Temples of the Holy Spirit

Editor’s note: This morning, Leopoldo Sánchez delivered the following homily in the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. It includes a brief reflection on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the context of the Epiphany theme of the identity of Christians as temples of the Holy Spirit living in an unholy world.

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Monday of the Week of Epiphany 2 (January 16, 2012)

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Temple talk in Scripture points us to a living temple that never dies. That is Jesus. He is God’s holy temple on earth. God’s own presence in the flesh, among sinners, to make us a holy people. Epiphany! God most holy manifested in the flesh to sanctify the flesh. The temple is not a lifeless building. He has flesh and bones. The temple walks among us, it moves, it is full of life, and gives his life to us.

Jesus is God’s temple. The Father raised him from the dead. Otherwise, his body would be lifeless, just like any building or temple. But Jesus is alive, raised in the body, to give his brethren resurrection life. And so he is the firstfruits of the coming harvest, of your resurrection.

But the only way Jesus can give us resurrection life is by giving us the Holy Spirit. The only-begotten Son is raised by God according to the Spirit of holiness—to use Paul’s language—so that you, who are made adopted sons and daughters by the same Spirit in baptism, may also be raised to life. And so the Spirit is the down payment and firstfruits of your resurrection. No Spirit, no resurrection, for Jesus or for us.

Before the coming of Jesus, some Jewish tradition taught that the Holy Spirit had departed from the temple. How can the Holy be among the unholy? But when Jesus, God’s holy temple among us, comes to make us holy, the Gospel writers tell us that the Spirit descends, rests, remains upon him. And so the Holy Spirit has returned to the temple. Once again, the Spirit lives in a living temple: Jesus. And the one who bears that Spirit gives it to you.

So now you get to be temples in the world. You are temples of the Holy Spirit, of the living God, of the risen Christ. Once again, the temple moves, has flesh and bones, arms and legs. It’s you!

The Holy Spirit chooses the most unlikely places to rest and dwell, in the lowly child of Bethlehem, in the Jesus from Galilee where nothing good comes from. But even more amazingly, the Holy Spirit chooses to dwell in sinners like us. The Holy One dwells in the unholy to make us holy and bring holiness to an unholy world.

What does it mean to be temples of the Holy Spirit? Paul teaches about what temples do in the church. We honor our bodies, where the Spirit dwells, by fighting against sexual immorality, divisions in the church, and false teachers.

But this apostolic teaching also has application for Christians as they live in the Spirit in the world. You are the living temples of the Holy Spirit to bear witness to God’s holiness in an unholy world. You are the ones who carry the Word and all manners of holy living to a world where immorality, division, and wrong teaching happens. You are God’s living temples in a world where other temples claim the devotion of people. You are temples of the Spirit where other spirits capture and bind the thoughts, affections, and actions of people.

And there is an Epiphany lesson in all this: You are the little epiphanies of God’s mercy and care for the lost, the poor, and all sorts of neighbors. You are Christ’s presence in the world.

Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is celebrated today, was one such temple. He acted quite consciously as a Christian in society and, from his own vocational place, dramatized through peaceful demonstrations and speeches an unholy state of affairs. He wanted to make life, in this less than perfect world, better for his people and for all people. Before the era of globalization and Internet, of Madonnas and Lady Gagas, there were really only two Americans that almost anyone outside of the U.S. knew: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. And both because of their public moral stand on the question of human dignity. Martin Luther King Jr. honored his body by fighting against the sin of racism.

What are the unholy places that need the light of Christ today? The unholy places where the Spirit of holiness must give witness to Christ through God’s holy people?

Temples of the Holy Spirit move around in the world where real neighbors with real needs live. We can argue about who deserves a holiday and who doesn’t. Or about who is more morally upright than another. Or whether this or that Christian always has his theology right when he applies it to some difficult situation. But that misses the point entirely.

