March 15, 2009
The disciples were with Jesus when he decided right before the Passover to go up to Jerusalem for services. They thought they were just going to church, or to the Temple that is. But it didn’t turn out to be that simple.
When they got to the Temple courtyard, things were just like usual. Big crowds. Money changers. Children running around. Merchants selling their wares. There were the animals that were being sold for the sacrifices. People talking and joking. Children laughing. Cows mooing. Lambs baaing. Doves and pigeons fluttering their wings in their cages. Merchants were shouting, trying to be heard above all the noise. And then, all of the sudden, Jesus goes off like a madman. He’s overturning tables, driving sheep and cattle and their owners out of the gates, and opening bird cages along the way.
People are running for cover. Money changers are scrambling for coins that have been spilled all over the place. Merchants are grabbing their merchandise. People are chasing their livestock. There’s a lot of shouting and cussing going on. Some of it by Jesus who can’t believe what they have made out of the Temple. Instead of a house of God, it has become a religious marketplace.
It all must have been quite a shock to the disciples and, at first, they probably tried to calm Jesus down. Then maybe restrain him. And then run for cover themselves because the Temple Guard and their Roman overseers would turn up pretty quickly. It wasn’t what they were expecting, but oftentimes things with Jesus weren’t what they were expecting. But this had the potential to be big trouble.
Some folk are very uncomfortable with this story. It really explodes the idea of Jesus meek and mild. He’s lost his temper. Instead of carrying a lamb over his shoulder, he’s tossing it out into the streets. He’s chasing people with whip in hand. He’s throwing stuff and yelling. He was mad. We know we’re not supposed to get mad, especially in public. But look at Jesus.
What was he mad about? I don’t think it was only about what the Temple had become, a religious marketplace. But also about the potential they had missed. The Temple was supposed to be the dwelling place of God. This was the place where the poor and dispossessed, the struggling, the people hoping for a word from God came to know God’s presence. They came to be included not excluded. But how could anybody find God in this place?
In all the other gospel stories Jesus clears out the Temple grounds at the end of his ministry. In John’s Gospel, though, this story takes place right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. As the commentator Mark Bredin puts it, “The Jesus in John’s Gospel is zealous, and this is expressed in the centre of the abuse: Jerusalem and the Temple. He does not hide out in Galilee but gets right to the heart of the matter at the beginning of his ministry.”
As Jesus and the authorities engaged in what must have been a shouting match after Jesus cleared out the Temple grounds, Jesus says something very strange, something it took quite a while for the disciples to begin to understand. The authorities asked Jesus where on earth (or in heaven) he got his authority to judge what the Temple was about. Who was he to figuratively and literally turn over the tables of centuries of religious belief and practice? Jesus’ response was “Tear down this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.”
Well that didn’t make sense, at the time, to the priests, the disciples, nor anybody else. “What do you mean rebuild it in three days? It took 46 years to build this Temple.”
Jesus wasn’t talking about any Temple built by hands, however. And after the fact, after the fact of the resurrection, the disciples got what Jesus was talking about. Himself.
Jesus had the audacity to proclaim that God was at work in a new way in this world, and that work centered in Jesus. He told the religious leaders that day that his credentials would be the resurrection. But even before then, as our story today indicates, he was offering himself as an alternative to the Temple. “Many people saw the signs Jesus was displaying and, seeing they pointed right to him, entrusted their lives to him.”
Jesus was telling them that God was communicating with humanity in a different way. It was no longer about sacrificial systems that centered around priests in the temple who knew all the esoterica and exotica of religious rite and ritual. The dwelling place of God was somewhere else; in those who loved God, and were coming to life in God.
In those few minutes of chaos in the Temple grounds Jesus sent a shockwave through the religious system of his day. What about ours? How would Jesus respond to the religious systems we have set up in his name? Start throwing things? Over turning communion tables? Ripping banners from the wall? Maybe. Especially if we have let ourselves imagine that these structures, the figurative and real ones we call church, are little boxes where we get to define God, keep God to ourselves, and only let in the people we feel are deserving catch a glimpse.
It may be, though, that Jesus isn’t looking to come into our churches and set things right. Maybe he is trusting us to do that, trusting us to be willing to challenge the status quo, or, as Jim Taylor writes in the electronic magazine Rumors “to kick tables and butts, to free doves and prisoners, to dump ill-gotten gains and outdated dogmas. Even if it makes some people cower in the corners.”
It’s not surprising that we in the church could lose our way. We aren’t perfect. But Jesus has to hope that when we do lose our way, we will find our way back even if we have throw a Bible or two, or drive some customs and assumptions out the doors.
The worst thing we can do is end up making it harder for people to be in relationship with God than easier. And Jesus came to make it easier. It was simply all about him. All about resurrection. As John writes at the start of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
If our structures, our teaching, our rituals, or our doctrines serve to make us like the priests of old who claim to have God to ourselves, make religion our own commodity, we better be looking over our shoulders, because Jesus might just be coming at us, with whip in hand. He can only take it for so long, as the disciples learned that day.
But if we have faith in Jesus that is based on resurrection, based on our commitment to a God of life, that testifies to Word made flesh, then Jesus just might be happy to wander into church. That is, of course, if it is a place where he and everyone else in welcome, no matter their station in life. If people can walk into a church and discover a Jesus who is life and light, I imagine Jesus might just come on in and enjoy himself.
He would love to sing a hymn or two, ask for prayer, listen to the choir, watch the kids run up to Children’s Church. You might see him sign a petition or two, throw a couple of shekels in the offering plate, listen to the sermon, and hang out after wards for snacks and coffee (in the Snackuary as Jere Bruner often said) with good people who love God and each other, and are trying to figure out how to be the Body of Christ, the living presence of the living Jesus in this world. Resurrection. That’s what Jesus is looking for when he goes to church and what he didn’t see that day at the Temple when he not so gently asked some of those folk to leave and take their notion of religion for profit with them.
All he was looking for was signs of life. And that’s still what he is doing.