In the mid-1600s, the clergy of St Paul’s Cathedral in Westminster, London approached Christopher Wren, a renowned architect of the day, to redesign and enhance their church building.
Wren considered the project and recommended that the best way forward would be to start with a clean slate – there was too little worthy of retention to do anything less than begin again. That was a touch more comprehensive than the clergy had in mind, and they politely declined Wren’s grand plans.
In 1666, the Great Fire of London decimated swathes of the sprawling city. Many lives were lost. There was little upside. Unless you were Christopher Wren. He suddenly had his clean slate.
Wren would design and oversee the rebuilding of 52 churches in the City of London, but St Paul’s Cathedral would be his magnum opus. A grand cathedral that took 36 years to construct, it would be a catalyst for worship in part through its sheer grandeur, magnificence, and architectural brilliance.
When he wasn’t the master architect for the city, he had a few other irons in the fire. He was seeking to be a member of parliament. For 34 years he tried unsuccessfully to be elected as an MP until being elected in 1701. He retired the following year. It seems that even when you get what you want, you find sometimes, it’s not what you need.
He did a few other things. He studied areas ranging from agriculture, ballistics, water and freezing, light and refraction, to name a few. He was a Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in London. A contemporary was to say that “Since the time of Archimedes there scarce ever met in one man so great perfection, such a mechanical hand and so philosophical a mind.” Fair praise – a bit of an over-achiever was our Chris.
But St Paul’s was his crowning glory. His calling card. It is said that in his twilight years, he would travel to London to enjoy ‘his greatest work.’ On one of these visits, aged 91, he caught a chill. Far more than a head cold, a servant came to awaken him from a nap to find that Sir Christopher Wren was dead.
The legendary architect was laid to rest on 5 March 1723 in a crypt at the southeast corner of St Paul’s. On the floor, under the spectacular dome that Sir Christopher designed and redesigned, conceived and reconceived, was placed an epitaph in a circle of black marble.
For those whose Latin has gotten rusty, it reads:
Here in its foundations lies the architect of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived beyond ninety years, not for his own profit but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you.
The encouragement of Wren’s family for those seeking him was to look around. By their reckoning, you gain a far greater understanding of the man by the magnificence which enfolds you than a dry marble epitaph ever could. No greater testament to his life could be found than to simply admire all that surrounds you from the vantage of that epitaph.
At The Big Table last Sunday, we reached the ‘strawy‘ part of James. The part that probably got Luther’s goat more than any other. I’ve never understood that expression, but I’ve just used it all the same.
Luther’s goat would probably have had greater theological smarts than me, but I think I get where James is coming from with this whole faith and works thing. He’s coming from the same place as Jesus.
“Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works,” James writes.
Jesus said: “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”
He was talking about false prophets at the time, but the principle holds in both directions. Want to check on the whether you’re being lead by false teaching? Check the fruit. Want to check on whether someone is following Jesus? Check their fruit. Look at their work. Look around them.
Jesus would also say that “signs and wonders would follow those who believed in Him and followed after him”. What are those signs and wonders? Again, look around them. See what Jesus is doing in and through those who call him ‘Lord’.
There is a large, fundamental, and eternal difference between ‘they will know you by your fruit’ and ‘you are saved by your fruit’. Couldn’t be more different. Jesus never said that. What he did say was that a faith response to a Gospel invitation will trigger a fruit response in light of that Gospel. And that by their fruit and their love in His name, others will know the One whom we follow.
When Jesus welcomes me into his new creation, He will say (I pray) “Well done, my good and faithful servant”. The welcome, though, will be offered not based on what I have done but on what He already did. What we do is a joyful response to His saving grace.
The stuff that I have done or will do, just like Sir Christopher, is as filthy rags compared to the righteous perfection of Jesus, the image of the invisible God. Admittedly, Wren’s filthy rags are a whole lot more impressive than mine, but they’re still shades of a very, very dark grey.
Can faith survive without fruit? I can’t imagine it could hold its breath long enough before exhaling grace and good stuff.