Sermons from St Faith's   

Jesus trashes the Temple

Fred Nye, Sunday 4th March, 2018

Jesus had an uneasy relationship with ‘religion’ - or perhaps ‘religiosity’ might be a better word. On the one hand Jesus had been brought up as a devout Jew by his parents, and went with them regularly on pilgrimage to the Temple. There, at the age of only 12 he had debated with the Doctors of the Law on equal terms, and later on he had himself taught in the synagogue. And we know from his teaching that his knowledge of the scriptures was profound. But on the other hand he time and again criticised the religious establishment for rejecting the poor, the sick, the sinner and the marginalised, all of whom were potentially ‘unclean’ in the eyes of the Jewish Law. The Law had become a means of exclusion and division; and Jesus, through his healing miracles, his table fellowship, his attitude to women, and his proclamation of the Kingdom was a constant challenge to the religious status quo.

Today’s gospel from St. John is a dramatic account of the day when Jesus trashed the Temple in Jerusalem. The action takes place not in the Temple building itself, but in the outer Courtyard of the Gentiles. Herod the Great, in an ongoing reconstruction of the whole Temple site, had provided a vast new courtyard about six times the size of Trafalgar Square. And in a very recent move, the high priests had decided to allow into this courtyard the traders who conducted the commercial business of the Temple. Worshippers could buy only sacrificial animals and birds - available exclusively from the Temple - that had been declared ritually pure by the authorities. And people were not allowed to pay for them with the cash in their pockets: it had to be exchanged for Temple currency – and in this transaction they could easily be exploited by manipulation of the exchange rate.

But in order to fully understand John’s motive in telling this story we have to dig a little deeper. His account of the cleansing of the Temple follows immediately after the Wedding at Cana. At the wedding Jesus orders the stone jars used for ritual cleansing to be filled with water and then upended. And the miracle is that the old water of purification becomes wine: when the jars are upended out pours the joyous new wine of God’s kingdom: the wine that brings abundant life for everyone.

And so in overturning the tables of the money-changers and animal sellers Jesus was overturning Temple worship itself. Neither the Law nor the Temple were wrong in themselves, but both had become tainted by elitism and exploitation. In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s account of the cleansing of the Temple Jesus quotes from Jeremiah, at a time when God had threatened to destroy the Temple because worship had become a substitute for justice. To Jesus, his Father’s house had become a den of robbers – but the word translated as ‘den’ actually means a refuge, a safe haven. To established religion injustices had become institutionalised, acceptable, even comfortable: something our own Christian churches would do well to remember. And so Jesus goes on to speak, admittedly in code, about his body as the only perfect Temple, the only perfect sacrifice. Through his forthcoming passion, death and resurrection Jesus will become the Lamb of God – that ‘one true pure immortal sacrifice’.

Today we have our Annual Parochial Church Meeting. In these uncertain times we will be concerned about the needs of our church – keeping a roof over our heads, improving our catering facilities, getting enough bums on seats to pay our Parish Share and provide a degree of financial security for our stipendiary clergy. All of these things are good and desirable. And we rightly want to celebrate and preserve our impressive building and our Anglo-Catholic worship of God ‘in the beauty of holiness’. But our church community is, and always has been, so much more. It is exactly that – the community of St. Faith, of ‘holy faith’. For over a century our priests and people, through the sacramental life of this church, have borne witness to the Lamb of God who died for the flourishing of the whole world.

At the last Group Council meeting of our four Anglican churches there was much talk of re-organisation, but not once, not once, was the name of Jesus mentioned. And in this I was as guilty as anyone. We have to re-discover the startling truth that lies behind our services and church traditions: Jesus has the power to make new wine out of our worship together and even out of our church’s institutions and structures; yes even out of Deanery Synods and the Parish Share.

And so we have to re-discover that within and beyond this house of prayer there is another building not made with hands, that is the Body of Christ, that blessed company of all faithful people. And as we follow Jesus through Lent and Holy Week, along with his bewildered and fearful disciples, we prepare to witness his total self-giving on the Cross - the Body of Christ given up for us. In his death and resurrection Jesus turns everything upside down, turns even temple and church upside down. Through his death and resurrection Jesus the Lamb of God does something that our churches can never do in their own strength. He gives his all for us, for the flourishing of all humanity, and for the peace and reconciliation of the whole world.

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