John 2:13–22 (NRSV)
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They answered, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he 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.
This past week, as I finally had some time to relax without the deadlines of final papers hanging over my head, I had a chance to read some of the books that have piled up on my desk. One of the topics that fascinates me in my personal reading is the history of Methodism, from an evangelistic movement to a formal, institutional church. In the early days, the Methodist movement grew by leaps and bounds because of the multiplication of small churches all across the American countryside. These churches relied heavily on the ministry of laity, since clergy were appointed to large circuits and could only visit each church on a monthly or quarterly basis. Over the course of Methodism’s first 100 years in America, from the late 1770s to the 1870s, Methodism had blossomed into a respectable and influential church. These were the days when Methodists could write letters to their representatives and President, expressing concern about a particular social issue, and get a response. In fact, during the middle of the Civil War, President Lincoln wrote to the General Conference that the Methodist Episcopal Church was, “by its great numbers, the most important of all [the churches]. It is no fault that the Methodist Episcopal Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospitals, and more prayers to Heaven, than any. God bless the Methodist Church! Blessed be God, who, in this our great trial, giveth us the Churches.”
Many of us, if we were to look to back the glory days of American Christianity, would look to the mid-twentieth century as a prime example of the strength of the church. But in the Methodist movement, perhaps it was in the mid-nineteenth century that we enjoyed the most prestige. Bishop Matthew Simpson, writing and speaking on the occasion of this first centennial of American Methodism, spoke of the triumph of our great tradition. He called upon those engaged in celebration of this anniversary to “look at our commodious churches, our large congregations, the wealth, the influence, the refinement, the great enterprise, and we see that a mighty work has been accomplished, and we can well exclaim, ‘What hath God wrought!’” He was excited by the prospect that the most influential and important people in American society would be Methodists, who would “conquer the world unto God.” Perhaps most telling are his words at the end of his history of Methodist triumph. As he anticipated even greater things to come, Bishop Simpson said that “the coming century will be full of holy triumphs and of glorious achievements. Every land shall be beautified with its temples, and in every language shall its prayers and songs ascend before the throne of God.”
Bishop Simpson, driven by triumphant zeal, was convinced that the church was moving in the right direction. There was no room in his address of prophetic denouncement. The unintentional echoes of the words of Amos in his concluding words are ironic. Amos says: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to your melodies, but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Even more ironic, perhaps, is his desire that every land would be beautified with Methodist temples.
Was that the kind of religious zeal that motivated Wesley to proclaim, and equip others to proclaim, the good news to every land? Was that the kind of zeal that led Jesus into the hub of righteous religious practice with a whip?
We read, moments ago, the most notorious of stories about that religious zealot named Jesus, who we profess to worship. This is the story where Jesus escapes the gentle, peaceful, and safe box in which we have placed him. This is the story where Jesus does that thing we really wish he would not do.
This is the story where Jesus turns over the display tables in our narthex filled with candy order forms, tears the pews up from the floor with Hulk-like strength, ruining our precious carpet, and starts screaming at us with righteous zeal “Take these things out of here! You’re missing the point! You’re distracted by earthly things and have lost sight of God’s kingdom!”
Since the days of Malachi, God’s people had anticipated the coming of one who would prepare the way for God to return to his temple. Since this messenger is like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap, the prophet wonders aloud “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”
Certainly, those left standing do not include the livestock salesmen or the money changers, at the very least.
What we can’t lose sight of, as we reflect on this story, is that these participants in the Temple market economy were providing a vital and necessary service for the proper functioning of the Temple! Temple sacrifices required the most perfect of animal specimens. They had to be without blemish, so that they would be acceptable to God. The journey to Jerusalem from the diaspora was long and difficult. There was no way an animal could survive the journey without injury, or at the very least, getting dirty. The Ford Super Duty, with a livestock trailer in tow, had not yet been invented. Even if it had, there would be no way these poor Jewish peasant farmers could afford one. They had to buy their sacrificial animal as close to the temple as possible. The money changers, as well, performed a vital service! The temple had no use for Republic credits or the regional currencies of outlying areas. The Temple certainly could not accept the Roman currency with the idolatrous image of Caesar on the front.
