Third Sunday in Lent

Springfield CathedralJohn 2:13-22

Today’s gospel story is a familiar one. Jesus enters the Temple in Jerusalem, the most sacred piece of real estate in Judaism, and completely makes a scene. He improvises a whip and drives out merchants whose business it is to sell small birds for people to offer to the priests for sacrifice, as well as those who changed out Roman currency, which was unacceptable in the temple because it had the graven image of Caesar on it. He sternly rebukes everyone involved in these activities and even throws some table over. This incident is known as the “cleansing” of the Temple.

It’s a hard story to interpret. It looks for all the world like Jesus is having a temper tantrum, that he’s just “losing it,” causing damage to property and livelihood, and physically assaulting people. The difficulties arise from two places. First, it’s not at all clear precisely what anyone was doing wrong. The objects of Jesus’ apparent anger were actually helping people keep laws that God himself had ordained; we can read about it in Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy. Low-income Jews were allowed to offer a dove, probably what we would call a pigeon, rather than a lamb or a goat, and they could conveniently purchase such a bird right there in the Temple. In all likelihood, even Mary and Joseph had made that very transaction when they fulfilled the Law of Moses by bringing Jesus to the Temple when he was forty days old.

More significantly, this passage is difficult because Christian theology is invested in the belief that Jesus lived a completely sinless life, a life of perfect openness to God and utter transparency to other people, living in love and charity with his neighbors. But doesn’t giving in to anger, acting out in anger, just in itself give evidence of sin? Isn’t anger, in fact, one of the seven deadly sins?

To try and untangle this knot, let’s first remind ourselves what the purpose of the Temple was. While the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, under the leadership of Moses, after leaving slavery in Egypt behind but before settling in the Promised Land, maybe around 1200 years or so before Christ, they began observing what eventually became a rather elaborate system of atoning for their sins, both individual and communal, by sacrificing animals—sheep, goats, cattle, and, as we have seen, birds. The people would bring these sacrifices to the priests, who would perform the ritual slaughter and otherwise fulfill the requirements of the Law. This was the way that the Lord himself had provided by which they could remain reconciled with him. It needed to be done repeatedly on a regular basis. There’s a word that comes out of this system that might be familiar to long-time Episcopalians, because it was found in previous editions of the Prayer Book, and that’s “propitiation.” The system of animal sacrifices propitiated God, it satisfied the holy demands of God’s justice and allowed God’s forgiveness and mercy to flow.

So, the Temple was a place where transactional exchanges happened, a venue for “doing business” with God. The Temple figures quite prominently in both John’s gospel, which is where we are this morning, and in the three synoptic gospels. But the incidents are spread around, isolated from one another, so it’s easy to miss the connecting thread unless we make the effort. So let’s make the effort:

In the second chapter of Luke, we read about 40 day-old Jesus being “presented” in the Temple by his parents, with a dove to sacrifice, in fulfillment of the Law of Moses that firstborn children must be “redeemed” by offering a sacrifice; otherwise they belong directly to God. Later in that same second chapter of Luke we find the account of the Holy Family making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover when Jesus was twelve years old. When the celebration is over, everybody heads back to Nazareth, evidently part of a large group, when Mary and Joseph notice Jesus is missing. They go back to Jerusalem and search all over the place and finally find him in the Temple, essentially holding court with the learned teachers of Israel, causing them to marvel at his knowledge and wisdom. In John’s gospel, a great deal of the narrative takes place, if not right in the Temple, then in the area nearby; the Temple gets mentioned several times. Again in Luke, in chapter 21, when we read about the poor widow who donates two coins, everything she has, the recipient of that donation that Jesus commends as an example—the recipient is the Temple offering box. In both Mark and John we find references to Jesus making the audacious claim, while standing in the very shadow of the Temple, that if the Temple should be destroyed, he would raise it up again in three days. Finally, all three of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell us that, at the very moment that Jesus died on the cross, there was an earthquake, and veil of the Temple—the veil that screened off the Holy of Holies, the holiest part of the holy place that sat on holy ground, where only the High Priest ever entered, and even him only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—the veil of the Temple was torn in two. Now, we can add to all this the probability that the first readers of the gospels, certainly John’s gospel, were aware of the Temple’s destruction by Roman legions a generation or so later than the events that the gospels describe.

So, this is all the context in which we need to interpret the so-called “cleansing” of the Temple. What does this all add up to? What do we see? We see Jesus gradually, step by step, claiming authority over the Temple. More significantly, we see Jesus claiming authority over the very notion of “doing business” with God. It’s never stated overtly, but, when you connect the dots, what it all adds up to is that Jesus, in himself, replaces the function of the Temple. Jesus is the “place” where we “take care of business” with God. The Temple has accomplished its mission, passed the baton to Jesus, and now stands relieved. But it’s even more pointed, more specific, than that. It is specifically in his body that Jesus replaces the Temple. The Temple, as a place of sacrifice, had the veil of the Holy of Holies torn in two at the moment the body of Jesus died on the cross, the sacrifice at that moment being complete.

Now, when we start speaking of the literal, historical body of Christ, it’s impossible not to make the leap to the two other ways that expression is used in the Christian community. Throughout the letters of our patron saint, the Apostle Paul, the community of the church is referred to repeatedly as the “body of Christ.” And when we dive more deeply into the mystery of the church as the Body of Christ, we discover the sacrament of Holy Communion, where we are fed by the Body of Christ. Indeed, the Body of Christ—the church and the sacrament—is the means by which we conduct our business with God. It’s how we transact our relationship with God.

Christianity, you know, is not a “Lone Ranger” religion. We don’t do individual side deals with God. Our business with God gets transacted in community, through the ecclesial Body of Christ and sustained by the sacramental Body of Christ. We are “union labor,” and our relationship with God gets transacted according to the “union’ contract,” which was signed, sealed, and delivered on the cross, where Jesus made, “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” And every time we come together to transact the holy mysteries of the Eucharist, we connect once again with that sacrifice, fulfilling the command of Christ that we “continue a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again.” That language should be pretty familiar to you!

Looping back now, we can Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple a little more clearly. We trivialize it if we just chalk it up to Jesus losing his temper or see it as some sign of his full humanity. He was “cleansing” the Temple because he was about to replace it with his own self, and become in his person the venue for doing business with God. So … let’s get down to business. Amen.

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