“You realize don’t you, that you are the temple of God, and God himself is present in you? …God’s temple is sacred— and you, remember, are the temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16- 17, The Message).
Christianity doesn’t have, and never has had, holy places.
Despite all those Holy Land tour bus stops, the truth is no one knows exactly where Jesus was born—we only know it was near Bethlehem. Neither does anyone know exactly where Jesus ascended, where he performed his first miracle, where he preached any of his sermons or where he was crucified. We don’t even know where he was buried. With no real site there is no real holy place.
What’s more, Jesus foretold at length the complete destruction of the one holy place that Christians (and Jews) could have legitimately claimed—the Holy Place in Herod’s Temple. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2. See all of Matthew 24 and 25).
Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled by the total destruction of Herod’s Temple, including the Holy Place, when the Roman Army conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD. Why didn’t Jesus leave us with even one single, specific landmark that we could make into a holy place? Didn’t he know that with no holy places Christians could end up being the laughing stock of world religions?
Perhaps that’s why Christians have tried so hard to manufacture holy places on our own. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’ve stood in front of congregations with hands raised fighting back tears of emotion as we sang worship songs like the popular “Holy Ground.” Its lyrics say: “This is Holy Ground, we’re standing on Holy Ground; for the Lord is present and where He is, is Holy.” I’d often follow up such songs with a prayer asking God to come and make our place of worship holy ground. My assumption was that our songs and prayers would mystically transform our gathering and building into a holy place. I didn’t think about all the theological implications of what I was saying. Like, why does it take all this effort to attract the presence of a God who is inherently omnipresent? Or why would God’s presence at our church make it a holy place any more than his presence at the churches down the street, or at a hockey game or with the homeless folks down by the river?
Christians have countless buildings around the globe, but they are ordinary structures erected upon tracts of land that have absolutely no innate holiness.
Yes, God is present at a Christian worship service, but no more so than with the folks talking over coffee at Starbucks or the single mother who stays home on Sunday mornings because it is the only time she has to sleep in and rest. Why would God go to great lengths to insure that there are no holy places for Christians? I believe he did it because he didn’t send Jesus to this third rock from the sun to establish yet another religion—he sent him here to establish relationships.
Religions are characterized by holy sites, holy monuments, holy shrines and holy priests who serve at all those holy places. Relationships are characterized by love, trust, faith and hope. These commodities, though valuable beyond material wealth, cannot be fashioned into structures by human hands. They are not visible, so it is impossible to reduce them to a landmark or holy place. Make no mistake, the historical and archaeological evidence for Jesus and Christianity is substantial. However, the real landmarks of Christianity are neither physical nor geographical. No, they are living, breathing landmarks. They are within the Christians themselves. This is why the Bible says, “You realize don’t you, that you are the temple of God, and God himself is present in you? …God’s temple is sacred— and you, remember, are the temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16- 17, The Message).
How I wish Christians could have understood this theology about holy places before we marched in all those bloody Crusades or extracted enormous amounts of human wealth and life from ill-informed followers of Christ in order to erect and defend places which never were—and never could be—holy. Even now, as Christianity is in the throws of a massive shift from what was to what will be, I pray that we finally acknowledge that there are no holy places in our faith. The only temples in Christianity are living temples—people. People who are in relationship with God.
Christianity is not a religion—it is a relationship, and there are no holy places—only people who have been made holy by the grace of God.