Lent 3B, March 8, 2015

March 9, 2015

Relocating the Temple
John 2:13-22

2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 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. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 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.

For some people, this story of Jesus creating chaos in the Temple is one of the most endearing stories in the Bible. I mean it’s nice to hear about Jesus healing blind people, and relieving other people of all kinds of suffering, but I’m thinking this story of Jesus going in to this highly regulated religious marketplace and tearing things up is the stuff of dreams. This may be one of the most referenced stories in all of the Gospels. People like to point out that there was a day when Jesus had had all he could take, he got mad, and tore some things up. I dare say there’s been a lot of people who have sought to find justification in this passage for bad behavior, and that’s not such a good thing, but I think you can find some legitimate justification for disruption in this passage. It’s not unreasonable to have some outrage about the way important institutions operate.

I don’t think this story justifies road-rage or any other self-justifying fits of outrage, but it’s nice to see Jesus offer some physical resistance to a bad situation. Certainly this disruptive outburst was not well received by the people who were selling the unblemished animals or those who had the money changing franchise at the Temple, but the thought of Jesus tearing in to a corrupt system has had a lot of appeal to a lot of people over the centuries.

Of course your opinion on the value of something getting torn up depends on the nature of your interests.

My mother grew up on a farm just out from a little town in southwest Arkansas called Garland City. Garland is on the road from Texarkana to Lewisville and it sits right on the west bank of the Red River. That was an area of the world that my grandmother’s people had inhabited for a few generations – I’m honestly not sure how long they had lived there, but they had been there for a while before my mother came along. My great grandmother’s brother, who was known as Uncle Son, was a partner in the ferry operation that crossed the river there at Garland City, and that was a nice business to be in – until the highway department decided to put in a bridge. They built the bridge, but just before that bridge was completed it mysteriously blew up.

This wasn’t good news for anyone other than Uncle Son and his partner, and consequently they were the primary suspects in the situation. There was a trial, and Uncle Son wasn’t convicted of anything, but it was hard for people who knew about the situation to believe that he was unaware of what had transpired. As far as my grandmother was concerned there was no connection between Uncle Son and that explosion, and I wouldn’t be telling this story if I thought my grandmother would hear me make such an implication. My Uncle Jack made that mistake at a family gathering one Thanksgiving, and she was terribly upset that Jack would make such an insinuation. That wasn’t a subject that ever came back up when she was around. Regardless of how little or how much involvement he had in that bridge explosion, what that story illustrates to me is how differently people can view acts of great disruption.

It’s interesting that John places this story early on in his account of Jesus. The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place this story at the end of his ministry, and in the way they tell the story that was the event that convinced the religious authorities that Jesus must be eliminated. But John does something different with this story. John places it near the beginning of his portrayal of Jesus. John chooses to reveal the extent of the conflict that existed between Jesus and the Jewish authorities from the very beginning, but the early placement of this story does something else as well. John is inviting us to see Jesus as the new Temple – his followers are to see him as the new place to go and to find God.

In the study group I attend each week we are currently reading a book by Bishop John Shelby Spong called, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about reading this book because I tend to think of that author as someone who just likes to point out what’s wrong with traditional Christianity, and I don’t tend to have as much appreciation for the bulk of the Book of John as I have for the other Gospels, but I have found this book to be a very interesting interpretation of the Book of John. Bishop Spong has sort of redeemed the Book of John for me. In fact he owns up to not liking the fourth Gospels as much as he liked the other gospels until he came to see it in a new light.

It’s no secret that the Book of John was the last of the gospels to be written and that it was probably produced about 70 years after Jesus had been crucified. The Jewish Temple had been destroyed for about 30 years at the time the book was put together, but the Jewish community was still strong. It was held intact through meetings at local synagogues – which were sort of like local churches. But there had been a great rift develop between the traditional Jewish community and the Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah, and the Jesus following Jews weren’t welcome in the synagogues.

