(This is my sermon for Perkins chapel I delivered today. Since I realize not everybody was able to attend, I’m posting it here as my blog post of the day. Enjoy!)
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 marketplace!” 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.
Grace and peace to you in name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. I begin with that, but for this morning’s scripture reading, there isn’t much peace in it. Grace? Yes. But peace? No.
I say there is little peace in this for me for a specific reason: this passage bothers me to no end. This is a bothersome and violent passage. Not just in its depiction of Jesus running around the temple with a whip, smashing up tables and running moneychangers around, no doubt yelling at them like a lunatic. That is certainly a violent image, and I think you can agree; but it is also violent to our sensibilities, to our sense of how the world works, and how things should and shouldn’t be.
However much we may think we’re revolutionaries, the truth is, we don’t really like seeing people smashing up the church. Renovation is one thing, but outright destruction is completely different. Destruction is upsetting, no matter who does it. It doesn’t matter who’s doing it or why, it’s upsetting. Not only is it upsetting, it’s disappointing.
I say disappointing because destruction presents us with a reality that shouldn’t be. When something good is destroyed, we are disappointed and saddened, sometimes justifiably enraged, because it shouldn’t have been destroyed. We like to hold on to the good, help it grow so there is more goodness in the world. We weep when we see a fire-blasted wasteland like much of central Texas was after this summer’s wildfires. We are shocked when we hear of an innocent young teen gunned down after getting caught in a gang fight. We are enraged when we see war-torn landscapes, highlighted by long lines of refugee families escaping for survival. We think, “This shouldn’t have happened.” We are disappointed when the good is destroyed.
But we are also disappointed to a degree when we see the destruction of things that perhaps aren’t so good, perhaps even bad. Why is that? We’re disappointed for a different reason though. We’re disappointed because things got so bad in the first place that there was no other option but destruction. We’re disappointed, for example, when we, or someone we know and love, has to go through chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer. Yes, the process will hopefully and ultimately destroy the illness, but at the same time we are saddened by the side effects that such treatments have on the body. The cure often makes us weaker than the disease ever did. The future becomes uncertain at this point. We are ultimately disappointed that the cure has to be destruction in this manner.
Disappointment hangs over this passage like a shadow. We see it all over the place in the story. We call it the “cleansing” of the temple. How very sanitary of us. How incredibly genteel of a way to put it. How sterile. Cleansing sounds like an innocuous, therapeutic event. However therapeutic it is, though, everybody knows that if you want to make the water clean, you’re going to have to boil it first. Cleansing is a messy and sometimes destructive affair.
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the temple looked very clean after this little event. It may have been cleansed of impurity, but it was not clean of debris. I’m sure the place was covered in broken table bits, feathers, blood, coins, and whatever else was busted up in the process. The place was a shambles of what it was afterwards. I feel bad for whoever actually had to clean up the temple after it was “cleansed.”
I’m not sure how the logistics of the temple worked, but if you’ll allow me some poetic license, I’d like to imagine that more than likely that duty was given to some novice priest, or rabbinic initiate, low on the totem pole and as idealistic and naïve as any divinity student could be. Perhaps this novice thought that, in being called to a life of purity and holiness, they could avoid troublesome realities and demeaning duties such as, say, janitorial duties after a fiasco like this. More than likely, they thought they would have thought they would oversee a time of grand renewal of the temple, and an overwhelming return to the holiness that the prophets so often spoke of. Surely, life in the priesthood would be filled with life-giving spiritual nourishment, and opportunities to encounter God and bring other people closer to God through their priestly vocation.
I imagine this person, after witnessing some wandering rabbi turn over the tables in the temple, would be incredibly shocked. Oh, sure, part of this student would be secretly cheering for the rabbi, knowing that the money-changing practices had an ethically dubious and questionable nature. The other part of it is… how else was the temple supposed to run? This is just the way things have always been, while they may be ethically dubious, it does have a purpose. Once reality sets in, so does disappointment. So this guy messed up the place to prove a point. Big whoop. In the end it doesn’t even matter; any effort to try and change the way things run has usually been squashed from the get-go, and if not that, it will be debated in countless meetings and arguments that ultimately lead nowhere. So who was this guy to come and bust up the temple? What good did it serve? It didn’t really change anything, the novice thinks. This Jesus may be hot stuff out in the sticks, but this is Jerusalem, and this is the temple of Jerusalem! Things don’t work that way here. You don’t just get mad, turn over a few tables, and expect things to change.
So there the novice stands, mop in hand, sloshing a bit of water around, trying to clean up the dried blood and bird feathers, trying to make sense of it all, and mulling over their own exasperation and disappointment. Did it really need to come to this? Was this destruction necessary? Was the cure worth the cost? And did it even work?
