I Peter 3:18-22
Alton Parish Genesis 9:8-17
Last month, as you may know, I spent some time in England—specifically, at Canterbury Cathedral, where the Dean was in seminary alongside a very famous person; that is, the Rector of the Episcopal Parish of Alton! One afternoon, we were given a guided historical tour of the cathedral. As we stood near the great west door of the church, the guide pointed at the great expanse of floor that lay between us and the choir and the High Altar, and told us we were standing in the “nave.” Then he pointed up at the ceiling, and invited us to look at the peak of the roof and imagine the whole building as an upsidedown ship. This makes the peak of the roof along the lengthwise axis the keel, and the floor in the area where the congregation usually gathers the bottom side of the deck. If you just take your mental picture of a traditional church building and flip it over and set it in water, you can see that the notion makes a certain degree of sense. (And here we can see how the word “nave” is connected to the word “navy.”)
But why? Why think of a church as a ship, and this area as the “nave?” Well, there’s another layer of symbolism here. It goes back to Noah’s ark, which was a ship, of sorts, that accomplished a very specific purpose for those who were inside it. Our Old Testament reading today is from the tail end of the story as told in the book of Genesis, where the Lord promises to never again destroy humankind by means of water, and provides the rainbow as a sign of this unilateral and universal covenant that he was making. As Genesis recounts this familiar pre-historic legend, the Lord God was disgusted with the behavior of the human race and decided to wash them all away in a flood and get a fresh start.
One family, the family of Noah, was chosen by God to carry on the human species, and to assist with the preservation of all the various forms of animal life, after the destruction of the flood. The Lord told Noah to build a great ark, which he did. And while he was building it, he endured quite a bit of ridiculing and mocking on the part of his neighbors. They thought Noah had gone completely around the bend. Even if they’d received engraved invitations to join him and his family on the ark before he shut the door, they would have howled in laughter as they refused.
And then it rained .... and rained ... and rained and the water rose, and the scoffers had serious second thoughts about not having gotten into the ark before it floated away and left them to drown.
But let us not dwell on the fate of those whose ability to tread water was put to the test, because they are not the main event. The main event is the ark. The waters rise, and the ark floats, and those who are on the ark are saved. St Peter, in his first epistle, which we also hear on this First Sunday in Lent, picks up on this imagery of the rising waters carrying the ark and its occupants to safety, and connects it with the sacrament of baptism. Just as the eight people on the ark were saved, as it were, “through water”—
that is, by means of the flood floating the ark to its eventual safe resting place, so we who believe in Christ are saved through the agency of water, the water of baptism. This is why the baptismal font is traditionally located near the entrance to the nave, the ark, and why it is customary to mark ourselves with baptismal water when we enter the church building, because it is “through water” that we were admitted to the fellowship of the Church, the Body of Christ.
Noah’s ark, then, is a prefigurement of the Church. Indeed, one of the names for the church, in Christian tradition, is the “ark of salvation.” The point Peter is trying to make is that those who are on the ark—Noah’s ark as a prefigurement, the church as the present reality—those who are on the ark are utterly secure in their hope of salvation. You see, the ark floats. Those who are in it, as long as they remain in it, cannot be harmed by the raging flood. So the imagery of the church as an ark, which God saves, and, thereby, those who are on it, is incredibly rich. We can scarcely even mine the surface of it today, but let me try to briefly suggest three ways in which the Church is the ark which brings us to salvation.
First, the church is the place, and the only place, where we find the sacraments. The sacrament of baptism unites us with the dying and rising of Christ and gives us new birth as children of God. The sacrament of Holy Communion, with a boost from Confirmation at some point along the way, supplies the nourishment we need to grow into “adult children” of God. At various times, most of us find ourselves in positions where the working out of our salvation can be helped along by the sacraments of unction and reconciliation. The majority of us are called to the sacrament of marriage, which is an abundant means of grace. And with a relative few of us, God chooses to use the sacrament of Ordination to complete the work of salvation. (Some might say that the clergy are the really hard cases; those whom God could not reach any other way but by putting a collar around their neck and keeping them on a very short leash!) What a life-giving spring the sacraments are, and where else can they be found but in the Church?!
Second, we find the word of God in the Church. Within the fellowship and worship and discipline of the Church, the Word of God is proclaimed, taught, read, shared, and broken open. One can, of course, pick up a Bible and read it outside of any contact with the Church, but it is still because of the Church that that Bible is available in the first place, because the Bible is the Church’s book. The Psalm for today’s Eucharist contains the petition, “Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me.” Just where can one be sure to find such leading and guiding? In what context does it normatively take place? Only in the Church. St Mark’s gospel doesn’t tell us much today about Jesus’ forty-day sojourn facing temptation in the wilderness, but we know from Matthew that he persistently quoted scripture back to the tempter, to refute his temptations. Where did he learn the scriptures, apart from the “church” of the Old Covenant, the community of the synagogue and the temple?
And that leads me to my third and final point about how the Church serves as the “ark” of our salvation, which is Christian community. In these days of social fragmentation, with the breakdown of even the nuclear family, let alone the extended family, with the idea of neighborhood functionally non-existent, the hunger for community is stronger than ever. Community has always been at the heart of the Church’s ideal. We have never done it perfectly, and often done it poorly, but to an ever greater extent, it is now the only game in town. The community of the church is a place where we can know and be known, love and be loved, pray and be prayed for, rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. We are united in the bond of baptism. That makes us family, that makes us community. And through the sacraments and the word, we have the grace available to us to grow into that reality.
The call to us this morning, just five days into Lent, is “all aboard!”, ... all aboard the ark of salvation. Don’t trust your ability to tread water, for you will surely drown in the flood. Don’t count on cutting a special deal with God to supply you with your own private life raft. Maybe he will; maybe he won’t. The only certified method of flood survival is to get on the ark, the ark of salvation, the one holy catholic and apostolic church of Jesus Christ. Amen.