Temples of the Holy Spirit are not perfect. They are sinners. That God dwells at all in any of us is a miracle. Still the Spirit uses us to bring the Gospel and charity to all kinds of neighbors, to bring the light of Christ to the world. And for those little epiphanies we are most thankful to our Father.

The Spirit of resurrection helps us to attend to concrete needs in the world while setting our eyes on the world that is yet to come. The Spirit does not seek to make unholy society heaven or paradise, but he does work through God’s holy people to make it more humane for our neighbors through our various vocations where holiness actually happens.

It’s amazing. The Spirit of the living Christ even makes us bold to dare to do things for the sake of a neighbor even when that might cost us our own lives. Jesus, full of the Spirit, dies on the cross. Like Jesus, Stephen is full of the Holy Spirit, and gets stoned to death. Life in the Spirit has the shape of a cross.

The Spirit allows even normal, ordinary Christians to take bold stands for the sake of some neighbor. People like Bonhoeffer, King, or Romero. If life in the Spirit means life in the shape of the cross, they experienced it alright. We may not all die the kind of death they died. That’s the Spirit’s business, not ours. That cross is for God alone to give.

But like them, we are temples of the Holy One in an unholy world. That could be scary, but fear not. The Spirit will raise us from the dead. The disciples of Jesus actually believed this stuff. This is why they rejoiced in the Spirit even after the beatings that the name of Christ brought upon their bodies.

In this less than holy world, the Spirit who dwells in you will give you the strength and boldness to offer your body as a living sacrifice to the Lord, to honor your body in a sinful world as a witness to Christ and for the sake of your neighbor, whatever that might bring to your life.

Holy Spirit, through the Word, make us ever holy to be Christ’s little epiphanies in an unholy world.





18 responses to “Temples of the Holy Spirit”

  1. Parker Avatar

    Thanks Brother Leo, for eloquently reminding us that REV King is much more than an iconic emblem of our nation’s scarred past. First, above all & central to his life was the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and his cooperation and surrender to Him. Would to God that we would consistently answer similarly! For each believer, I’m praying that we step into the breach that God has or will soon call us. Let’s live out lines borrowed from a favorite hymm; “The Lord is the strength of my life. Whom shall I fear?”

    1. Leopoldo Sanchez Avatar
      Leopoldo Sanchez

      Thanks Parker for your post.

      At times one hears criticisms leveled against certain Christians, such as Dr. King, perhaps because of moral failings in certain areas of their lives or some theological position taken we disagree with. This argument is then used to put into question someone’s faith and actions in all areas of life. A point I wanted to make in my brief devotion is that the Holy Spirit works precisely through less than perfect Christians. The Holy Spirit works through sinners to bring the light of Christ in a world of darkness. It is entirely possible to say, on the one hand, that the Spirit works through Christians like Dr. King in society to bring to light and condemn some pervasive sin, and, on the other hand, to say that such work is done precisely through broken vessels like us.

      To quote another hymn we sang when the homily was delivered: “Holy Spirit…Fill your temple, Your altar make clean…” (LSB 502). The hymn is talking about Christians as temples of the Spirit! Lord knows we need His constant cleansing through the Word of forgiveness, through His daily absolution, so that we may serve the suffering neighbor in an unholy world where the sin of racism (as well as many others, of course) is alive and well!


  2. Kirk Ward Avatar

    Amen! I appreciate the way you put the call to die. We are no different that any of the faithful martyrs of the past. It’s the Holy Spirit’s business to determine whether we will be called to that purpose. Dr. King was not more holy and should not be venerated but his message, which came from the Holy Spirit, was holy and it’s a message that I participate in. I also appreciate the promise of the resurrection. We are not cannon-fodder for the kingdom but sons and daughters and no one will give their lives for the kingdom without the promise of the resurrection.

    1. Leopoldo Sanchez Avatar
      Leopoldo Sanchez

      Thanks Kirk for your post.

