Jonathan Baker maps temple theology by way of the Uxbridge Road
When this parish was first established in 1872, it would have been one of a number created in response to the rapid urbanisation of this part of London in the last third of the nineteenth century. Before then, this would have been a rural neighbourhood, the name Shepherd’s Bush deriving – perhaps – from a convenient resting place for those bringing in their flocks and herds for sale at Smithfield Market; or perhaps it was simply a nickname for a place of pasture where flocks could safely graze. The creation of this parish, then, a decisive act of mission (dread word!) – the world was changing, urban populations were growing, and people needed the ministry of the parish church: a place for the celebration of the sacraments, for the preaching of the word of God, served by a parish priest, a pastor, solemnly charged with the cure of souls, with the wellbeing of two-legged sheep from cradle to grave. The Declaration of Assent, a text much younger than 150 years old, is an appropriate one to call to mind on an occasion such as this. The Church of England believes in and teaches the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith it is called upon to proclaim afresh in every generation. This is the reason why this and every parish and parish church exist: to be a place where the faith of the apostles can be handed on as it was received: not a new faith, but the unchanging faith presented with fresh energy, fresh vision, fresh commitment, as the world changes and develops from one generation to another.
Now one of the most notable moments in the history of this parish occurred during its centenary year, its 100th anniversary, in 1972. I refer of course to the episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus which was broadcast in that year, and which features the fantastic sketch ‘The Ascent of the North Face of the Uxbridge Road’. If you don’t believe me or are too young to have been watching Monty Python in 1972, it is still available on YouTube. There you will see John Cleese playing the BBC presenter, interviewing Graham Chapman, in full climbing gear, emerging out of his tent and inching his way along the kerbstones at the edge of the pavement, not very far I’m sure from where we are sitting right now. I’m sure if there is some parish fundraising required in the near future, then recreating this daredevil enterprise, a sponsored ascent of the north face of the Uxbridge Road, must be the right answer.
In case that you all think the poor bishop has lost his sense, I do know that there are no mountains to climb in this parish, and that the Uxbridge Road does not have a north face. The readings do however mention at least three mountains, two of which form a pair, and it’s that pair of mountains which I want us to think about for a moment now.
One mountain, we’re told by the writer to the Hebrews, is a place of blazing fire, of gloom which turns to darkness, of a storm and of thunder; it is place where a great voice – the voice of God – speaks, but where everyone and everything must keep at a distance: ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ That verse, which is in the little bit of this passage from Hebrews 12 which is left out from the reading appointed for this mass, is a quotation from another part of Scripture, from the 19th chapter of the Book of Exodus, and it gives us the clue as to where this gloomy, fiery mountain is: it is Mount Sinai, where, on the journey through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land, God first called the people of Israel to meet him. It was a place a fear, it was a place not to be approached and touched; it was a place in the desert where God’s people could not stay and rest, where they could not find their lasting home. Israel met God there and God spoke, but Israel could not enter there into God’s holiness. Their journey had to go on.
The second mountain in the pair is Mount Zion, the more elevated ground in Jerusalem where, tradition held, King Solomon’s temple had been built (though it had long since vanished by the time the Letter to the Hebrews came to be written.) This mountain, this place, therefore, stands not for a desert place, a place of journeying, but a place of homecoming, a place of rest. It is a place where God dwells (as indeed he dwelt on Mount Sinai) but where now, the people of God can assemble in his presence, where all are called together, where each is a first-born, with their names enrolled in the liturgy of heaven, and where blood cries not for vengeance and further death (as did the blood of Abel) but which speaks rather of mercy and forgiveness.
Our reading from the First Book of Kings contains a small part of King Solomon’s prayer of dedication at that temple built on Mount Zion. The temple was built to be nothing less than the dwelling place for God, it was truly to be the house of God and the gate of heaven. It was designed to represent the whole cosmos, the heavens and the earth; and it was the High Priest’s calling, suitably vested, to move between the outer precincts of the temple, its outer courts and porchways, and its inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies representing heaven itself. It was the place of the daily rituals in service of the forgiveness of sins, the place where man would seek reconciliation with God through the sacrificial offerings of the priests, thousands of them, offerings of incense and cereal and doves and pigeons and lambs, and supremely in the offering of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement who took with him bull’s blood and goat’s blood into that most holy place and sprinkled it upon the altar of the Lord.
Our churches, this parish church and its predecessor which was consecrated 150 years ago, stand in direct succession to the temple dedicated by King Solomon on Mount Zion in Jerusalem a thousand years before Christ. They stand in direct succession, yes, but also of course we understand that succession afresh, anew, in the light of the Gospel, in the light of Him who is the way, the truth and the life: Our Lord Jesus Christ. This church is indeed the dwelling place of God, because here Christ dwells; Christ the true High Priest who at his Incarnation crossed the threshold, not from one part of the temple building to another, but from heaven above to earth below, returning to the heavenly realm at his Ascension, bearing human nature to the dwelling place of God. Christ dwells here sacramentally, under the sign of bread, reserved in the tabernacle (the name of that earlier divine dwelling place which preceded the building of the Temple) which sits on the altar behind me. And here, at the altar, the Church – the assembly of the first-born whose names are enrolled in heaven – offers sacrifice: no longer the sacrifice of bulls’ blood and goats’ blood, but rather the sacrifice of Christ, the one whose blood shed once for all upon the Cross indeed speaks of mercy not vengeance, and which covers all our sins, that we may indeed truly know reconciliation with our Lord and God.
I called Mount Zion a place of rest for the people of Israel, a place of homecoming, in contrast to Mount Sinai, the gloomy, fiery mountain where God spoke but where the people could not stay, but from which they had to journey on. In our churches, in this church, we are home; here, we might indeed stay and rest, rest in the presence of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Yet as Christian people on pilgrimage through this world, we have to say that here is not our final resting place. That is only in the Jerusalem above, the heavenly city, to which this little Mount Zion, this temple of the new covenant, points. Yet here we do not look with unfulfilled longing alone for the life of the heavenly Jerusalem. Here, through the life of faith begun at our baptism and renewed through our constant participation in the offering of the mass and in receiving Holy Communion, we glimpse the life of that heavenly city, we have one foot in heaven above. Around us, in that memorable phrase of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, are ‘the millions of angels gathered for the festival,’ and our offering is united with those of all the faithful souls gone before us in this parish over 150 years of Christian worship, witness and service.
Let us then rejoice to know Christ in this place: Christ who, even as we look to the east in search of Him who is the rising Sun is already coming to meet us. Let us rejoice to make Him known to all who live in this parish, no longer grazing for sheep and a resting place for shepherds, but busy, vibrant, gloriously diverse, full of joy and need. Let us thank God for this parish which is, to adapt the words of the poet Francis Thompson, pitched between heaven and Shepherd’s Bush. Amen.
This sermon was preached by the Bishop of Fulham at the Mass on Sunday 23 January 2022 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Parish of St Luke’s, Uxbridge Road (Shepherd’s Bush).