This micro-economy was necessary for the functioning of the whole Temple system. God could not be properly worshipped, according to the letter of the law, without these concessions to the ways of the world. Would you really expect the temple to distribute sacrificial animals for free or for the Temple treasuries to accept money that was worthless to them in the offering plate? Someone had to pay for that great, beautiful building after all. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. “Come on, step back and look at how beautiful this thing is! Isn’t God pleased with our elaborate structures filled with the finest fabrics and metals that money can buy? We can’t give God anything except the very best the market can provide.”
Jesus had no use for such logic. The disciples may have been captivated by the beauty of the Temple, but Jesus was #notimpressed. Jesus says, in the other Gospel accounts of this story, “the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one will be toppled.”
You might think that Jesus, the one who embodies God’s very self, the definitive manifestation of the one who commanded sacrifice from the ancient Israelites, would be impressed with this Temple, this supposed testament to God’s faithfulness, provision, and glory. But that is the thinking of the disciples, whose eyes were captivated by all colorful shiny things on display.
What Jesus sees is the darker truth hidden from view. He sees the way this market is easily corrupted on every level. The salesmen aren’t concerned with selling things for a fair price so that all can join in the worship of God. They’re only interested in their own profit. The religious leaders aren’t focused on leading people into a deeper relationship with God. They’re only interested in a comfortable income and a bigger building.
In Mark’s account of this story, Jesus exposes the way the Temple economy exploits the poor. He denounces the scribes who “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.” Nowhere is this exploitation more visible than in the story that follows, where Jesus examines the giving habits of worshippers at the Temple. Many rich people put in checks with lots of zeroes on the end, drawing attention to their gift. But a poor widow put two small coins in the offering plate that were worth a penny. And Jesus told his disciples, “this woman has given out of her poverty everything she had, all that she had to live on.”
I believe Jesus is commending her generosity here. But even more so, Jesus is continuing to denounce those who accept the widow’s mite and do nothing to help her. They are pleased with her contribution to their great building project, but they forget their call to bear good news for the poor. I really doubt the poor widow is much impressed with their ostentatious building either. She’s more concerned about serving God and finding her next meal.
In Jesus’s words, I think we can find not only a critique of ancient Temple practice, but also a critique of things we may hold dear. We can hopefully allow ourselves, unlike that 19th century Bishop we mentioned earlier, to notice that Jesus might not be well pleased with us. We find in these words a challenge to our desire to become a “successful church,” with all the things those other churches have. We find a challenge to the model of church that focuses on paying for the building and the pastor above everything else. We are challenged to reconsider our desire to sell the good news of Jesus to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. And, as Jesus topples over our tables and tears out our pews, we are forced to stop lamenting the fact that things are no longer the way they used to be, that the church is no longer the locus of power and influence. Jesus gives us a good ol’ Gibbs slap on the back of the head and tells us “I don’t care about your buildings. Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
The religious leaders are confused. It’s taken 46 years and numerous capital campaigns to build this house of worship. Why would they want to tear it down? And how could Jesus possibly rebuild it in three days?
But John tells us, Jesus was “speaking of the temple of his body.” And it’s only after Jesus’s death and resurrection that they finally get it. Worship of God is no longer about building and maintaining great religious buildings, if it ever was. As Jesus says to the Samaritan woman in John 4, “Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”
Jesus has no use for the Temple, or the economic systems it relies on. Instead, Jesus proclaims that God wants to be worshiped in spirit and in truth in every sphere of life. Jesus teaches that God’s good news is good news for the poor who have only pennies to give and who are exploited by those who desire only profit.
Jesus has no use for the witness of the temple, church, or other religious structure. He is only concerned in the way his body exists as a witness to God and God’s kingdom.
As that gospel song goes, “In the morning when I rise, give me Jesus. You can have all this world but give me Jesus.”
What might it mean for us as a church to shed all the things of this world so that we might worship Jesus alone? What might it mean for us to abandon our own pursuits and instead witness to God’s good news for the poor? The possibilities are endless. They’re scary and revolutionary. May we have the courage to face Jesus’s refining fire.
May we never lose sight of the fact that Jesus Christ alone is the locus of our worship, not any grand temple, church, or religious building. Jesus Christ himself is the new Temple, the church where all will gather to worship in spirit and in truth. And wherever two or more of us are gathered in his name, he is present with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.