      Lutheran theology has a strong teaching on vocation. Luther even speaks of God’s people as “masks” of God in the world. There is also a healthy secularity in our doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which does not look for the Holy Spirit either “up there” in heaven or “down here” in our own holiness but ultimately “in the cross” and in concrete acts of service for the sake of some neighbor. These aspects of Lutheran theology allow us to praise God’s work in the world through His servants like Dr. King–sinners though they all are–in the face of sins such as racism, without making the particular mask of God a “savior” or making justice in the world our “salvation.”

      Thanks for all your service among the urban folk.

  3. Darwin White Avatar
    Darwin White


    To paraphrase Hendrix from years ago – Feliz ano nuevo, first of all!

    I, of course, could go on and on. But, suffice it to say that this is outSTANding.

    Jussst yesterday, as I was attempting to work with someone steeped in guilt, he allowed me (in secular private practice, this is NOT an opportunity that frequently arises) to minister to him Christian to Christian. A significant part of his struggle was that, even RIGHT where he was, even though he is a HUGE mess, the Lord was interested in meeting him RIGHT THERE. There was no need to fix it all first or somesuch other exercises in perfection. ALL can serve. I believe my alumnus, Dr. King, would tell anyone that he was FAR from perfect. And, yet he allowed himself to be used by the Holy Spirit. Therein…

    THANK YOU for your service.

    And, may you continue to serve and inspire for many years to come.

    1. Leopoldo Sanchez Avatar
      Leopoldo Sanchez

      Well said, Darwin.

      Life is indeed messy. In your practice, you see broken vessels everyday. And so the Holy Spirit’s business is to work on us daily, pointing out sin in our lives for sure, but also healing us daily with that forgiveness that declares us holy before God even when we feel guilty and ashamed. That’s a daily thing. Isn’t it? Which shows how busy the Holy Spirit is in our lives! I like to tell my students that the Holy Spirit “gets His hands dirty” in the sense that He is not looking for “holier than thou” people, but people who are a “huge mess”–as you put it–and therefore need His holy work in their lives everyday.

      Thanks for the work you do–indeed, that the Spirit does through you–among neighbors who are far from perfect.

  4. David Oberdieck Avatar

    There is no doubt King was a great man worthy of a national monument.

    Now I have heard that he denied basic Christian doctrines like the virgin birth and the literal resurrection of Christ. Is this true?

    If it is true, he is still a great American, but he would not be a Christian.

    1. Leopoldo Sanchez Avatar
      Leopoldo Sanchez

      Thanks for the post, David.

      Sticky issue. Isn’t it? Was Dr. King a Christian? A bold question. If he denied basic Christian doctrines and held to such positions consistently your distinction between the two kingdoms holds. One thing is to speak of a person’s identity as a Christian in the spiritual realm. Another thing is to speak of a citizen and “great American”–as you put it–in the temporal realm. Such a citizen may or not be a Christian. If he is, his work in the left-hand realm for the sake of some neighbor is not without the Holy Spirit’s motivation. If he is not, his work in the left-hand realm can still be praised even if questions concerning Christian identity come to the fore or are unclear. So I want to affirm the possibility of dividing the question if needed.

      As to the your question (“Is this true”?), my answer is “I am not entirely convinced.” It appears to me that the evidence from his alleged denial of basic doctrines comes mostly from so-called “academic” papers written in the context of engaging theological currents he learned at Crozer Seminary and Boston University and thus adopting their methodologies in the assessment of Christianity. On the other hand, to assess King’s faith (in the fides quae sense of the term, which is what I think you are getting at) solely on the basis of this part of his life seems not to take into account the huge influence of the Black church in his life and thought. Theology in the Black church, however, is not traditionally put forth in the scholarly, discursive, format of the academic institutions, but rather in the form of sermons, prayers, testimonies, spirituals, and stories of oppression and slavery. King can also speak theology in this mode, although he focuses most of his output on the issue of the Christian response to racism through non-violence. This theological focus, which is driven by the historical situation, in and of itself inevitably ends up giving us a one-sided theology. The trajectory will move at least partly more in the direction of Rauschenbusch’s social gospel, which of course requires a critical Lutheran reading so as to distinguish the two kingdoms in assessing the contributions and limits of each realm (one deals with justice before the neighbor, another with justification before God by faith in Christ).

