Lent 3: John 2: 13-22
March 11, 2012
The summer between my junior and senior years of college, I spent three weeks in London taking an English Literature class. Whenever I was not in class, I was seeing the sights–sometimes three or four tourist destinations in one day: the British Museum, Madame Tussaud’s, the Tower of London, the Tate Gallery, John Keat’s house, and, of course, the magnificent church buildings. St. Paul’s and Westminster Abby are stunning–the soaring ceilings, brilliant stained glass windows, the ancient sacredness of the space. At Westminster Abby in particular I knew God was there–along with the actual or invoked presence of T.S. Eliot, William Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, Emily and Charolotte Bronte, Tennyson, Browning, Keats, Shelly, John Milton . . . for my literature loving soul, this was absolutely holy ground.
And then, after communing with the Holy Spirit and the literary spirits of England, I headed back out into the real world, only to notice the gift shop right there by the front doors of the Abby.
This is when the story of Jesus turning over tables in the temple court popped into mind. This blatant appeal to consumerism; this crass commercialism in the midst of a sacred place. Some people trying to profit off of the holy experiences of others. It’s enough to make almost anyone want to start tipping things over.
At least I was a little bent out of shape. The mugs and keychains and bookmarks seemed to trivialize the transcendent moments I had just experienced. (Plus, when I was 21 I basically went around looking for excuses to feel self righteous.)
Upon rereading John’s account of Jesus turning over the tables, though, I’m not so sure Jesus would be dumping out the cash register drawers in the gift shop at Westminster Abby. I realize now that the dove sellers and money changers in the temple courts at Passover served a significantly different function than the clerks at the Abby gift shop.
The gift shop allows you to buy souvenirs of your time at the church–buying stuff at the shop is optional and usually happens after people have had their holy experience.
The commerce in the temple courts, however, was required of people before they could experience their holy moment. Especially during Passover, many Jewish people came long distances to offer sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. They could not make the long journey with their own animals, and so they had to purchase animals there for the sacrifices. Plus the animals for sale in the Temple courts were guaranteed to be sacrifice-approved–animals of the proper kind, without blemish.
The moneychangers were needed because it was prohibited at the Temple to offer money that bore the image of a person or god. The official Roman coins were imprinted with the image of Caesar, so anyone with this impure money needed to trade it in for pure money.
Pure animals, pure money, pure bodies–these were required to enter further into the temple courts; this purity was required of those wishing to offer their sacrifices to Yahweh.
You don’t come across many churches these days that have purity requirements for those who wish to come in to worship. Or at least they wouldn’t admit to having purity requirements.
Alice Walker wrote a story titled the “Welcome Table” about a woman who wanted to go into a church and worship God. She walked right on up the steps and into the cold sanctuary. The minister shook her hand and said, “Auntie, you know this is not your church.” The women shot her dirty looks, and the ushers finally threw her out the door.
Seems the woman wasn’t neat enough or clean enough or white enough to worship in that church.
You might have heard stories of these churches with unwritten purity codes. Places where the welcome sign is out, but you are not really welcome if you wear the wrong clothes or use the wrong terms or drive the wrong car or have skin the wrong color or have a partner of the wrong gender.
I know that some of you are here in this church because you feel like you can come as you are. This is a place where lots of different kinds of people are welcome to come and seek God. We are so welcoming that we have a welcome statement–old and young, black, white and brown, rich and poor, gay and straight–all are welcome.
Short of someone becoming belligerent and violent, I can’t imagine anyone being escorted out of a worship service at Peace Mennonite. Though I do know that in the past–the distant past–there were parents who quit coming because their children didn’t seem to meet the purity requirements. That there have been people reluctant to worship here because their politics didn’t meet what they perceived to be the purity requirement.
Even those of us with the best of intentions can set up purity requirements without even knowing it. Even in welcoming, loving, accepting congregations such as ours, I think it doesn’t hurt to hold onto this image of Jesus, whip in hand. Any entrance requirements we might be tempted to make, Jesus stands ready to strike them down.
This is part of the message of this story for sure–this key story from Jesus’ life that has made its way into all four of the Gospels: God does not appreciate our efforts to regulate who can enter the temple.
Yet John’s point here goes beyond church politics and social ethics. John is a deeply theological book, and in John’s version of this story, Jesus doesn’t merely want to change the Temple entrance requirements; he doesn’t just want to give the ushers some sensitivity training.
Maybe if we were reading Matthew or Mark or Luke, we could stop with this idea of doing away with the purity regulations. But in John, we have to contend with Jesus’ very odd response when the Jewish elites ask him for a sign. Jesus tells them: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will build it up.”
The narrator tells us that Jesus is speaking of the temple of his body.
The temple of his body. None of you gasped, so I’m going to assume that you are not properly shocked by this phrase. Paul wrote about the body as a temple and now we throw the line around all the time, mostly to encourage healthy eating habits, teenage abstinence, avoidance of drugs. And that’s all good and we should treat our bodies well. Yes.
But Jesus is referring to his body as “this temple” while he is standing in the (capital T) Temple courts. We can make parallels between temple worship and worship in modern churches, but we should realize that the Temple was not merely a church. It was not simply a place to worship God. Synagogues were places of learning and worship. The Temple in Jerusalem was believed to be the actual, literal, dwelling place of Yahweh.
Back when Moses received the commandments on Mt. Sinai, the people waiting below witnessed “thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking.” It was the presence of Yahweh, and they were terrified. They told Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”
So Moses enters the Divine presence, and emerges with the stone tablets which are eventually put into the ark of Covenant which is carried around in the wilderness by the people and resides within the tabernacle–the holy tent–until finally Solomon has the Temple built. And this elaborate temple has outer courts and inner courts and in the very center, in the place where only chosen, purified priests are allowed to go, is the Holy of Holies where the ark of the Covenant sits, where God sits.
Now we can certainly over-state the extent to which first-century Jews believed that God resided within the Temple; there was no sense that the Divine was somehow stuck in the little room. But when the Jewish people of Jesus’ day talked about God dwelling within the Temple, they meant it in a much more intense way that what we mean if we talk about God being in a certain place.
The Temple was, by definition, the–not “a”–the house of God. The place where God lived.
Now Jesus has desecrated the outer court of the temple in a way that prevents people from meeting the purity requirements for entering. The religious authorities ask him what’s up, and he starts talking about destroying the whole temple–which is a veiled reference to himself.
Jesus is not making friends with the powers that be here. Consider, if God is inside a building, the people who control access to that building control access to God. I think that’s what makes Jesus mad. I think that’s why he starts flipping tables and shooing doves. It’s not that people are trying to make a living. It’s not that having commercial transactions somehow defiles the temple courts. Jesus is mad because the Jewish elites are trying to control access to God.
In naming himself as the temple, Jesus locates the Divine presence within himself, instead of within a building that can be controlled.
Maybe this is why, while the other three Gospels put this story at the end, John has it near the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. So we can see this Temple walking around talking to and touching all of the people who would never, could never, have walked into even the outer courts of the Temple–let alone the holy of holies.
The blind, the lame, the lepers. Women. Gentiles.
In Walker’s story, after the woman is thrown out of the church she begins walking down the road. She soon sees a figure coming toward her in the distance, and when she realizes who it is, “she start[s] to grin, toothlessly, with short giggles of joy, jumping about and slapping her hands on her knees.” It is Jesus, who says to her, “follow me.” And the two walk down the road together, the old woman talking and singing and walking and walking until “the ground was like clouds under their feet.” Walking away from the white church and on and on towards the Welcome Table.