It’s Saturday morning at the end of the month at Mellor Methodist Church. As usual, the church hosts it’s monthly coffee morning, complete with tea cakes and biscuits. Then a man walks in. He looks frustrated and agitated. His anger boils up and finally he begins to shout. He picks up the table with the money on it and turns it over. The cakes and biscuits he hurls out the doors shouting, ‘Get these things out of here!’ He picks up some coffee cups and turns them into missiles for those sitting around the tables. The man then rushes into the kitchen, opens the back door and shoves Shirley, Mollie, and Mary outside. Astonished, those left can do little else but look on.
Of course, this scene never happened. But I have heard this verse and the ones like it in the other three gospels used as support against these sorts of fundraisers going on in and around the church. From youth car washes to dinner on the grounds to the endless flow of brick-a-brack stalls, I have been involved with all sorts of church fundraisers all my life. And there have always been those who do not like it. Many have transferred a particular kind of holiness associated with the temple to our church buildings that we do not find in the earliest Christian communities. Maybe this isn’t surprising given those people in some Methodist churches who cannot separate the building with their faith, and continue to hang on making the ministry about maintaining the building. Think back 20 years ago when you chose to tear down the old Victorian church to build this one. Were there those who could not imagine what it would be like to leave that building?
So, I find it highly unlikely that Jesus risked arrest on the spot to tell us that decades into the future what we cannot do in case we have buildings. Rather, Jesus is trying to teach us something about himself. Matthew, Mark, and Luke choose much more subtle means to teach us about who Jesus is. John shouts at us who Jesus, and this story is one of those ways John does that. First, though, we have to take into account the temple and the time of year.
The temple for the Jews was where God – Yahweh – was found on earth. God lived in heaven, but his presence could be found in Jerusalem. Because God’s presence was there, this is where the Jews found forgiveness and cleansing for their sins. Some of the major feasts they celebrated required you to go to Jerusalem. One of those feasts was Passover, when they celebrated their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The temple symbolised all of this and much more, and when Jesus stepped into the temple that day, we must hold this in the background to what’s going on. This is also why we can’t simply transfer what Jesus said about the temple and place it on our church buildings. For reasons that Jesus makes clear, our buildings do not mean that sort of thing. That isn’t to say we can’t ascribe to buildings and places holiness, but none of them can be said to hold the presence of God the way the temple did.
Over the centuries, the temple changed. It had been sacked and looted and rebuilt only for it to happen again. The quasi-Jewish King Herod built the temple Jesus walked into, but Herod because of his ancestry and his being Caesar’s puppet made this temple suspect, to say the least. Some groups of Jews refused to acknowledge it at all and went and lived in the desert. All groups of Jews were waiting for the messiah to come and restore the temple into the splendour it had when Solomon built it. They longed for this time when true worship could take place there, without any taint of impurity. Even as far back as the prophet Zechariah, the Jews looked for the day when no traders – or those who do business – would be in the temple.
In walks Jesus with his holy house cleaning. In a kind of action parable, he fulfils the hopes of Zechariah when he throws out the cattle, sheep, salespeople, and money traders. A Jew who had little importance – no formal training, no elected representation, no right as far as Israel’s leaders were concerned – had just walked into the temple and attempts to change the way things are run. So the Jews ask him for his clearance badge. They want to know what authority he has to do this. Jesus answers them with what could sound like a challenge, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ In typical fashion, people misunderstand him. They think the is talking about the temple they are standing in, but John lets us in on a little secret. Jesus isn’t talking about that building, but his own body.
This is where Jesus changes everything. I imagine that it’s something like this. April and I have been watching the Atlantic Coast Conference’s basketball tournament this weekend. As you might expect, Duke is playing in it. Yesterday, the best team in the conference – the one that was expected to cruise through and easily win it all – the dreaded North Carolina Tarheels lost. When the best team in the league loses, it opens up a whole new set of possibilities for the other teams to have a shot a winning the tournament. I don’t know if that translates into what Jesus is doing, but since Jesus is a Duke fan, I think it will work. Jesus will do all that Israel hopes the messiah will do, but it’s in a whole different way. The temple is his body. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus will accomplish all the temple was intended to do. Jesus is the where God’s presence on earth can be found. Jesus is where we will find forgiveness and reconciliation with God. It is in the death and resurrection where a new Passover will be found, and we celebrate this Passover when we gather around the communion table and hear the words ‘This is my body.’ Sin and death seemed to have such a stranglehold that it corrupted the temple in Jerusalem. Sin and death seemed like it would cruise to victory, but in the cross and empty tomb, what appeared to be the best team was defeated. With Jesus’ victory, we are open to a whole new set of possibilities.
This passage of scripture is not a blueprint to tell us what we can and cannot do in the church. Maybe God knew that The Methodist Church would create CPD to do that for us. This passage shows us who Jesus is and what he will do. It didn’t make sense to the Jerusalem leaders. It probably didn’t make sense to the disciples, either, at the time. But, we are given new eyes with resurrection. It enables us to see God in a new way. We can find God when we look at Jesus, who in the first chapter of John, we are told that Jesus – the Word of God made flesh – pitched his tent among us. There was a song in the 1990s by Alanis Morissette that asked the question, ‘What if God was one of us?’ John answers the question that God is indeed one of us, and Lent calls us to reflect on what that means. We live on this side of the resurrection, the event that proclaims Jesus’ defeat over sin and death through the cross. The resurrection gave the disciples new eyes to see what Jesus was doing in the temple that day. Like the first disciples, we must look at everything through the eyes of the resurrection. What kind of possibilities does that open up for us? I am happy to say that at Mellor this is already going on. Given a legacy that enables us to be financially stable, we have not decided that we need to do no more. Instead, we have been thinking about how we can free up money from our weekly collections to be used for ministry! We could as we have done, use the money from the coffee morning and give it to the youth work in Mellor. This is the kind of thinking that happens when viewed through the resurrection. Spending money only on ourselves makes sense in a world where we are told that we must make ourselves happy. Spending money for others is thinking that comes only when seen through Jesus.
I don’t say all that to give us a pat on the back. I use it to give examples of what it means to think in light of the resurrection. Remember, this is a scripture passage in which Jesus challenges the religious establishment to change. We need to constantly see who we are in light of what Jesus did. The sin and death that tainted the temple can taint our thinking and drag us back down to focusing on ourselves. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Paul, years after this event, calls the community of believers ‘the temple of the Holy Spirit’. Jesus is the new temple, but when he sent his Spirit to us, we then carry Christ to the world. Anywhere we are, we bring Christ to the world. Anyone we meet can meet Christ through us. We are the temple of God in Mellor. Not because of the building, but because Jesus said where two or three are gathered, I am there among them. People can come here Sunday morning or Saturday at the coffee morning and meet the loving presence of God, find forgiveness and healing. We don’t keep God here and then go home leaving God here – we take Christ’s resurrection presence into the world.