Spong believes that the Book of John is the product of someone or a couple of someones who came out of that rejected Jewish community of believers in Jesus. These people had a very interesting perspective on Jesus. They were living in really harsh circumstances. They weren’t welcome in the traditional Jewish community. They weren’t valued by the Roman authorities, but they found Jesus to be the source of true access to God, and because of that they were willing to deal with the troubles they faced.

That perspective has given me a new appreciation for the Book of John. In all honesty, the book can get pretty tiresome in the way it repeatedly puts so much emphasis on the figure of Jesus. As opposed to the other gospels that are filled with parables and other teaching moments, in the Book of John there are a lot of passages where Jesus seems to be talking about himself. In some ways it seems that Jesus was sort of full of himself – that what Jesus wanted more than anything else was for people to pay attention to him.

And there is a lot of truth to that, but it wasn’t because he wanted to be the object of adoration. What he wanted was for people to find their way to God through him – regardless of what was going on in this world and in their lives. Spong believes the Book of John is the testament of people who found their way to God through Jesus and that’s why it’s so important to focus on him. It was their focus on Jesus that got them rejected from the synagogue and in many cases from their families, but it gained them access to God, and that was why they sought to stay so focused upon him.

John uses this story of Jesus disrupting the Temple to illustrate the way in which Jesus had become the new Temple. These words about how he would rebuild the Temple in three days is an affirmation that people would continue to find access to God through his resurrected presence.

This book that I rather reluctantly embarked upon reading has redefined the way that I see the Fourth Gospel. What previously struck me as a book that was trying to convince me of how much more divine Jesus was than any other previous prophet is not what it’s about at all. I’ve come to believe that the writer of John is not trying to turn Jesus in to a person who was equal with God, but as the person who best enables us to see God. This may not sound like a profound difference, but it is to me. The Book of John calls for us to pay attention to Jesus, but the goal is not to see him – the goal is to see God.

I think we often get focused on the wrong things. Clearly this business that was going on in the Temple only served to distract people from seeing the nature of God, and Jesus had no patience with such foolishness. Our challenge is to learn to see what it is that we are overly focused upon, and not to spend our time and energy protecting practices and policies that keep us from seeing who Jesus is and what God is like. What are the Temples we have created that need to be disrupted?

Bishop Melvin Talbert is a retired United Methodist Bishop. He is an African American man who was born in the deep south, but spent much of his time in ministry and in the Episcopacy on the west coast. He was an active participant in the African American civil rights struggle, and he takes great pride in having spent three days in jail with Dr. Martin Luther King. Most recently he made national news by officiating at a same-sex marriage between two United Methodist men near Birmingham, AL. Charges were brought against him, but it was resolved through the process of just resolution.

Bishop Talbert worked to eliminate racial civil rights abuses and now he he’s working to establish and to protect the civil rights of non-heterosexual people – within the United Methodist Church and in our nation.

There are a lot of people who don’t think he’s behaving like a Bishop aught to behave. And that may be true. Maybe Bishops aren’t supposed to create controversy, but it looks like people who follow Jesus are supposed to tear up religious practices that get in the way of our view to God.

Bishop Talbert was scheduled to preach here in April, along with the Director of the Reconciling Ministry Network, Matt Berryman, but a scheduling conflict arose and he had to cancel. I hope we can reschedule him to be here and to remind us what it looks like to love Jesus more than you love your own position – or even your life.

Life is hard. Sometimes bridges come along that destroy our established ferry operations. Sometimes we retaliate inappropriately.

Sometimes we see where a bridge needs to be built, but we see how large the challenge will be, and we fear the cost to ourselves and to our positions.

Jesus understood the fears, the costs, and the benefits of what it meant to live with actual faith in God, and he is our true guide for finding our way to God. Regardless of what’s going on in our lives we will be well served by the work of staying focused on him. He doesn’t need our attention, but we need his light to guide our thoughts and our actions.

Thanks be to God,


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