|Jan Sanders van Hemessen "Christ Driving the Money Changers" (16th Cent.)|
“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” (John 2:19)
I have to give a shout-out to my esteemed colleague, Pastor Daniel Eisenberg of St. John’s Lutheran in Philadelphia who gave me this really whacky illustration for the Gospel lesson for Lent 3, Year B (John 2: 13-22):
Try to imagine we’re all in church on a post-COVID Easter Sunday morning. We’re all just as happy as a poodle with a pork chop. No more masks or social distancing. We have a full church. Here we are: singing our favorite Easter hymns, smelling the flowers, dressed in our finest spring fashions, and delightfully full from the annual Easter pancake breakfast. Just as we get to the second verse of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” Jesus suddenly bursts in and starts yelling at us. “Just what the freak do you people think you’re doing?! Is this really what’s important to you? Seriously..??!!”
Before we can stop him, he begins to kick over the pots of Easter lilies. He throws the candelabras and the communion chalice off the altar and starts tossing the paraments around the room. He knocks over our electric piano and chases the musician and the Praise Team out the side door with a whip he’s made out of the cincture of his robe.
How would you react?
If anyone but Jesus did that, we’d certainly have the police on their butt in no time flat. And even if Jesus himself did this…well…we might consider converting to Unitarianism.
If you can imagine this illustration, you can imagine how outrageous Jesus’ behavior would be to the people who witnessed it firsthand. You’d have to ask what it was that got this guy so p.o.’d. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus claims that the authorities have turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves.[i] That is, he’s concerned that the buying and selling involved in the purchase of sacrificial animals was yet one more exploitation of the poor—a greedy rip-off by the guys in the upper percentile which jacked-up the prices and manipulated the rate of exchange.
But: John’s Gospel shows Jesus having a different concern. He’s not so much bothered by the oppressive thievery as he is by the impiety of it all. He knows that to prepare for the Passover, the folks had to make a ritual sacrifice of an animal without spot or blemish.[ii] The temple priests were all too happy to sell Passover pilgrims a “perfect” critter for any budget—a cow for the rich, a sheep for the middle class, or some birds for the poor working stiffs. But Jesus wasn’t impressed with any of it.
The love of God made perfect in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is not transactional, and any emphasis on the form blinds us to the purpose. If you’re focused on buying the perfect lamb, you’re forgetting that the Lord your God has already done a mighty act for you. You might be tempted to forget that God doesn’t need any favors from you in order to love you and find you worthy. You might be more focused on yourself than on the abundant grace of the living God.
How does your heart feel when you remember that someone loved you enough to die for you? That’s the point. Not he pancake breakfast or the lilies or the church music. When Jesus gets all funky in the temple, his disciples remember the words of an old song, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[iii] But just what does that mean? What is God’s house? Is it just a building where we gather, or is it the place where we encounter Christ? And does that have to be anyplace specific?
At our last Church Council meeting, some expressed concern about the lack of in-person worship because of the pandemic. It was even suggested that some parishioners might stop making their offerings if they didn’t “get something” in return. I certainly understand that this fear is not without foundation, but I must remind everyone that the church is not a marketplace. We contribute nothing to our salvation. The disciplines of Lent call us to return to the grace of God, not just to a building.
The temple in which Jesus made such a fuss would be torn down a few years after his crucifixion and never rebuilt. It was just a building. The temple of Christ’s body would be raised form the dead and would become our hope, our faith, our truth, and our joy forevermore. This temple does not require walls or perfect liturgies. We enter into it every day with believing and trusting hearts. The sacrifices we make are not made for Christ, but for others because of Christ.
This time of pandemic has been a test, but one which we will pass. Let’s keep our eyes trained on what God has already done as we worship in spirit and truth.
Stay safe everyone.