Summit Presbyterian Church
March 4, 2018
John 2: 13-22
The disciples must have been excited, going with their teacher to Jerusalem. They had been drawn to him not long before through a simple invitation to “Come, taste and see.” They had their first “taste” at a wedding in Cana. At the reception the wine had run out — a catastrophe, then as now. Jesus had saved the day by changing water into wine — a very fine wine. It was there, the gospel says, that he first revealed his glory, and the disciples believed in him.
And now it was the Passover. They were going to the temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish worship and identity. They’d be joining hundreds of pilgrims from the countryside. They’d remember and give thanks for the liberation of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt - and pray for liberation from their current occupiers, the Roman Empire. At the temple rabbis would be teaching, and they’d also see the magnificent renovations made by King Herod (Some thought the renovations ostentatious. They hated King Herod for collaborating with the Romans. But even detractors declared the temple to be beautiful). In the inner courts priests would sacrifice animals that people brought to them in obedience and gratitude to God. Since it was impractical for many folks to travel with animals, they might buy one in the outer part of the temple: an oxen or sheep if they were prosperous, a dove if they were of more modest means. Since pilgrims were coming from all over they’d bring all kinds of coins, including ones with pictures of rulers who claimed to be divine. Those idolatrous coins needed to be exchanged for shekels to pay the temple tax. So it was a busy scene. Lots of buying; lots of selling.
Now the disciples may have been hoping their new Rabbi would teach (and impress) the crowds. Perhaps they were planning to buy an animal; a sheep if they pooled their money, or some doves. But they learned right away it wasn’t going to be that kind of day. Rather than gathering folks around him, or approaching a money changer, they saw Jesus making a whip out of cords. And then to their astonishment — or more likely, their horror — he used it to drive the sheep and the cattle and the sellers of those animals out of the temple. He threw over the tables of the money changers — that got everyone’s attention — and told the sellers of doves to take them out, yelling “stop making my father’s house a marketplace.” In the stunned silence the crowds must have wondered — what was the problem? Was it the fees that the money-changers charged? Did he think the selling of those animals was something of a racket — after all, if the inspector declared an animal you brought from home to be blemished, you’d to buy another. Or maybe he just was a purist, and wanted all of the commerce done off temple property. The disciples remembered a line from a psalm: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” They may have wondered if this zeal would consume Jesus and maybe them too. Where were the temple police? — surely they’d be thrown out.
But the reaction of the authorities was surprisingly mild. They challenged him, but only with a question: what sign do you have for doing these things? They may have sincerely wondered. Lots of prophets criticized the temple; some Jews of the time wouldn’t even go near it, they thought it so corrupt. But Jesus gave a very odd answer: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Maybe that’s when they decided not to make a federal case of it. Maybe that’s when they decided to let him go. He was clearly unhinged — the temple had been under construction for decades, no one could raise it up in three days. So there was no punishment— although perhaps they remembered the incident two years later, when Jesus returned to Jerusalem with a larger following. A crowd that waved palm branches before him. A crowd that threatened the uneasy peace the authorities had made with the Roman overseers.
It was then, after Jesus was killed and raised from the dead, that the disciples remembered his words from this visit to the temple. And, Johns says, they understood and believed. Jesus hadn’t been talking about Herod’s temple with its heavy stones and intricate artwork; he had been talking about his body. His body, that had hung on the cross and then risen from the dead. His body was now the place of encounter with God and the people. The place of sacrifice — or even the sacrifice, as the disciples would interpret his death on the cross. The disciples would also remember other words he had said about his body. After he had fed 5,000 people in the wilderness with only a few loaves and fish, he had said that he was the bread of life, come down from heaven, and that whoever came to him would never be hungry. He even said, “whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” His body was now the temple, a temple no longer bound to a particular time or place. A temple where all were invited to dwell.
But it’s not just after he was raised that they would remember his words. They would also remember his words when the Jerusalem temple was torn down. About forty years after Jesus dies, not long before the gospels were written, the Jerusalem temple was burned to the ground by Roman soldiers putting down a rebellion. After several more years of a bloody war, the Jewish community lost hope of any political independence. The temple would not be rebuilt. The end of the temple meant the end of pilgrimage to Jerusalem and animal sacrifice for all Jews, including those who followed Jesus. After the war most Jews gathered under the leadership of the Pharisaic party and other Rabbis, in an intensely creative and fruitful regrouping. Scriptures were studied and canonized; new commentaries were written. Synagogues, already important, became the place of community worship. At a time when their survival was threatened, the Jewish community kept their identity as God’s people through re-interpretation of the law and renewed obedience. The temple was destroyed, but the people remained faithful to God who remained faithful to them.
Those who followed Jesus, Jews and gentiles, took a different path. They gathered on a different day, the day after the Jewish Sabbath. They also studied the Hebrew scriptures intensely, seeking to understand how they pointed to Jesus. They produced writings of their own. They gathered for worship in homes and they read and interpreted scriptures; in many ways their worship resembled that of the synagogue. But they also gathered around a meal, with bread and wine, which they began to understand as the body and blood of Christ. This meal then became the locus of divine encounter, where the disciples would bring offerings of bread and wine and of themselves. Where they would receive forgiveness, and be drawn together into the church, the body of Christ. The body of Christ that would go into the world, just as the . . . . . . .
We’re two thousand calendar years, away from that day in the temple. We’re light years away from the culture of animal sacrifice. They may seem like historical curiosities. But we still need to hear and believe the words that Jesus spoke. We forget too easily that the center of divine encounter, the dwelling place of God, is not in the many buildings and the vast infrastructure of the Christian church. It’s in the body of Christ — which has no limit in time and space. Now, the buildings are beautiful gathering places for worship. They’re - hopefully - beacons of hospitality for the lost or lonely, shelters for the homeless, centers of prayer and learning. But they’re not necessary. No bricks or mortar are needed for worship or discipleship. Just two or three gathered in his name, hearing the word, eating the bread, drinking the wine.
So let’s go to the table, bringing our sacrifice of praise and meeting Risen Lord. Where we will offer our selves and receive forgiveness. Where we’ll be strengthened for witness in the world — proclaiming the gospel, working for peace and justice (which could mean overturning a few tables, but no whip of cords). At this table we’ll be united with the saints of every time and place. For we are in God’s holy temple — the Body of Christ.