March 11, 2018 – Pastor John McNeill
John 2:13-22 (CEB)
One Sunday afternoon in the late winter of 1982 I received a phone call from Rev. Robert Jones, who was, at the time, the District Superintendent of the then Rochester District. He asked if he could stop by that afternoon.
He arrived a little while later and Martha and I sat with him in the living room of our second-floor apartment on Park Avenue in Rochester. Martha was seven or eight months pregnant with our first child, Michael. I was in the middle of the second semester of my first year in seminary.
Bob was wondering if I would be interested in taking on a pulpit supply opportunity at Trinity United Methodist Church in Rochester’s 19th ward. I would be responsible for doing the preaching there each Sunday until the end of June.
At a congregational meeting that very morning, he told us, the pastor had announced that she would be leaving that week.
This was to be a fairly low-risk assignment because that morning the congregation had also decided that they would close the church at the end of June. I would not be able to do too much damage.
It seemed like a good opportunity and we were hoping I would be appointed as a student pastor to a church in July, so this would be good practice.
So, the very next Sunday I stepped into the pulpit at Trinity UMC and preached my very first sermon. As it turns out, it was the third Sunday of Lent and the Gospel text for the morning was the very same text that we have before us today, 36 years later: Jesus casting out the money changers and the sellers from the temple.
This week, I took the opportunity to go back into my notebook of sermons from that time to see what I said. That sermon was composed in the days when I wrote my sermons out in longhand.
In that first sermon, I called attention to the fact that Jesus’ behavior in this passage is at odds with some of our stereotypes of Jesus as meek and mild.
I pointed out that since this episode appears in all four of the Gospels it must be an important part of Jesus’ story.
So, the question that emerged for me then, and for us now, is, “What was Jesus angry about?”
Sometimes I hear it assumed that the problem was that the money changers were cheating or that the animal vendors were overcharging. In other words, that it was a problem of fair weights and measures that the Better Business Bureau could get a handle on.
But this misses the point. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some cheating going on, but Jesus’ condemnation was across the board that the whole business itself was going on.
But what was the nature of the business?
The business was necessary business for the purpose and literal operation of the temple.
The temple was THE place for ritual sacrifice of animals. Most folks would have to travel many miles to get to the temple. So, think about it. If you were going to sacrifice a goat or a lamb at the temple, how are you going to get that animal to the temple? Moreover, how are you going to get it to the temple as a relatively perfect specimen? Not going to happen! If you think it’s tough to get a family here on Sundays, imagine adding a sheep or a goat to the mix.
You would sell your goat, or your lamb at home in Bethlehem or Nazareth and then bring your money to Jerusalem and buy one there to sacrifice.
But wait, you also need special money to do business in the temple, not those old Roman coins that are unholy. So, you need to exchange your money with the money-changers first.
The money changing, and the animal purchasing are part and parcel of the temple protocols. Without them, you don’t have temple worship.
No. Jesus’ anger was about the whole business of sacrifice as worship. (x2)
The most radical thing about this passage is not the fact that Jesus gets mad, it’s that Jesus gets mad about the central worship practice of his religion!
Now, to be fair, Jesus was not the first person to object to the sacrificial system. Several of the prophets had questioned the practice of sacrifice as a form of worship. There was a long-running argument about sacrifice in the Jewish tradition.
Jesus dramatic actions call forth a fundamental question of the religious leaders who are there. And, remember, this takes place during the Passover, a holy festival which has brought this action to the attention of those who have come to be at the Temple during this especially holy season. This is a moment of high drama in the presence of a large crowd.
While my assignment to Trinity UMC might have been a low risk job, Jesus’ delivering his anti-sacrifice message at the Temple in Jerusalem was not.
The Temple leadership question Jesus with a huge amount of energy: By what authority, by what right, do you do this? Give us some divine sign that shows you have the status, license, position to do this!
And Jesus answers cryptically:
19 “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”
Of course, this answer just sounds crazy to these leaders. It took 46 years to build this temple. What are you talking about rebuilding it in 3 days?
But as the disciples figured out later, and the Gospel’s author lets us know as we hear this story, Jesus wasn’t talking about the Temple building with its altars for sacrifice, instead he was changing the focus to his very own body.
