Saturday, March 8, 2014

Cleaning House

John 2:13-25
Lent 1
March 9, 2014

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

I’m not sure what to think of this Bible story. I know a preacher who got in trouble after preaching a sermon on the text. As you can surmise, every congregation has its own mix occupations and perspectives. Well, his congregation had a lot of bankers, accountants, merchants, and fund raisers. So maybe he wasn’t thinking, or maybe he was, when he stood up, read the story of Jesus cleaning out the money changers, and then announced, “This is what needs to happen when a temple starts thinking it’s a business.”

No sooner did the words leave his mouth, like the balloon in a cartoon, when an icy wind blew through the pews. By coffee hour, the air was now hot. By the next meeting of the trustees, there were murmurs of “Crucify! Crucify him!”

It is a contentious story, just like the original episode. Jesus turns over the tables of those selling the sacrificial animals for the rituals in the Jerusalem temple. He threw their coins to the ground. Forming a leather whip, he began cracking it at the money changers. “Get this stuff out of here,” he screams. “This is not a financial market place.”

Now, that’s a story that can spin in a number of ways. The twelve disciples remembered a line from the Psalms about zeal for the house of God. Some modern people will nod their heads and say, “Yes, the church is much too preoccupied with money.” Those outside the church say this to keep from ever going in. Those inside say it to keep from giving any more. Both miss the point. Heaven forbid they should have too much zeal!

According to the Gospels, this is an inflammatory story. When Jesus turns over the tables in the Gospel of Mark, it is the last straw (11:15-19). The Organizers of his Organized Religion say, “That’s it! We must get rid of him.” So it sets the wheels in motion for Jesus’ final week. The religious people will silence him, squelch him, and push him out of their world. The inference is the temple is just the way they want it. Yesterday they were prophets, but today they are reactionaries.

What’s interesting is that, by the time this story is told again in the Gospel of John as we have it today, there are some significant changes. John is writing about 90 AD. By that date, the Jerusalem temple was a distant memory. It had been destroyed for over twenty years. The Roman army tore it down, stone from stone. So John remembers Jesus saying enigmatically, “Destroy this temple, and I will build it up again.”

The second significant change is that the Gospel of John moves this episode from the end of Jesus’ life to the very beginning of his ministry. For John and his church, the temple’s cleansing is something far more than an historical event that prompted the crucifixion. No, this is a story of how the Christian people relate to God. Because for John, in his day, faith could not be centered on a building. The building no longer existed.

Now please understand: buildings are important. They teach by their architecture. They shape how we believe. One of our friends stopped in here last Wednesday for our Lenten time of silent prayer. We sat together in silence, and then she remarked on the stained glass, the majesty of the open space, the sense of awe that a building can create. In the rare moments when it is quiet, this temple testifies to a greater God, a holier presence, a healing power at the heart of all things.

And then Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up again on the third day.” On the third day . . . With that little phrase, John winks at his congregation, prompting them to affirm that Jesus is the Temple. If the Temple is the meeting place between God and the people, then Jesus is that meeting place. Sixty years after the Resurrection, twenty years after Jerusalem was destroyed, John’s church knew - God meets us in Jesus Christ.

That’s why this Gospel offers story after story of how people encounter God as Jesus meets them. Through this season of Lent we will hear of one person after another: Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene.

There is at least one thing that each story has in common, one thing that we hear today: Jesus acts in complete freedom. He is not restrained by religious routines. He is not kept in a building. He is remarkably indifferent to how official people tell him he should act. Jesus is free because God is free, because God who is Spirit can blow wherever and whenever Spirit chooses. And what this Three-in-One God chooses to do is to give life and light to anybody who will receive the light and life.

