In 1890, this area was just fields, with a few large houses set in lovely gardens. Then land was need to build homes for the workers coming to the new industries along the Tyne. The Tyneside flats were put up, and the population increased rapidly. In 1897, Henry Chadwick Windley came to be Curate-in-Charge of this parish and proclaim the good news of Christ here in Bensham. He had a vision for a church to be built as a cathedral for the working people of this parish. This meant getting various people on board, including the bishops of Durham and Newcastle, the architect, the very prayerful William Searle Hicks, who prayed over the plans and imbued the designs with his prayers and reflection. Then there was the business of raising the considerable funds required to build, and the joy when Miss Emily Matilda Easton agreed to put up a considerable amount of money. The foundation stone was laid in 1900, and three years later this building was consecrated. It is a building designed to speak to the people of God and where the people could speak to God.
I am often here on my own to pray or potter around doing jobs – I love being in this church, because it does speak to me so powerfully of God. And Durham Cathedral also has that effect on me.
I imagine that the Temple in Jerusalem would have been like that. People went to the Temple for the festivals, to make their sacrifices, to worship God. And maybe they too looked at it and got that sense of God’s presence. It represented God’s presence with the people. It was the place where you went to encounter God.
Jesus and the disciples went to Jerusalem for the festival and they were stirred by the building and everything it stood for. But Jesus warned them about putting all their hope in the building. We often say that the church is not the building, it is the people. And Jesus was trying to move them away from thinking about their faith in terms of a building. He told them that the Temple would be destroyed. And sure enough, some 40 years later, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. But Jesus also needed to teach them a bigger truth, namely that He, Jesus, is the temple, the place where God abides, the place where God comes to be with the people. And he is the temple that will be destroyed when he is put to death on the cross.
As a church, we need to remember that the church is not the building. It is a beautiful church building, and it does act as a signal of God’s presence here in Bensham, but the church is us, gathered here, and the future of the church in Bensham depends on us, not on this building. If we look to the long term, I would say that we will only be able to keep the building if we become stronger as the church, the people of God. And to do that, we need to go out of the building and get alongside the community, make friends in the community, and live out God’s love for the people of Bensham.
For a lot of people round here, they find the church scary. They don’t want to come through the doors. I meet children in the streets and they tell me this is a place of ghosts.
Jesus’ disciples were clearly shocked to think about the destruction of the Temple. It was part of their tradition that the Messiah would come to the Temple Mount to save Israel from its oppressors. If there was no Temple, how would the end play out?
Later on, the disciples came for a private words with Jesus. They want to know what it will be like when Jesus comes as the Messiah and what the end of the age will be like. Jesus tells them not to get distracted by the end of the world. There will be trouble ahead, there will be wars, there will be natural disasters. But it’s no good trying to interpret these to discern the coming of the Messiah.
But Jesus gave them some key advice. The disciples – and that includes us – need to endure. They – and us – need to keep going whatever happens, however hard it gets. The disciples were going to face persecution. Jesus was trying to teach them how to live in peace in a world of war.
For Christians in many parts of the world today, being a Christian is really difficult. They are discriminated against, abused, persecuted, killed. This happens now in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Sudan. We are so lucky! We are not persecuted for our faith. We should support fellow Christians who are suffering. And we should make our faith count. Endurance for us is hanging on in there when nobody cares; it is going the extra mile to show that we care for our community; it is being seen to follow Jesus when the world can’t see the point. Jesus wants us to proclaim the kingdom – that means living in our world with Jesus in charge, doing everything we can to make this world the place where Jesus is king. Because we are not persecuted, we should be all the more eager to do God’s work here in Bensham. That is how people will judge this church, when they see us out there building the kingdom.
For example, In God’s kingdom, everyone is treated with respect. In God’s kingdom, there is no sexual harassment, because women and junior staff and interns are safe. In God’s kingdom, bad behaviour is challenged. In God’s kingdom, children are treated with respect and people don’t undermine them with constant criticism. In God’s kingdom, asylum seekers and refugees are treated with respect, and people support them and value them.
What can we do to BE the church? What can we do to be SEEN as the church? If people won’t come in, how do we open our doors and the doors of our hearts and get out there?