“If our hearts condemn us,
God is greater than our hearts”
Solomon’s prayer at
the occasion of the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem is a theological
tour de force. For his prayer at once acknowledges the absolute sense
of wonder at the distance between God and man and the nearness of God with man.
God is beyond anything “in heaven above or on earth beneath” and yet he
has shown “steadfast love to thy servants who walk before thee with all their
heart”. God’s covenant with Israel is now centered on the temple,
“the place of which thou hast said, ‘My name shall be there’.”
The temple is the
place where God’s name is held in awe and wonder. That name is the holy
name revealed to Moses at the burning bush – “I am who I am” - the name
conveying the sense of the universality of God. Yet at the same time, God
identified himself to Moses in terms of his particular relation to a family, a
tribe and their descendants – “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Israel
is defined in the creative tension between these two moments. Why tension?
Because there is the constant struggle to hold these two moments together.
Two dangers result
in the failure to hold these two moments together. On the one hand, there
is the danger of holding to the absolute universality and holy otherness of God
in such a way that God becomes so utterly remote, so ineffably ineffable, as it
were, as to be totally irrelevant and indifferent to the world and human lives.
On the other hand, there is the danger of holding to the nearness of God with us
in such a way that God is made captive to our wills and collapsed into the
interests of a particular tribe or people; our God, not the God, and therefore
no God. Ultimately, both dangers result in a kind of atheism: either God
is so remote as to be of no consequence or God is simply collapsed into
The tension which
defines Israel is at once resolved and heightened by Jesus Christ. In
Christ the universal and the particular meet and are one but it is a unity which
comprehends and upholds the difference between God and man. He is true God
and true man who addresses the consequences of the Fall of Man for the whole of
humanity. In him we see the truth of our humanity encountering and
overcoming the folly of our humanity in its untruth. He does so by virtue
of his complete openness to the will of his Father, by virtue of his essential
divinity revealed in his perfect humanity.
The challenge for
Christians is to hold these moments together too, but by way of the greater
intensity of the union of these moments in the person of Jesus Christ. The
place becomes the person, we might say, and this gives an entirely new
sensibility to the meaning of the holy places for Christians; they become the
places of our participation in the divine life opened to view through the death
and sacrifice of Christ, itself the radical overcoming of both forms of our
That we are
frequently blind and indifferent to the dynamic of what these holy places
signify in their architectural, musical, liturgical and educational
intentionality no doubt belongs to the stubborn folly of our fallen humanity.
But to be made aware of such possibilities of such folly also belongs to the
purpose of these holy places.
prayer once again signals the profound theological principle which operates in
this matter. He asks for God’s forgiveness of our sins and foolishness.
The temple is to be the place where such forgiveness is to be sought and looked
for, the place where the steadfast love of God is remembered, the place where
the wonder of God’s dealings with humanity is recalled and re-enacted.
Heaven is not collapsed into the earthly temple nor is heaven a place
inaccessible; rather the temple is the place where the revelation of God is
remembered and the place where God wills to be accessible. “When they
pray towards this place; yea, hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place; and when
thou hearest, forgive.”
Epistle and Gospel for each Sunday provide the critical matrix through which we
read the other scripture readings. It is no less so for this Sunday.
The Gospel is Christ’s parable about the kingdom of heaven being likened to a
great supper to which those who were invited all made excuse. The
consequence would seem to mean “no feast” and all because of our refusals of
God’s inviting grace, as if our convenience were to take priority over God’s
will. But our indifference is simply our atheism, our denial of the will
of God for us. No feast because there is no God.
It would seem that
our excuses must frustrate God’s will. But that cannot be so. We can
only frustrate ourselves. God will have his house filled with those whom
he makes ready - bringing them in who could not come on their own, compelling
them to come in who would not come any other way.
But those whom God
invites are those whom he would have come willingly and freely - out of love -
those of whom it may truly be said, “Blessed is he that shall eat bread in
the kingdom of God.” To refuse the invitation is to deny that love.
To be sure, our refusings of God’s grace is also the freedom of our will.
But to be freed to our own pre-occupations is to be enslaved to ourselves - to
the misery of our self-will, to the condemnation of our hearts. It is not
what God wants for us nor what he wants for us to want either.
The purpose of the
parable is to convict our hearts of our folly and foolishness but only so that
we will be thrown back more fully and more freely upon the goodness of God.
The epistle signals the further extension of the theme of forgiveness sought for
by Solomon: “if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts”.
God is neither indifferent to our predicaments nor is he captive to our
As Thomas Cranmer
so wonderfully puts it: “He that keepeth the words of Christ is promised the
love and favour of God and that he shall be the dwelling place or temple of the
Blessed Trinity.” But where shall we hear the words of Christ - the
word of God written - that we may keep them except in those holy places where
the word is truly proclaimed and the sacraments duly celebrated? For
“there”, as Luther says, “is the Church”. It is not confined to
a special geographical local. We are not to make idols of our churches.
They are not ends in themselves. They exist for a purpose that is always
at once pointing beyond themselves and providing for our participation in the
mystery of God revealed. Without that they are nothing. Our churches
are the holy temples where the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God, is opened
to view. Here our blessedness is indeed to be found in the eating of the
bread and in the hearing of the word. In the body broken and the blood
outpoured, in the word proclaimed and celebrated, we are reminded of the
steadfast love of the God who is greater than our hearts. And that is the
“If our hearts condemn us,
God is greater than our hearts”