Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Third Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Third Sunday of Lent.

The Third Sunday of Lent

Reading: John 2.13-22

The Lectionary jumps around at this time of the year. This week, we are back in St John’s Gospel. We pick up the story where we last left off, that is, after Jesus has gathered some disciples around him and revealed his glory to them at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11). Do read or listen to the sermons for the Second and Third Sundays of Epiphany if you haven’t yet!

After the wedding, St John tells us that Jesus, his mother, his brothers, and his disciples all go to Capernaum, some 16 miles away, where they stay for a ‘few days’ (John 2:12). This seemingly innocent piece of information in fact tells us quite a lot and suggests even more!

Firstly, can you spot the missing person? There is no mention of Joseph, Jesus’ father by adoption. It is generally thought that Joseph has died by this time and that Mary is a widow. This seems to be a reasonable assumption.

Secondly, it is interesting that Jesus’ ‘brothers’ are mentioned. This is the first time we have heard of them in St John’s Gospel. For many in the Church, these are not Jesus’ blood brothers, but children of Joseph from a previous marriage or perhaps even cousins. The Greek word translated ‘brothers’ can have these meanings.

The reason many believers take this position is because they believe the Blessed Virgin Mary remained a virgin even after Jesus was born. This is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants normally dismiss this belief, but it is interesting that the protestant reformers themselves did not; they also believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity. I am more sympathetic to this position than I used to be, but I think it is a subject where there is room for legitimate disagreement!

What is interesting here is that Jesus’ brothers and his disciples not only know one another but seem to form a family unit. St John will tell us later that Jesus’ brothers do not believe in Jesus at this stage (John 7:5). This will change after Jesus’ resurrection. His ‘brother’, James, will become both the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and also one of the ‘pillars’ of the Church alongside Peter and John (Galatians 2:9). His other brothers, St Paul tells us, become travelling evangelists (1 Corinthians 9:5).

Thirdly, although St John just mentions Capernaum, we know from the other Gospels that Capernaum was Jesus’ base for his ministry in Galilee. St Matthew even describes it as having become his ‘hometown’ (Matthew 4:13). Capernaum is also where Peter and Andrew now live, although, originally, they are from Bethsaida, a few miles away (John 1:44).

What we need to remember is that many of those hearing St John’s Gospel being read would already know much of the background to what St John writes. They would also know some of the characters involved personally. And even if they didn’t, there would be people around who did and who could fill them in on the details. St John himself simply assumes that his audience know much of the background to what he writes.

For example, in John chapter 6, St John refers to the ‘Twelve’. The ‘Twelve’ are those disciples Jesus has selected for a special role from the wider group of those who followed him. There has been no mention of the Twelve before this and St John just refers to them without any explanation expecting his readers to know all about them. St John can assume that his readers have a basic knowledge of the story of Jesus or have access to it. For us today, it is more difficult. Some things, such as who the ‘Twelve’ are, we know. However, there is much else that his first readers would either have known or would have been in a position easily to find out, that we do not know!

After spending a few days at what is to become his base in Galilee, Jesus then travels to Jerusalem for the Passover. The journey would have taken about three days on foot. The other Gospels only describe one visit of Jesus to Jerusalem during his public ministry and that is at the end of it. St John, however, describes regular visits to Jerusalem including at least three for the Passover festival. The first three Gospels focus on Jesus’ ministry in Galilee; St John focuses on Jerusalem, while not ignoring Galilee.

St Luke tells us that Jesus’ family normally went to Jerusalem for Passover, and he describes one such visit when Jesus went with Mary and Joseph at the age of 12 (Luke 2:41-52). It simply wouldn’t make sense if Jesus didn’t continue this practice as he got older. There is much in the first three Gospels to suggest that the Gospel writers knew Jesus went to Jerusalem regularly. The issue, then, is not why St John describes Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem but why the other Gospels do not!

On his arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the Temple as would any pilgrim. St John tells us that Jesus, seeing there the money-changers and people selling animals for the sacrifices, proceeds to drive them out violently, protesting strongly at their presence in the Temple. Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is described in all four Gospels. While the first three Gospels have it at the end, St John places it here at the beginning. A number of explanations have been given for this difference in chronology:

Firstly, the explanation you will come across most often in the commentaries on the Gospels is that St John has taken an incident that happened at the end of Jesus’ ministry and put it here at the beginning to make a theological statement. Commentators point out that ancient writers felt it was entirely legitimate to do this sort of thing. Ancient writers were more concerned about the significance of events in a person’s life than they were about exactly when they took place.

Secondly, it could, of course, be the case that St John gets the chronology right and that it is the other Gospel writers who are the ones who, for whatever reason, have moved the cleansing of the Temple from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the end. Most scholars, however, don’t think this is very likely. This is because they see the cleansing of the Temple as the reason that the Jerusalem authorities decide to act against Jesus and have him arrested.

