How’s That For Love? John 2:13-25 March 4, 2018
Without admitting anything or even raising your hands, I’m wondering if any of you present this morning has “lost it, flew off the handle, popped your cork, got flat out outrageously mad and angry”? Now, I suppose a case can be made for anyone flying off the handle, on occasion, & then again, maybe not. But Jesus???!?
No doubt the disciples tossed & turned a long, sleepless night that evening. It had to have been terribly disconcerting to see Jesus unhinged, losing it, tossing furniture, screaming at the top of his lungs & flinging money into the air. Perhaps they ran for cover with the crowd. I would have. Did they look at him in the eyes the next morning or shuffle their feet, stare at the ground & make small talk? It’s sort of like the “Crazy Uncle” syndrome that most families have (I had one & now our Nation has one!). Who could predict the next outrageous act or violent outburst, or tweet, perhaps!?
All 4 gospels record the temple cleansing & while there are similarities, the few differences are worth noting. Most important is the fact that the 4th gospel writer links with the temple cleansing a dialogue between Jesus & the religious leaders. The other 3 do not report a discussion taking place. But the glaring difference, indeed the difference, which adds to the richness of the 4th gospel, is the location of the story of the temple cleansing in the ministry of Jesus. The 3 other gospels connect it with Jesus’ final days, after he enters Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion.
The 4th gospel places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Why?? We know this much: for the 4th gospel writer this incident marks a kind of digest – a condensed version – of what is to come in the future pages of this gospel. A closer look at this chapter brings us deeper into the heart of God in Jesus.
Just before this incident in the temple Jesus is at a wedding & changes the water into fine wine. But even that story is far deeper than tasting fine wine. The stone jars were used for the rites of purification. This was more than just washing your hands after using the bathroom or before you sit down to eat. By Jesus’ day an elaborate system of purification had been developed. Some things were considered pure & impure. Women were impure 7 days after the birth of a boy, 14 days after the birth of a girl. (some things never change) Dead bodies were impure. Women during their menstrual cycle were impure. People with skin blemishes – from leprosy to acne – were impure. Anybody who touched persons in the last 3 categories would also become impure. Certain foods — pork, crabs, lobster, oysters & clams — were impure. It was a very long list. This purity system created sharp social boundaries between pure & impure, righteous & sinner, whole & not whole, male & female, rich & poor, Jew & Gentile.
The system has kept growing even today: Straight & Gay, Homeless & Homeowner, Citizens & Undocumented’s, Wall street & Main street, Progressive & Conservative, Republican & Democrat & most recently, the rights of women being challenged primarily by men, captured in the #MeToo Movement. Changing the water into wine was not so much the way to a great party as a way of breaking down the barriers. It was a different way of seeing the world & God’s presence in it.
So, just as it was no accident that changing water into wine was the 1st sign Jesus performed in this gospel, it follows that the next action of Jesus would be in the temple. The temple was at the heart of the purity system. Poor people did not have the quality of pure animals necessary for temple sacrifices, so they had to buy them there, with money well beyond their means. Moneychangers were there to exchange the idolatrous Roman coins, which were not acceptable in the temple, into pure tokens needed to buy the animals.
Jesus was not anti-Jewish, but deeply Jewish, shaped by the Torah, & committed to teaching in the synagogue. But he challenged the purity system in almost everything he did. It’s no accident that all the gospels talk about Jesus getting his life dirty. Story after story, person after person, Jesus longed to draw people back to the heart of God, back to the 1st commandment: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” These commandments are grounded in relationship – the 1st 3 in relationship to God & the remaining 7 in relationship to each other, god’s people. Remember who you are, Jesus was saying, & even more importantly, remember whose you are. Your worth is not measured in categories but in God’s liberating miracle bringing you out of Egypt, out of exile, out of whatever bondage you were in, out of whatever bondage binds you now. Jesus’ life, ministry death & resurrection forever challenged the rules that named things & people pure or impure.
In the message & ministry of Jesus, we see another way of life: a community of faith shaped not by the ethics & politics of purity, but by the ethics & politics of compassion. This call to compassion runs throughout this 4th gospel like streams of living water. Later in this gospel there is no Last Supper scene like the other 3, but a foot washing of dirty feet & a command to love on another. By doing this everyone will know that you are my disciples — not by maintaining the boundaries, not by naming some pure & others impure, not by protecting the church from getting a little dirty, but by this love you have for one another.
So, Jesus is not “cleansing” the temple. He’s ending it. Jesus is saying the new temple is not a place. It is a person and that person is “Me”. The new absolute center to all human culture is Jesus himself. He put an end to all fearful sacrificial schemes for manipulating God and instead revealed God’s absolute gentleness, compassion and mercy. And so again, Jesus is asking us to stake our lives on him. Here we are & this Jesus is saying is saying to us, “Believe that I am who i say I am, but believe it without my presenting certain proof that my claim is true! Believe me when I say that I am taking away your need to sacrifice, to prove your faith, the need to feel you have to do anything for God on your own hook, even your need to be or feel pious or pure. I am taking away all that & putting in its place my Cross & Resurrection. That’s all the sign you’ll ever need.” How’s that for love?
Now, what if we were to take that & fashion that good news to our U District neighbors in the following welcome: “We extend a special welcome to those who are newborns, poor as dirt, skinny as a rail, got a hitch in their giddy-up, or just plain can’t sing. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing”, just woke up, or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Lutheran than Luther, more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been to church since little Maria’s Confirmation. We extend a special welcome to those who are over 40 but not grown up yet & to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree huggers, latte sippers, vegetarians, junk food eaters, and people who stay up too late at night. If you’re having problems, or you’re down in the dumps, or you don’t like organized religion, we’ve been there too. If you blew all your offering money at the casino, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who could lose a few pounds, think the earth is flat, can’t spell, or came because Grandma’s in town and wanted to go to church. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, are three-times divorced, had religion shoved down their throat as a kid, or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers, doubters, bleeding hearts and you!” How’s that for love?
Jesus never verifies himself beyond doubt. He will never give us the kind of certainty that will make our faith in him easy. We can never defend Jesus’ actions in the temple, because if we try to defend him we defend him like a lion – we get out of the lion’s way!! Jesus is only known by faith. And that is not just limited to a place like this church building. That faith which is given us freely, with no strings, brings us into a relationship and wherever we go, not just here.
We are in that relationship & that involves something we do with our lives, our faith practices. He is known only by surrendering the security of certainty in the risk of faith. All this for me, for you, without the doing, the parade of piety, the show or the need to be pure, however you define that term. One of the best said that “The number one cause of atheism is Christians.” Those who proclaim God with their mouths and deny God with their lifestyles is what an unbelieving world finds simply unbelievable. Perhaps the best defense of God would be to just keep our mouths shut and live like God encourages us to live. The gospel would then have such power and attraction that we wouldn’t have to worry about defending it. With that gone, all we have left is to thank God for this unspeakable gift of love & freedom. Amen.
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 3-4-18” name of the sermon.