      Given the factors mentioned above, and the debate on the weight one is willing to give the sources vis-a-vis King’s overall thought, I withhold a definitive judgment on the fides quae question, and I am definitely in no position to speak to the fides qua issue of trust in Christ for salvation. That is for the Holy Spirit to figure out. Perhaps my judgment then on Dr. King’s Christian identity is colored less by the later academic stuff and more by what I tend to believe is the deeper and more lasting influence in his Christian thinking coming from the Black church.

      Having said that, however, regardless of where one wants to stand on the fides quae question, I do want to affirm the usefulness of the distinction between the two realms which is assumed implicitly in your comment.

      Blessings in Christ.
      Leo Sanchez

  5. David Oberdieck Avatar

    I have to run up to your neck of the woods, so a short comment until tonight –

    1. If indeed King was not a Christian that doesn’t mean that God did not use Him as His tool.

    2. At my first college (Lutheran, non-LCMS) I was taught there was no hell (nor heaven), being saved was being happy with your life, there was no Holy Spirit, no resurrection, but one could accept this through a leap of faith.

    The particular theologian that taught this still would preach in a congregation, but he wouldn’t disturb the laypeople by being open with his theology. He admitted this was so.

    I’ve learned that liberals can talk like Christians, use the same vocabulary, but still be opposed to sound doctrine –opposed to Christ.

    3. Having read over some things from a liberal web-sight it seems that it would be unwise to describe King as a temple of God.

    *But* perhaps there is a word of Law here for those Christians who did hold to sound doctrine but opposed civil rights. What does this say about “Bible believing” Christians who hated their neighbor for the color of their skin.

    1. Leopoldo Sanchez Avatar
      Leopoldo Sanchez

      Hi David!

      Before I leave for Cuba (that’s another worthy conversation piece)…let me begin by saying that it would be unwise to call sinners temples of the Holy Spirit. This is simply to say that the issue you bring up about confession (or fides quae) vis-a-vis judgments on the indwelling of the Spirit (which assume the fides qua) is really, when it comes down to it and thus from a pastoral perspective, a Law & Gospel issue.

      And so when any Christian’s confession and life does not match with the Word of God, the pastoral move is to show sin. And indeed, one should say: Do not grieve the Holy Spirit! Luther even talks quite plainly in the Smalcald articles about not giving such Christians the certainty that they have the Holy Spirit. The Spirit simply cannot dwell there! Here any Christian is addressed as a recalcitrant sinner–and more specifically, as unrepentant sinner– in whom the Spirit cannot dwell.

      Who was Dr. King’s pastor? Was the Law preached to him? Did he ever repent of anything? And so…the same question can and must be raised with Christians who say they believe in scriptural truths but are finally unrepentant in their sinful thoughts, words, and deeds (for instance, on the matter of racism). Unrepentance is just that. The Holy Spirit does not dwell there. The law preached in all its force.

      Then there is, of course, the sinner who daily repents of his sins. Who was Dr. King’s pastor? Did he confess sins and receive the Gospel from someone? When dealing with repentant sinners, one assures them of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives. Did Dr. King have doubts about his standing before God? How did he deal in the context of confession and pastoral practice with the disconnect between things learned in the academy and things learned in the Black church that he so dearly loved? Hmmm.

      Your post shows how useful a Law and Gospel pastoral approach can be when dealing with questions of faith and the Spirit. By the same token, there are limits this pastoral places on us concerning a definitive stand on whether one who professes to be a Christian is ultimately a Christian or not. (Websites might not offer us wisdom at this point.) That goes for both those who claim to be orthodox and for those whom we call heterodox because the fundamental distinction is repentant sinner vs. unrepentant sinner. Law & Gospel assumes we dealt with this or that man as his pastor.

      Thought-provoking thoughts. Hey, enjoy your visit to St. Louis!