Thirdly, other commentators, then, offer as an explanation of the different timing of the cleansing of the Temple in the Gospels that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice: once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end. This explanation has fallen out of favour nowadays, and most commentators opt for the first explanation. Personally, I am open to the idea that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice.

Whichever of the explanations we prefer, St John certainly gets his account of Jesus’ ministry off to a dramatic start. He describes how Jesus acts in such a way as to reveal himself as the Son of God, the Messiah, who is promised in the Scriptures and who now as God’s Son, protests violently against the desecration of his Father’s house.

Those who witness what Jesus does, don’t dismiss Jesus’ action but ask what sign he will give for doing it. In reply, Jesus makes a highly provocative statement. Jesus answers:

‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ (John 2:19)

St John explains that Jesus is using the Temple as a metaphor and that he is talking about his body. It is, however, perhaps understandable that those who originally hear Jesus’ reply think that Jesus is speaking literally of the Temple itself. Jesus’ words are words that will be used against him. At Jesus’ trial, St Mark tells us:

‘Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.”’ (Mark 14:57-58)

The testimony is false because this is not what Jesus actually said. Jesus’ words, however, given the context in which they are spoken, are clearly susceptible to this misunderstanding and to an extent rely on their ambiguity for their impact. More than that, there is a sense in which Jesus does destroy the Temple by taking over in himself the role that the Temple was meant to have. Everything that the Temple stood for and symbolized is now fulfilled in Christ.

In the opening to his Gospel, St John wrote:

‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14)

For God’s people, the Temple was where God ‘dwelt’ in a special way making it the house of God. The first Temple built by Solomon had been destroyed in 586 BC and the Jews taken into exile in Babylon. When some of the exiles returned in 538 BC, they began rebuilding the Temple. It didn’t, however, regain the splendour of the first Temple, until, that is, King Herod undertook to redevelop it. Herod began the work in about 20 BC and work was still going on 46 years later at the time when Jesus said these words.

King Herod’s Temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world, and pilgrims flocked to it from all over the world. They believed that here they could worship the God who had made everything. St John, in our Gospel reading, describes how the One through whom everything was made comes to the house where his Father, who made everything, was believed to dwell. He doesn’t like what he sees.

But what was it that Jesus didn’t like? After all, animals were needed for the sacrifices that God himself had commanded to be offered. Now that Passover was coming, as part of their Passover observance, every family would need to sacrifice a lamb. The animals had to come from somewhere. Pilgrims had come from many different nations, and they needed to change money to be able to buy the animals they required.

It is no wonder, then, that people thought that Jesus’ protest was against the Temple itself rather than against an abuse of it. Jesus, however, by attending the Passover festival, and continuing to attend all the other festivals, acknowledged the legitimacy of the Temple and its right to exist. Nevertheless, Jesus believed that people needed to focus on what the Temple was for. The Temple existed so people could come into the presence of God and pray. Yes, money needed to be changed and animals bought and sold, but money could be changed and animals could be bought and sold elsewhere. The Temple was to be a house of prayer not a market-place.

At the same time, by describing his body as the Temple, Jesus is pointing to the end of the Temple and its worship. This is not because the Temple and its worship are wrong, but because the Temple is no longer going to be needed. As the prophets had seen there is to be a new Temple. In future, if people want to come to God in prayer and worship, it is to Jesus and through Jesus that they must come. It is Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross that is to make this possible. The curtain separating the presence of God from his people is about to be ripped in two from top to bottom (Mark 15:37-38; Matthew 27:50-51). God’s presence is no longer to be found in the ‘holy of holies’ in the Temple but in Jesus himself.

As Jesus will say to the woman at the well in Samaria:

‘But 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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (John 4:23-24)

Jesus is the Truth, and he will give his Spirit to all who have faith in him.

So where now is the presence of God to be found? Many will answer that God is everywhere. Well, that, of course, is true and that was precisely what Solomon himself acknowledged when he built the first Temple (2 Chronicles 6:18). All Jews believed that. No-one believed that God was only to be found in the Temple. God, however, dwelt in the Temple in a unique way. The presence of God in the Temple symbolized God’s special presence with and care for his people.

Jesus also spoke of his body, which was to be raised on the third day and which has now ascended to heaven. We who trust in him are now his body on earth and his Spirit inhabits us. We are the Temple of God. St Paul tells the Corinthian believers:

‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.’ (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

St Peter in his first letter writes:

‘… like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ (1 Peter 2:5)

Many speak of the church building as the house of God. I am not one of those who think that the place where we gather for worship doesn’t matter. It does matter, and how we care for it, decorate it, and behave in it, says something about how we think of the worship that takes place in it. But it is not the house of God; it is perhaps the house of the house of God. A house can also be a home, our church building can be a place where we can meet as God’s family to share the family meal and learn from each other and help each other. Our building is our family house. However, we remain a family, even if the house burns down or we are forbidden by the authorities to gather in it.

