Again and Again, We Are Shown the Way

Sunday, March 3, 2024
Deacon Stephanie Anderson

John 2:13-22

If you haven’t heard me say this yet, we have a whopping 73 young people in Confirmation right now. I have the honor of working alongside our new(ish) Youth & Family Minister, Annika, in guiding their Wednesdays night programming and, this spring, we are in the midst of a series about the life and ministry of Jesus. We’ve paused for Wednesday night worship and Lenten Mentors, but right before Ash Wednesday, we reached a pivotal point in Jesus’ life. We learned about his birth, they had great questions about what teenage Jesus was like, we learned of his healings and teachings, and had just gotten to what we might call his “hard sayings”. Like when he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” in Mark (10:25), for example. Or the “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” in Matthew (5:39). These are hard to hear and often pretty counter to what we know and experience in the world.

Today’s story might be a hard one for us to hear.

The setting isn’t as remarkable or unfamiliar as we might think. There are money changers in the temple and there is trade happening; trade that would have been understood as necessary in order to exchange money, animals, and grain for required sacrifices. Nothing is really out of order and it’s important that we read this take from John separate from the other accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In this telling, Jesus doesn’t talk about this being a “den of robbers” or imply that there is malpractice happening in the temple. The things happening in the temple had to happen in preparation for Passover. The specifics might look different, but it’s not unlike our own preparation for Easter that we are in right now. Lent is a time for us to prepare for the mystery of Holy Week and we practice meditation, prayer, and participate in worship. There are lilies to be ordered and Holy Week services to plan and eggs to be deviled. Similarly, Judeans at this time traveled Jerusalem to purify themselves for Passover.

So then, what is Jesus so mad about?

Well, let’s start with the fact that we’re not particularly used to an angry Jesus. And he’s angry; we read that he made a whip – like braided it himself – to drive the animals out. He poured out the coins on the floor, he flipped the tables, and created a scene of absolute chaos and he did so knowing that he’d likely get the attention of the Romans – the state; the uniformed, armed authorities – which might help us get to the bottom of what he’s most angry about.

While the people were gathered to prepare for Passover, the temple priests in this place weren’t autonomous in their authority; they didn’t actually lead from a place of integrity, even over religious matters, because they were owned by the state. They were, in fact, appointed by Roman officials and served their interests – they preached what the Romans wanted them to preach, they campaigned in support of them – they benefitted from the political powers of day, while simultaneously being completely isolated from those who suffered under those same political powers. Rome was not good to most people and these religious leaders were in their pocket.

In that way, there was no separation of church and state – nationalism and allegiance to Rome had bled into religion and, specifically, religious leadership. And Jesus was mad.

This is something that faithful people have had to caution themselves against since the time of Jesus, including us today. Religious nationalism – or an insistence or belief that one group of people (by race, class, language, or country) has a corner on God’s love or God’s blessing. That God loves some people more than others. Pride in one’s country or homeland is a different thing, but nationalism or exceptionalism has no place in Christ’s church.

Today’s passage reminds us that Jesus of Nazareth was adamantly opposed to such conflation of power, might, and religion. When someone stakes a claim to Christian authority or aligns our faith with a particular country (even ours), we remember that today, Jesus tells them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (v. 19)

Then John, while writing this story, breaks the fourth wall. You know how in some of our favorite tv shows – The Office or Modern Family – the characters look at the camera and invite you, the viewer, into their reaction? Maybe with a smirk or an eye roll? John does this in verses 21-22, when he looks at us, the reader, and after Jesus says some mysterious things to those in the temple, he sort of winks at us and says, “But [Jesus] 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.”

John lifts us out of the story and shows us the way to Jesus; he gives us some perspective on the whole narrative arch. “Remember”, he’s telling us, “this confrontation foreshadows Jesus’ own trial and death at the hands of the state, as well as his resurrection.”

Because the power of the Roman Empire does not have the final word.

Jesus’ body – his real, human body – is the dwelling place of God. His human body that ate and cried and slept and held hands. His body that journeyed across miles toward Jerusalem; that knelt to wash the feet of his disciples. His body that ate and drank with his friends. His body that was beaten and crucified. And his resurrected body that ate fish on the beach and showed his scars to Thomas. His body that joins us today, across time and space.

In a few minutes, we will gather at the mystery of this table. Where we remember that it’s his body – the dwelling place of God – that promises to be with us and sustain us. That no matter the powers of the world at play, no matter who is in charge on an earthly realm, God has promised to upend it all for the sake of the whole world. Through the love of God and resurrection of Jesus, the world has and does and will again turn upside down. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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