  6. Douglas Groll Avatar
    Douglas Groll

    Friend Leo, Thank you for your message. About the same time you were preaching in the Seminary Chapel, Lutheran Christians in Chicago gathered at historic First Immanuel, site of one of Dr. King’s rallies in June, 1967. In a two hour period we heard Scripture, sang and heard portions of King. I am convinced we must re-hear him again…perhaps especially in the contexts of Christian ministry in our multicultural world and so much racist “kickback” against our changing world. King has a special message for confronting the Hispanic presence in North American society. In a society that would call millions “illegal” or “undocumented”, yet use them to clean their restrooms or harvest their crops, while at the same time insisting on their non existence as though any of God’s children could be illegal, King spoke with eloquence against racism that refused to give names, acknowledge existence and resorted to glib, dehumanizing labels such as “boy” to classify and dehumanize a whole people.

    King spoke of “justice delayed as justice denied”. It is politically convenient for our political establishment to put off dealing with immigration reform, though millions will be left in limbo for years. Families will be separated and workers will be exploited. King’s call for pressure to be timely fits our day.

    King’s call for non violence and practical steps for implementation must be internalized especially by Christians as we attempt to react to such a violent society. Everyone reads about street violence. We see pictures every day of the results of Glocks and semi-automatic weapons. King’s controlled eloquent discourses are such a blessed contrast to the violence inciting rhetoric of cheap politicians up and down the power structures who dehumanize and destroy as certainly with their words as if they had a weapon in hand. There is so much more to be said and heard from Dr. King. Thank you for speaking of him in the context of the Seminary.

    Douglas Groll

    1. Leopoldo Sanchez Avatar
      Leopoldo Sanchez

      Dear Doug,

      Thanks for your post. It brings to mind, once again, the broader theme of my reflection, namely, temples of the Holy Spirit in an unholy world. The theme could be used to call into question comfortable views of holiness, which see sanctification in rather individualistic terms instead of vocationally in relationship to neighbors in the world. We focus on how we must keep our individual temptations in check or confess our individual sins. And there is nothing wrong with this per se. There is much the Holy Spirit must make clean there.

      Nevertheless, when the personal concern turns into an individualistic focus, we tend to leave aside or give little attention to broader societal issues where our actions also affect concrete neighbors. To add insult to injury, we at times criticize what we consider an unjust state of affairs while benefiting from the same. That’s the hypocrisy. You provide a good example: We criticize illegal immigration as an unjust state of affairs, but then we benefit from the fruits of immigrant labor. So we want to have our cake and eat it too. It’s easy to point the finger in such a way that nobody has to repent of anything–except for the immigrant, of course. Others have to repent of some sin, but we do not have to repent of ours.

      Christians who focus too much on the personal at best, and individualistic at worst, dimension of holiness can miss entirely their own conscious or unconscious complicity in promoting sin and thus an unholy state of affairs at a broader societal level. We too participate, through sins of commission or omission, in an unjust state of affairs. Dr. King pointed out precisely this major blind spot, not only in society but also in the church!

      This brings me to my first shameless plug. Guess what next year’s Symposium at the Sem will be about? Well, we are still in the planning stages. But we are thinking about dealing with what it means to be Christians (and more precisely, Lutherans!) in an unjust world. Which means dealing with justice. Several models or approaches to justice will be looked at, as well as corresponding congregational responses.

      And now for my second shameless plug: Congratulations on the 25th Anniversary of the Center for Hispanic Studies (former Hispanic Institute of Theology)! Thanks for your many years of service as former Director. It’s a pleasure to continue the tradition.

      Que el Señor te bendiga y te guarde.

  7. David Oberdieck Avatar

    Dr. Sanchez,

    1) ** Agreement: Great point you made with Dr.Groll — seeing morality beyond individualistic terms! It was indeed good, right, and salutary. Thank you.