The place where God acts in this story is a temple, The Temple. It was first established as a house of prayer. It was the one place on earth where people were re-connected to God after some life changing event, like the birth of children, or the death of a family member, or after some terrible thing that they have done. The Temple is the place of restoration. That’s the heart of all those old Jewish rules and rituals about purity and holiness. When something happens to “dirty you up,” God provides the means to bring you back into relationship. God does this in freedom, to come after us, to welcome us completely.  

But the spiritual history of the human race offers a long and continuing account of how we resist this. We add official rituals and unofficial rules, and they can take on a life of their own. We don’t want God to rule the world; we prefer to be in charge. We don’t want to live in peace with one another; we prefer to keep things stirred up. We don’t want an intimate sense of being loved by our Maker; intimacy scares us – it’s too close. So we do everything we can to go it alone. We put on that appearance.

That’s why John adds an interesting postscript to his version of the temple cleansing story. He says, “Jesus did not trust himself even to those people who trusted in him, because he knew what lies in the heart of every person” (2:24-25). What is it that lies in our hearts? It is our resistance to live completely in God, to trust God with all things. We are ambivalent about this. We want it, but we don’t want it. We might say all the right things with our lips, but we hold God at bay in our hearts.

And here is what Jesus does with who we are: he comes anyway. It is his mission to come into the world that the Father loves, to offer grace and truth, light and life, to be bread from heaven, to offer himself as the way to the Father.

That’s why we are here. The church is that group of people - not the building, but the group of people - who point to Christ and his mission. We are the people who tell the truth about him. The scriptures are God’s gift to instruct us, but we don’t worship the scriptures. We look through them like a window and we worship God.

In the same way, whatever happens in the Temple is not the main thing. It can only point to the Main Thing, and that is life-giving fellowship with God. This week I had brief conversations with two of you. One of you said, “Thank you so much for offering ashes on Ash Wednesday. It is a great way for me to begin my spiritual journey in Lent.” Another one of you said, “Ashes? I don’t need any stinking ashes,” and then he smiled.

Ashes or no ashes – does it ultimately matter? Neither is the Main Thing. The Main Thing is the deep trust that you belong to God. Whatever we do in the Temple must point to the living truth. The truth is Jesus will do whatever it takes to claim you for God. Whatever it takes! That’s the Main thing. That’s why we are here.

It is like what author Frederick Buechner once wrote about the organization Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a lengthy quote, but it makes the good point:

Alcoholics Anonymous or AA is the name of a group of men and women who acknowledge that addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives. Their purpose in coming together is to give it up and help others do the same. They realize they can’t pull this off by themselves. They believe they need each other, and they believe they need God. The ones who aren’t so sure about God speak instead of their Higher Power.

When they first start talking at a meeting, they introduce themselves by saying, “I am John. I am an alcoholic.” “I am Mary. I am an alcoholic,” to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, “Hi, John,” “Hi, Mary.” They are apt to end with the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer. Apart from that they have no ritual. They have no hierarchy. They have no dues or budget. They do not advertise or proselytize. Having no building of their own, they meet wherever they can.

Nobody lectures them, and they do not lecture each other. They simply tell their own stories with the candor that anonymity makes possible. They tell where they went wrong, and how, day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another – to be available at any hour of day or night if need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.

You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the Church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be Big Business. Sinners Anonymous. “I can will what is right but I cannot do it,” is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

“I am me. I am a sinner.”  “Hi, you.”  Hi, every Sadie and Sal. Hi, every Tom, Dick, and Harry. It is the forgiveness of sins, of course. It is what the church is all about.

No matter what far place alcoholics end up in, either in this country or virtually anywhere else, they know that there will be an A.A. meeting nearby to go to and that at that meeting, they will find strangers who are not strangers to help and to heal, to listen to the truth and to tell it. That is what the Body of Christ is all about.

Would it ever occur to Christians in a far place to turn to a church nearby in hope of finding the same? Would they find it? If not, you wonder, what is so Big about the Church’s Business?[1]

So why are we here? We are here to connect people to God as deeply and as widely as we can. Everything is about that.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) 4-5.

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