creationism on the streets of Southampton at 3.00am one Saturday morning between some students from Solent University and a group of Street Pastors from different local Christian Churches.  You will not be surprised to know that at the end we had not managed to resolve all our differences but one of the students said that although we had not changed his mind about how the world had begun, we had managed to change his mind about Christians and that he now had nothing but respect for a group of people who could disagree quite fundamentally with one another and yet could still work and pray with one another because their common belief in Jesus was greater than the things over which they disagreed.

We need to remember that as Christians we are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’ which is pretty awesome in itself!

And why do we need to remember this? ‘In order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light’

Every Advent as I share in the ‘From Darkness to Light’ liturgy in Lichfield Cathedral, I think of you all.  I remember a most amazing anthem sung in the darkness with half of the magnificent choir at the far end of the Cathedral and the other half here – I haven’t a clue what it was or who it was by but my goodness, it made my hair stand on end (which was quite a miracle in itself!)

As I listened to that anthem I had a real sense of being at the gate of heaven and a burning desire that others should be enabled to have such a sense too.

As Christians surely it is our very calling to help bring others from the darkness of their lives to know the Light of Christ – to journey as we ourselves have travelled from darkness to light.

But we are not called to do this alone.  Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs and working in Community with one another is not an option but a command – and as well as one another Jesus has promised that he too will be with us as we proclaim the good news of his love.

Inevitably and rightly on an occasion such as this, we thank God for the grace and virtue in all who have been Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants and for the preservation of this Cathedral Church through many generations – but it would be an insult to their memory if we were to leave it there.

We must also rededicate ourselves to fulfilling our Lord’s Great Commission and grow His Church.  As a Diocese you have four Strategic Priorities – in Lichfield our priorities are very similar although we seem to have made them into five!

As a Cathedral you are in a unique position to live out these strategic priorities.  All the evidence suggests that more and more people are sharing in Cathedral worship but unless they are welcomed and encouraged in their faith they will remain unconnected and uncommitted – on the edge of the Christian Community.  There is a limit to how many people the clergy can engage in conversation and so it falls to the rest of us.  True ‘Friends’ of Winchester Cathedral are those who share in its mission and evangelism and ensure its preservation for future generations.

We need to be bold for the Gospel and willing to tell others about our faith as well as our love for this place.  People come here because they are interested and we make a big mistake if we think they are only interested in the building.  Many come because they are also interested in finding out about Jesus and, deep down in their being, have a yearning to belong to that community which we call the Christian Family.

The author Rita Snowden tells of her visit to a small town near Dover.  She was sitting outside a café having tea in the late afternoon when she saw a group of rather burly workmen coming towards her in their dirty overalls.  As they passed by she was amazed at an unbelievably pleasant scent filling the air. She asked the waiter where it had come from and was astounded to hear that it was from the passing workmen.  He explained that they worked in a perfume factory down the road and were now on their way home.  All day long the fragrance of the perfume had permeated their clothes and they now took it with them.

Through our worship in this beautiful Cathedral we allow ourselves to be permeated with the love of Christ and the sweetness of his Presence in our lives.  Then, as we go forth into the world we should take the fragrance of the Lord with us that all whom we encounter should experience something of God’s love through us.

How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’