While worshipping in this new sanctuary over the weekend, I could not help but also reflect on part of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 which got him martyred. At one point, Stephen proclaimed, “…the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands…”, and followed this up with reference to the final chapter of Isaiah regarding, “Heaven is my throne, / and the earth is my footstool. / What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, / or what is the place of my rest?” (Acts 7:48-49, quoting Isa. 66:1). Some have taken these texts to suggest that physical buildings are to be subordinated in importance to the spiritual orientation and sensibilities with and through which worshippers approach God, and there is a sense in which the latter ought not be downplayed. On the other hand, nowhere does Stephen in his speech denigrate the temple. He only challenges the Jewish leadership’s assumptions that the divine presence and activity is limited to either their sanctuaries (including the Mosaic “tent of meeting” before) or their provenance as the special people of God. More to the point, the problem was that ancient Israel’s having the outward forms of holiness (e.g., the tent of meeting or the temple) was not matched with an inward holiness. In fact, on the contrary, Stephen castigated his hearers as “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, … for ever opposing the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51, NRSV).
Surely, peoples of the Spirit will be perennially challenged by the fortunes of institutionalization, and no doubt, those to whom Stephen was speaking were struggling to free themselves from the institutionalized religiosity which had hindered the ongoing work of the ruah of Yahweh in their midst. For contemporary Spirit-filled Christians, then, our institutional development always needs to be subject to the renewal work of the divine Breath. For us here at Regent University School of Divinity, who see the renewal of minds intimately intertwined with the transformation of hearts and the empowerment of hands, perhaps this will inspire us to work further toward the seamlessness that ought to characterize all that happens here, from our academic work through our spirituality and our mission. Such seamlessness could check the destructive forces of institutionalization while yet also nurturing the kind of Spirit-empowered learning, transformation, and mission that the new chapel is intended to be a part of. Our chapel cannot be an end in itself; but it can contribute to our seminary’s mission: the mobilization of heads, hearts, and hands that anticipate, desire, and herald the coming reign of God.