All four gospels relate the story of Jesus cleansing the temple BUT, three (Matthew, Mark & Luke) say he did it at the end of his ministry – after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. These gospel writers posit that the cleansing of the temple was the final act of breaching the Pax Romana, the “Peace of Rome”, and the final challenge to the religious establishment that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. John, who is always doing something totally different, sets the story at the beginning of his gospel, right after the miracle of the wedding at Cana. Why? Well John, more than any of the other gospel writers, is chiefly concerned about why Jesus is Christ and what that means for you and me. Not that the other gospel writers aren’t thinking this, because they are, but the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke approach the why by first telling us the “what” – what happened, what Jesus said and did, and why what he said and did points to his being Christ. You see the difference? John starts with “why” and Matthew, Mark & Luke start with “what.” So they come at their witness from different angles.
John places this story right after the miracle at Cana quite purposefully. Both stories tell of a complete transformation. First, the element water is transformed by Jesus into wine. Don’t think about the “how” of this, think about it as symbol. An element given by God is changed completely by this one man. A transformation has happened because God has broken into the world through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The temple cleansing is a similar transformation and we need to see it as John did – from the perspective of the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. which was about 30 years before John wrote this gospel. The lens of temple destruction makes John see that the complete breakdown in how God is to be worshiped begins with Jesus upending the system. God would no longer be encountered strictly through the temple sacrificial system because Jesus becomes the temple sacrifice in his death and resurrection. God would encounter humanity in and through humanity itself. This is a radically different understanding of how God encounters us!
This loops me back to our reading from Exodus this morning. You probably recognized the reading as the giving of the Law – the 10 Commandments. We did not use the version in your bulletin insert for a reason. The New Revised Standard version renders the explanation of the second commandment as “You shall not bow down to them [graven images] or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me…” Wow! Does this ever paint God as a sadistic SOB, right? That’s right … God is jealous and will smite your children when you screw up. Really?!
While it is legitimate to translate this passage this way, there are other ways to view it. We used the JPS Tanakh … a Jewish translation. I don’t know about you, but when I look at Jewish writings, I think going to a Jewish source is a good idea! The JPS (as well as Everett Fox’s Torah translation) come off with a more nuanced view. JPS reads, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me…” Instead of seeing this as God being unfairly sadistic, the JPS picks this up more as an observation of how families perpetuate guilt down through the generations. And we see this, don’t we? If people are raised in homes where domestic violence occurs, they are more likely to become abusers or seek abusers as partners and repeat the behaviors in the next generation. If one comes out of a home full of smokers, the likelihood one will take up smoking increases dramatically. If one witnesses infidelity of parents as a child, the likelihood increases they will repeat the behavior as adults. Rabbi Edwin Friedman wrote a book on how family systems perpetuate themselves called “Generation to Generation.” Often these behaviors repeat because they are experienced as normal and we don’t tend to do the reflecting and adaptive work to change the underlying behaviors. We get stuck in seemingly never ending cycles.
But patterns can change and the story of the cleansing of the temple is a reminder that we are not stuck like hamsters in the wheel repeating the same things over and over. There are exit ramps – it is possible to break cycles of behavior that are destructive or no longer work. Sometimes, these exit ramps happen through cataclysmic events.
Have any of you heard of the 500 year cycle in Judeo-Christian culture? There is one and it is an observable pattern that about every 500 years (give or take 20%), something radically new shakes up our civilization and we see God breaking through in new ways. If we go back to about 1,500 BCE, we hear the story of the Exodus. About 500 years later, we find the Israelite kingdom being established under Saul, David & Solomon – finally settling in the land which had been promised to Abraham. About 500 years later, Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians ending the Israelite kingdom – and creating a crisis of faith for the chosen people (“If we are God’s Chosen, how could this happen?”). 500 years after that, Jesus was born – which ushered in a new way of encountering God not dependent upon the temple. About 500 years later, the Roman empire falls (around 476 C.E.) ushering in the rise of monasticism. In 1054, 500 years later, the Great Schism would split the Church based in Rome from the one based in Constantinople – the Roman Catholic/Orthodox split. About 500 years later in 1517, Martin Luther would nail his 95 Thesis to the door of the church in Wittenburg Germany – lighting off the Protestant Reformation. 500 years later … well … I see you doing the math! Yes, we are now at that 500 year mark. What will that mean? Honestly, I don’t know. I think we’ll know in hindsight … likely my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will sort it out. But we do see some shifting going on in what it means to be church and I’ve seen a radical change since my childhood.
Church used to reference the building you went to in order to encounter God and have fellowship with other believers. Our language reflected that: “I go to church on Sundays.” That has changed in my lifetime and, I strongly believe, for the better. Church is no longer seen primarily as place but as people. You and I are the Church. We don’t come here to encounter God as much as we come here to be nourished by the sacraments and prepared to go out through those doors and find God outside these walls. That isn’t always easy. Life is hard. Finding God in everyday encounters takes practice. We come here to have the lens of the eyes of our hearts reshaped so we can see Christ in the world much more clearly and to be Christ in and for the world more consistently. Our paradigm of being Church is shifting and that is exactly what needs to happen. One way of understanding “church” is giving way to a new one – one which is more organic and, in many ways, more like the Church of the early Christians than it is of the most recent ages.
Some are frightened by this because it is a kind of death. When our lives and our beliefs about something get upended, it feels like death … and in a way is it. But it is only through the upended chaos and death that God works out a resurrection, a transformation. Christ came to transform us personally and corporately – as individuals and as a community. So rather than fear the chaos, consider it an inbreaking of the light of Christ. It will be unsettling but Christ walks through and with us in it. As we continue our Lenten journey, I ask you to ponder these questions this week:
What in your life is getting upended, turned on its head, transformed? What in our communal life is experiencing the same upheaval? Pray for the patience and calm of Christ to enlighten you and walk with you in this chaos, trusting God is now finding a new way to lift you up.