    2) **Concern: You spoke about MLK in individualistic terms of pastoral care and Law/Gospel application. My concern is much more broad. Consider the following:

    2a) It seems clearer that MLK did indeed publicly reject doctrines such as the virgin birth and literal resurrection.

    2b) The sermon extolled him as a temple of God.

    2c) The basis for calling him a temple cannot be the Gospel (since he rejected it) but his social action. If we extol him as God’s temple then by implication we would be making social justice the basis of Christianity and not justification.

    I don’t believe that is your intent, nor even a consideration on your part. Yet, I don’t see anyway around the much bigger issues beyond MLK. What makes one church? Sanctification? Social justice? Justification?

    He was a civic hero — he was not a Christian hero.

    1. Leopoldo Sanchez Avatar
      Leopoldo Sanchez

      Brother David,

      I think your concern can be addressed by the following point made in my first response:

      “If he (i.e., King) denied basic Christian doctrines and held to such positions consistently your distinction between the two kingdoms holds. One thing is to speak of a person’s identity as a Christian in the spiritual realm. Another thing is to speak of a citizen and “great American”–as you put it–in the temporal realm. Such a citizen may or not be a Christian. If he is, his work in the left-hand realm for the sake of some neighbor is not without the Holy Spirit’s motivation. If he is not, his work in the left-hand realm can still be praised even if questions concerning Christian identity come to the fore or are unclear. So I want to affirm the possibility of dividing the question if needed.”

      I would add that I do not see the Law & Gospel distinction as individualistic, but merely as good pastoral care when dealing with Christians whose confession or life puts into question the faith and identity they claim to hold. The fundamental distinction would be between repentant sin and unrepentant sin rather than the more general distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. I am not sure that your concern is necessarily a broader issue. It is simply focused on the important issue of public confession or fides quae as an external sign of Christian identity. Such public confession per se does not justify before God. Think of the hypocrite who confesses the truth but does not believe in Christ as His Savior. Think also of someone who speaks falsehood but actually believes in Christ as His Savior. Admittedly, we are entering here the realm of the fides qua. Something to reflect on further.

      An intention in the homily was to mention King not as a saintly hero, but as a sinner whom God used to point out sin in an unholy world. If you feel strongly that he was not a Christian, then, you are not compelled to call him a temple of the Holy Spirit. There are probably similar issues that can be raised with Bonhoeffer and Romero. Remember also that the homily was actually broader in scope, addressing Christians as temples of the Holy Spirit in an unholy world. Your comments do remind me though that some examples are more controversial than others.

      Thanks for this fine discussion. God’s blessings! On to suitcase packing… 🙂

  8. David Oberdieck Avatar

    Blessings on your trip, and thanks for the feedback.

  9. Oliver Washington Avatar
    Oliver Washington

    Leopoldo Sanchez,

    It is good to hear from you. Thank you for the message. I would like to reserve my thoughts about the message for a day or so in order to muse over the small epiphany. Thank you for the opportunity to become engaged in the discussion.

    Oliver Washington

  10. Enrique A Orozco Avatar
    Enrique A Orozco

    Dear Prof. Leo
    I’m thanking you for remind me that I am “a little temple of the Holy Spirit” who lives in an unholy world and that God Himself is the One in control to perform of what His Word is meant to be. I have a “serious thorn” with your statement:The disciples of Jesus actually believed this stuff. Do they really believed on “stuff”?
    Your homily was given in a temple where we assume most of hearers were believers, but also this sermon would be read by non-believers and your description of the disciples’ belief as “stuff” is more than generous to arm them against us “temples of Holy Spirit”.
    God Bless and thanks for your patience.
    Consiervo en Cristo. Enrique.

  11. Patricia Avatar

    This article was really well put! I was Googling the subject, We are a temple of the Holy Spirit, and found this. Prompted by reading about Jesus turning the tables in Mark 11:15. My devotional was asking, How much of our temple is dedicated to prayer & genuine worship and how much is dedicated to worldly, non spiritual things.
    It IS quite a miracle & an honor to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit.
    May I bring honor & glory to our Father.

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