Cathedrals and Kingdoms

Our pastor at church this past weekend preached a sermon called “Don’t Go To Church… BE the Church.” I reflected a lot on that yesterday as I watched the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral go up in flames. American Christians are pretty comfortable with the idea that ‘church’ isn’t just a brick building you go to on Sunday’s. We Protestants are especially quick to point out that Jesus called us to focus on making disciples, not building campaigns. We believe in Emmanuel, “God with us”… wherever we may go. Paul tells us that we are all “God’s temple” and that His Spirit dwells always with us (1 Corinthians 3:16). So thanks be to God that His presence doesn’t reside solely in a building, but within us wherever we may be.

So, because we have this glorious truth, and perhaps because we are Americans whose history (or lack of it) leads us to jump right in and fix things, we make statements like this:

“Its too bad the relics didn’t burn.. The RCC uses thes fake relics to exploit people financially and keep them in spiritual bondage. The RCC gives a false gospel which has no hope.”

Justin Peters, Evangelist

I completely agree with his statement, by the way. But I take pause.

I take pause because if watching an 800 year old cathedral go up in flames doesn’t grieve your heart, well, I just don’t know. Something has been lost, and it’s more than just wood and stone.

I spent a good part of my younger years writing about and studying the Great Lady of Paris. Notre Dame was and is an overwhelming experience no matter who you are or what your faith may be. Your ego gets checked at the door as you enter and try and wrap your mind around the grandeur of it all. You feel small, and rightly so. To walk up tiny steps worn down by centuries of worshippers, to touch a cold stone pillar that has survived revolutions, wars, and who knows what… it humbles you.

Last night, when the first photos began to come out, this was what many people saw:

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There it stands. Yes, it’s symbolic. No, it doesn’t solve the enormous problems the Church in France or Europe is facing. As far as true Christianity goes, Notre Dame has been a bit of an empty vessel for many years. But there it stands, amongst actual flames and debris, the cross remains.

Friends, we are created for worship. We don’t worship the earthly material, we worship the One who created it. The fact that men centuries ago could use their God-given minds and talents to build something that would long outlast themselves, is something to be acknowledged. You can argue the point that places like this are prideful and opulent, and we Christians aren’t called to be either. Imagine worshipping in spirit and in truth in such a place. These places are symbolic of the physical presence of Jesus-followers here on earth. Granted, we haven’t always done a bang-up job at ‘being the church’ the way He taught us to, but I don’t fault the architects of beauty for that. I thank them for having the guts and dedication to build something on this earth that gets people to look up and ponder the greatness of their Creator.

So before we start lamenting the sad state of Christianity “over there”… let’s remember that we are not immune to our own cultural traps as well. Here’s a nice little ad for Easter services at an American mega-church:

If Europe is rationalizing it’s church away, we are entertaining the life right out of ours. I’m all for getting people to come to church on Easter, but they need something leave with. People in Europe go out of duty, while many of us go to be entertained. Some idolize old relics while others are Instagramming their professional bunny photos.

If Jesus’ death and resurrection aren’t being preached, what are we really doing?

It’s Holy Week. Although we all may disagree on how to celebrate it, can we pause for a moment and thank God that the cross still stands? Not just in Notre Dame, but in our lives. It stands through everything the world can throw our way. It stands regardless of man’s futile attempts to eradicate it. It stands when we cannot.

Thousands of people across the world are looking at that now iconic photo and saying, “I’m not a religious person… BUT…” Perhaps we need to help them finish that sentence.

We need to BE the church this week and going forward. People need to hear the Good News, see it demonstrated and lived out. The great bells at Notre Dame will ring out again, I’m sure of it. Maybe not this Easter, but eventually. Christians need to understand that the Good News spoken plainly and in love is better than those beautiful bells, or even the Easter Bunny in a helicopter.

So no, I’m not Catholic, but I mourn the loss of beauty that allowed my feeble mind to imagine a glimpse of heaven. At their best, cathedrals and churches are the catalysts that drive us to press in even more to our God.

Buildings matter. Buildings are not ultimate. We need both catacombs and cathedrals. We need churches meeting in homes and schools and movie theaters, to remind us that we are citizens of heaven, and we need structures and stability to remind us that we are connected to generations before us and to come. 
Notre Dame is a remarkable building. France, and the world, should grieve, and should then rebuild. We are right to lament the loss, but we are right also to be reminded of what cannot be lost. Cathedrals can be shaken; the kingdom never can be. 

Russell Moore

3 thoughts on “Cathedrals and Kingdoms

  1. Elihu says:

    This is so well-stated! I have been to that beautiful cathedral along with several others in France. While I am not Catholic, these huge buildings were still awe-inspiring. I sang inside several cathedrals with my college choir and was astounded at how beautiful the acoustics were in these centuries-old buildings. I remember being particularly impressed with the artwork used to teach bible stories to the illiterate. These cathedrals connect us with other people who sought Christ in centuries past, even if they may have held differing doctrines.

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