But what can this mean?
Now, there is a lot of theological background that I will leave in the background this morning, but Jesus is saying here that worship, the connecting point between us and God, is not animal sacrifice, but rather is rooted in and through the incarnated, embodied material presence of God in the world: which is Jesus himself.
To say that a different way: Worship is the activity that marks, centers, or frames our connection to God. Jesus is saying here that instead of that connection being marked by animal sacrifice, it is contained and offered in himself as the divine takes human, material, bodily shape.
And so, instead of our central worship practice being animal sacrifice, the traditional central worship practice of Christians is Holy Communion, in which we offer the bread and the cup in thanksgiving as a reenactment and remembrance that God, in the intersection of divine and human reality in the person of Jesus, became – in effect – a sacrifice that was to end sacrifice.
The message is that it is not by our initiative that we engage in some practice or ritual that will make us ok with God, or cause God to love us, or induce God to be good to us.
Rather, the message is that divine love took the initiative. Divine love was willing to, and did, come into the world as a vulnerable human being and take the worst other human beings could offer. And in that sign of weakness transform it into a sign of mercy. That sign of love, that act and the divine forgiveness and victory that was shown in its wake, revealed the authority that Jesus carried to create havoc in the temple.
That is the sign of the authority that the temple and religious leaders demanded: the authority that Jesus revealed in his death and resurrection.
And so now, in our worship practice, the bread and cup that are material signs of Christ’s physicality: his body and blood, become for us the presence here and now of Christ in a meal of peace. Not a ritual of violence and bloodshed. A taste of the fruits of peace and reconciliation.
And so, Christ’s body becomes the temple – in the death and resurrection of Christ, and then to be continued here among us, in our fellowship as the church, the body of Christ, around the communion table.
My first sermon on this passage was to a small group of folks who were in the midst of losing their place of worship and losing the faith community they were a part of.
As I preach for perhaps the last time on this passage I’m happy that’s not the case for you folks.
As we look ahead to the upcoming pastoral change, as we look ahead to celebrating 200 years of a Methodist presence in Ithaca in 2019, as people come and go, as the building changes over time, as staff and leadership change over time, we can be confident in what does not change.
What happens here: the prayer, the songs, the preaching, the listening, the sacraments, the sharing of joys and sorrows, the teaching and the learning, the encouraging words and the moments of vulnerability are not – in themselves – the holy center.
Instead they are pointers, reminders, signals, invitations, prods, doorways, hints, openings, prompts, that connects us to the Christ presence, the God presence, the love presence, the grace presence, the Presence presence that is the holy center of being.
They are instruments, activities, habits that can free us from the distractions that hold us captive and anchor us in the smallness of our egos.
Jesus took dramatic action to throw the money-changers and the animal sellers from the temple.
The temple system they were a part of had turned out to be a distraction from God and a tool of the ego drive to somehow make themselves acceptable to God, instead of trusting that God already – and had always – loved them. They were part of a system that depended on a transaction for grace to happen. A bartering for love to happen. This was the no-risk, tit for tat, this for that, transaction.
Transactions are generally set up to minimize risk. You get what you pay for. A transaction is an exchange in which each party gives and receives the value they are willing to part with for the value they wish to receive.
That’s not God’s way.
God’s love and blessing does not depend on a transaction we make or don’t make. God’s love and blessing do not depend coming to church, or paying attention to the sermon, or knowing the Bible, or saying your prayers or meditating, or helping others, or always being on your best behavior – although I hope you’ll do all of those and perhaps more.
All those activities can help us be more open, more receptive, more responsive to love – and so all these activities or postures or attitudes may help us connect with Christ – not as our side of a safe transaction in which we will receive based on what we give.
But rather they are ways of yielding our very selves and thereby risking our lives into the eternal life of God. Risking our very lives into the life of God.
As we offer prayer at the Communion Table this morning, I invite you to hear with new ears the words that recount with gratitude the love and compassion with which God accompanies us in this Lenten season of preparation for Easter, and invites us into renewed life in Christ through this taste of the fruits of reconciliation and peace.
May we allow ourselves to risk being refreshed in the confidence that in this holy time God is drawing us deeper into the eternal life of love.