Cleansing of the Temple…and the Church!

It seems strange to have the story of Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple read on this Sunday in Lent. We usually think of it as coming in Holy Week, toward the very end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, right after the Palm Sunday story, the so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem. In fact, that is where Matthew, Mark, and Luke place this story – setting up the conflict between Jesus and the authorities which eventually led to his arrest, trial and crucifixion later that week.

Contemporary NT scholars like Marcus Borg even write about “two processions” coming into Jerusalem that Palm Sunday – one from the east and one from the west. From the west, Roman cavalry and foot soldiers followed Pontius Pilate into the city to make sure there were no violent uprisings in Jerusalem during the Jewish celebration of Passover. And, from the east, a rag tag bunch of pilgrims and peasants cheered as Jesus rode down the Mount of Olives on the back of young donkey. What a contrast! And what an obvious set-up for a conflict of world views!

But John, the Gospel writer we are following today, for his own purposes, has this event happen early in Jesus’ ministry. His gospel has Jesus going to Jerusalem several times during the course of his three year public ministry rather than only once at its conclusion. And John is interested, not so much in the conflict between Jesus and the Roman government as he was between Jesus and his own religion’s leaders!

A complete outsider to the power structure of the Temple, Jesus issues a challenge to the authority of the Temple itself that quite literally shakes it to its foundations. By throwing the money changers out of the Temple, and letting loose the sacrificial animals, he throws the mechanics of Temple worship into chaos, disrupting the temple system during one its most significant feasts so that neither tithes nor sacrifices could be offered that day.

The implication is that Jesus is claiming authority to challenge the supremacy of the Temple because his whole life bears testimony to the power of God in the world. The Kingship, the Reign, the Sovereignty not of the Temple, but of God alone!

Now, none of this should be interpreted as meaning that Jesus was advocating the superiority of some new religion called Christianity over the old religion, Judaism. Jesus was an observant Jewish male who traveled to Jerusalem regularly for the major holy days. Jesus taught and observed the Ten Commandments we had as our First Reading this morning.

No, Jesus’ challenge was to the authority of a dominant religious institution in Judaism – the Temple and temple worship – not because he’s anti-Jewish – but because he stands in the long line of Hebrew prophets like Amos and Jeremiah who challenged a religious system so embedded in its own rules and practices that it is no longer open to a fresh revelation from God. (see New Interpreter’s Bible; Volume 9, page 545)

And that, dear friends, is where all this begins to apply to us!
We hear a lot today about people, and not only younger people, describing themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” For many of them that means that they believe in God, may admire the figure of Jesus, pray from time to time, and believe in some kind of life after death. But they are not terribly interested in what we sometimes call “the institutional church.”

They perceive us as being hopelessly out of touch with the contemporary world they live in. They shake their heads at our “church wars” over changing liturgies or the ordination of women, or the place of gays and lesbians in the church. And they wonder why we spend so much of our time, money and energy on maintaining church buildings and church governance structures that don’t seem to have very much to do with Jesus or with his primary message to the world!

Well, there may be a certain simplicity in that kind of critique. Very few movements can survive, over time, without a certain institutionalization. You need some kind of structure to pass the message on from generation to generation. But, if we are going to take the message of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel seriously, we need to recognize that he is challenging – not only the Temple-centered Judaism of his day – but the “over institutionalization” of the contemporary church…in our day!

Over the last 65 years or so, we in The Episcopal Church (and most other mainline denominations) have built up some pretty elaborate structures of diocesan and national church bureaucracies and staffs that we can simply no longer afford. We have pretty strict rules and regulations about how worship is to be conducted in an Episcopal Church. And we have an amazingly complicated process through which men and women have to move in order to be ordained. All of these things are being questioned and are, in some sense, up for grabs today.

I don’t think we have any idea what the Church will be like 50 years from now, or certainly by the year 2100. I know it will look very different from the Church we live in today. And we can either be fearful of that kind of change, and resist it with all our might. Or, we can be open and flexible to see indeed “what the Spirit is saying to the churches” in our time.

We have to be willing ask ourselves where and when the status quo of religious practice has become frozen, and therefore closed to the possibility of reformation, change and renewal. The great danger is that we in the contemporary church, like the leaders of the religious establishment in Jesus’ day, will fall into the trap of confusing the authority of our own institutions with the authority of God.

During these 40 days of Lent when we journey with Jesus in the wilderness, I invite you to be open to embrace whatever it is that God is up to in our day. I invite you to join us in this season of discernment – for surely not everything that is “new,” or claims to be of God, is of God.

But I do believe God is calling us into a kind of new reformation in our day. And if we are to be faithful to that calling, it will require us to be open, to travel light, but to ground ourselves ever more deeply in prayer, study, and mission.

Because, as long as we are grounded in God, we need have no fear of changing times or changing circumstances. For it is God alone that we serve. God is our rock…and our salvation!

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