We’ve entered into this season of lent, a time of fasting, preparation, and introspection, in hopes that when we get to Easter, we can see things with new eyes, with a fresh perspective. It’s a time when traditionally new initiates in the faith are prepared for baptism, for new birth. It’s also a time that we get a chance to look down deep into our hearts, and gaze upon our brokenness, personally and communally. It’s a time for repentance.
So why not cast our gaze upon the church? Does the call to repentance extend to the church? We are, after all, supposed to be the Body of Christ. We’re supposed to be the hands and feet of grace and mercy, the mouths of truth and justice, and the agents of the Reign of God. After reading this word from the Fourth Gospel, the question is put to us: If Jesus was to walk into our churches, what’s to stop him from taking a bullwhip and smashing up the joint? Do our churches need this kind of “cleansing?” And would it work?
I’m sure a few of you will say most emphatically, YES! Of course it does! This bloated and ineffectual body needs a makeover! Let’s bring in Jillian Michaels and go all P90X on the church! We need to trim down the excess, and get back to the heart of the Gospel! Come on in Jesus, turn over some tables! We’ll give those priestly fat cats what for!
To those people who say this, I say congratulations. You’ve just said what literally everybody has said when they pursue a life in the church. Every monastic father or mother, every reformer, and nearly everybody else in ministry has had the same sentiment. So the good news is, you aren’t alone. The bad news is… well let’s look at it this way. After all those schisms, reformations, counterreformations, renewals, revivals, awakenings, movements, spinoffs, and emergences, we are still saying that the church needs improvement.
What does this say? Does it say that all those people that come before were wrong, and we just haven’t stumbled on the right way of doing things? Are we doomed to failure like the reformers before us? Are we just the prototypes of the new establishment? Was Harvey Dent right, in the film The Dark Knight, when he said “You either die a hero, or live long enough to be the villain?” Are we simply prolonging the brokenness of the church?
Does this reading of the Fourth Gospel say this? Or does this say something else, something a bit more intimate and revealing? Does it go down deeper than that? Does it say something more about the people of the church rather than the ideas devised to change the church? Does it say more about the brokenness of humanity, our sin, than it does about the failure of the reformers?
I think it does. I think that it doesn’t matter how many good ideas are out there about how to fix the church, how to cleanse it and make it holy. We are broken people. We are sinful people. That sin affects everything we do, even the good ideas like the church. We need to realize that, no matter what we do, we will never be able to completely heal ourselves.
We need to understand that while we may be disappointed in the church, we can do one of two things about it. We can be jaded, disillusioned, throw our hands up in despair and frustration and say “I give up! What’s the point?” Or, we can listen to what Jesus said after he did his cleansing of the temple.
The people asked him “What do you have to say for yourself, Jesus? What sign can you show us to explain you grabbing a bullwhip, turning over tables and beating the snot out of us?” And Jesus said “Destroy this temple and in 3 days, I will raise it up.”
It is at this point we realize, my brothers and sisters, he was talking about something else. Something deeper. Something that changed and will change everything. Don’t you think that the disciples were disappointed when they saw Jesus on the cross? I mean, this was the man who they thought was going to be king, who was going to be the messiah! And there he was, bloody, broken, gasping for air on cross meant for criminals and traitors. Oh yes, my friends. They were in shock, in grief, and very disappointed.
But that’s why hope is so important. Not 3 days later, the most glorious thing happened. Jesus was dead, and then he was alive again. He had been resurrected! When he was talking about the temple, he was talking about the resurrection. Jesus was talking about defeating sin and death, and in doing so, freeing us from the shackles that imprison us in the cycle of sin. Disappointment may hang over this story like a shadow, but hope of the resurrection shines through like a spotlight. If the church is to be rebuilt, it’s going to be rebuilt by nothing less than the grace of God. If it’s going to be given new life, it’s going to be done by nothing less than the Spirit of God. If we’re going to be a part of it, we have to have hope and faith and belief that Christ will resurrect us, and we have to listen to the Spirit to discern what God would have us do.
So the church may be in bad shape. Big deal! It’s always been that way. Most of the New Testament is made up of letters trying to fix the problems in the church! So the church being in bad shape is no reason to give up hope. Every generation has its reformers, its trailblazers, its emergents. The church is built on these people, because these people have hope. They see the risen Christ, and they know that there is resurrection. There is rebirth. The church is always being reborn. Each generation of Christians pass down this hope, that there is resurrection, and that resurrection can happen right here, right now.
Each generation looks at the last one, and says, “I can do better than that.” It’s the story of how the Spirit of God works in the church. It’s a cycle of disappointment transformed into hope. We may be disappointed in the way things are, but we hope for a better future, and with nothing less than the grace of God, we go about the task of better realizing the truth of the resurrection, both in our lives, and in the life of the church. With nothing less than the grace of God, we can be made well, we can be healed, and we can continue to be the body of Christ in the world. By nothing less than the grace of God and the hope of the coming of the Reign of God, we will be given resurrection.