The question that matters most, then, is whether the head of the family is with us when we meet, wherever it is that we meet. Jesus promised that when two or three are gathered in his name he would be there in their midst (Matthew 18:20). We will never be closer to God in this life than when we are gathered together with the people of God for worship.

Yes, you can know the presence of God in your room at home, or up a mountain, or in the office. You can talk to God and know he hears you wherever you are and whatever you are doing. However, in the same way that God was with his people in a special way in the Temple, so now he is with us in Christ when we gather together as the body of Christ, his family here on earth. It is only through Christ that we can enter a relationship with him who made everything and is everywhere.

A great tragedy in this present time of pandemic is that we have shown by our willingness to abandon our times together both that we did not understand their significance or appreciate their importance.

And yes, before anyone takes me up on it, I do understand the need to be responsible, reduce the rate of infection, and respect the law. I also understand that I celebrate these holy mysteries today with the whole company of heaven. This includes people like Saints Perpetua and Felicity, the anniversary of whose death for Christ is today. Saints Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions were willing to die rather than abandon their worship of the living God. It would be nice, on this the anniversary of their death, if we at least could say we missed it.

As, then, the Temple of the Holy Spirit here on earth, how we conduct ourselves as God’s Temple matters. In the passage I have just quoted from St Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth, St Paul warns of the consequences of doing anything that hurts the Temple of God. Jesus himself found the way people treated the Temple in Jerusalem completely unacceptable.

As I have said, Jesus knew that worshippers needed animals for the sacrifices: he himself had to buy his own lamb for his disciples and him to share the Passover together. He would also have known that not all money changers are crooks. But that didn’t mean it was OK for them to conduct their business in the Temple. There is a right way and a wrong way to behave in the house of God.

The Church has taken over this idea of a right way to behave, but all too often we have limited it to how we behave in the church building. Go to some church buildings in Europe, for example, and you will not be allowed in if it is thought you are dressed inappropriately, and you will be asked to be quiet if you make a noise, or even be asked to leave altogether.

We have codes of behaviour for when we are in the building, but we fail to take as much care about our behaviour in our life together as a Church. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, we too, as a church, need money to be changed if we are to finance our ministry, care for our buildings, and support those in need. These legitimate areas of work all have to be paid for. Nevertheless, although he knew of the need for animals for the sacrifices and for money to be changed, Jesus said that the conduct of those involved had turned the Temple into a ‘market-place’. In other words, legitimate activities that were meant to serve the Temple and its worship had instead become the focus of the Temple. It was now not a house of prayer, but a place of business.

So, if Jesus came to our Church what would he see? What would stand out? And what would he say about us? Would he say we were people of prayer and worship or something else? Have we let the legitimate need for us to ‘buy and sell animals and to change money’ become what characterizes us? Have we made things that should be a means to an end into an end in themselves? Are the activities of the market-place, now the life of the church?

I have been a priest long enough to know how hard it can be to raise money to finance the ministry of the Church. I have been in churches where the congregation has felt that the only way to pay the bills has been with jumble sales and coffee mornings. I have been in churches where the continued existence of the church has been dependent on getting the congregation to put their loose change on the collection plate on a Sunday. I know the pressures.

But I also have been a priest long enough to know that the need for money to support God’s work can become simply a need for money. In all too many churches, fund-raising has become the dominant activity of the church, and effectiveness in ministry is evaluated by the size of the budgets and the figures shown in the accounts. All too often having a large staff, attracting a big congregation, and undertaking ambitious projects are seen as evidence that the church is doing well and is in good health.

Jesus would say to us, what he said to those in the Temple:

‘Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’

Or to put it another way:

‘Stop making my Church a place of business.’

Stop treating your priests as managers rather than pastors. Stop giving priority to finance instead of fellowship. Stop making raising funds more important than meeting for worship. Jesus would have us cleanse our churches as he cleansed the Temple.

St John tells us that many at the Feast believed in Jesus when they saw what he was doing. That means he was a success surely? Jesus didn’t think so. St John writes:

‘When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.’ (John 2:23-25)

In the Greek, there is a play here on words. The word St John uses to describe people believing in Jesus is the same word he uses to describe how Jesus did not ‘entrust’ himself to anyone. They believed in him, but he did not believe in them. He knew what was in their hearts.

You often hear it said that there is good in everyone. The Bible is more realistic. Jesus knew what was in their hearts and he knows what is in ours. Jesus is not looking for people and churches who are outwardly successful in his name but people who, like Saints Perpetua and Felicity, are faithful to his name, even if it means that they appear to be failures in this world’s eyes.

And so, as we come to God through Jesus, may God give us the strength we need to be faithful to him who gave his body for us. And may we make worshipping him in spirit and in truth the basis of both our own lives and the life of our Church.


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