Friday, 16 March 2012

Third Sunday of Lent - Are we pointing or just obscuring?

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

John 2:13-22
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 market-place!’ 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.’ The Jews then said, ‘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.


I believe that what we find in John's Gospel today conveys to us priorities for our direction and mission, not just as a church but as individuals who are called to bear the light of Christ in the community.

So let’s think about what’s going on when Jesus overturns the tables in the Temple. Now before we look at anything else in this passage we need to be aware of its peculiar placement in John’s Gospel. This story appears in all of the Gospels. It’s clearly not a manufactured story but the recounting of a widely attested historical incident. However John does something very different with it simply by where he places it.

For the other writers it’s the event that follows on from Palm Sunday, when Jesus clears out the Temple and really gets up the noses of the powers that be, thus setting himself on a path towards being arrested. It comes in the last week of his life. But if you look at the reference you’ll see that John has put the same story right at the beginning of his Gospel in chapter 2. Why? Why not put it at the end like the other writers?

Well this is a question that people have asked for a long while, and there have been some interesting answers. Some of the more conservative Biblical scholars who are keen to preserve their understanding of the inerrancy of the Bible have declared that Jesus must have cleared the Temple twice. Personally I don’t buy that and nor do many people outside the conservative wing.

No I think that John has deliberately taken an incident from near the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry and put it at the beginning in order to make a point. We should remember that John’s Gospel is probably more likely to be a form of meditation on the meanings of some of the key events in Jesus’s life rather than a form of reportage of what took place.

So if John put the incident right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, we have to ask ourselves why he did that. There are some key differences between what Matthew, Mark and Luke say, and what John says. One of those is the quote from Psalm 69, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The psalmist is being interpreted prophetically here with the zeal for the Temple consuming Jesus with anger at what he sees.

But what about the Jews who ran the Temple? The Temple was run beautifully. Everything worked as it should. It wasn’t disorganised. People arrived with their Roman coins and swapped them with the money-changers for the special Temple coins which did not bear the idolatrous image of Caesar. Then they went to where someone was selling the correct sacrificial animal for the sacrifice they wished to make and bought the animal.

Then they would have taken it deeper into the Temple where it would have been given to the priests who would have sacrificed it according to the strict laws laid down in scripture. Everything was done exactly as it should be done. So what was Jesus’s problem?

It was this. The money-changing and the sacrifices were all taking place in the one and only part of the Temple that the Gentiles, the non-Jews, could get to and use for worship. Let me remind you of a quote from the prophet Isaiah, which Mark actually uses in his story of this incident. Isaiah 56:7-8 includes these words:
‘For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’. Thus says the Lord God who gathers the outcasts of Israel, ‘I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’

I believe that the evidence shows us that Jesus was angry with the way the religious system, well oiled as it was, was now excluding those who didn’t belong to it, and by turning over the tables of the money-changers he was making way for the gentiles to be able to re-enter the Temple to worship God.

And I believe that by putting this story right at the beginning of his narrative John is trying to tell us that this is a pointer as to what Jesus’s whole ministry was about. The position of the story in his Gospel was for emphasis to show that everything that follows this was about Jesus trying to unmake the religious exclusions that the Jewish hierarchy had put into place. Jesus’s ministry was one of making the worship of God accessible to all people. That includes us.

That was the will of Jesus two thousand years ago, and I think that his will in this regard hasn’t changed. So what does he see when he looks at the Church of England in 2012? How accessible do we seem to him? Is the worship that we offer of a kind that will allow people outside the church who want to engage with Jesus to be able to do so?

And do our lives and our actions in this community attract or repel people? I have lost count now of how many people I have met who want to believe but have been turned away by the actions of people who call themselves Christians.

Let me draw you back to an idea from the Lent study this week. The reading was taken from the previous chapter of John’s Gospel where Jesus is passing by and John the Baptiser draws the attention of two of his disciples and say to them, ‘Look, the Lamb of God.’ They then follow Jesus and ask him where he’s going, with his response being, ‘Come and you will see.’

In our Tuesday study group we agreed that in many ways John the Baptiser was being an archetype of the mission of the Church. So let me tell you a great mystery. Jesus is passing by. Right now Jesus is passing by. In your hearts, in the Church, in the school, in the pub, in the streets, in your homes, in your schools, in your workplaces, at your universities.

Jesus is passing by. Our role as individuals and as the church is to point towards him and make him accessible. Jesus was angry with the Temple authorities because they were obscuring the mystery and making it impossible for people who were not insiders to engage with it. The space given for the outsiders was being used to change money. God invited them in. Worship leaders kept them out.

I don’t believe that God’s anger in this has abated. If by the way we treat people we turn them away from God, then woe betide us. And if we don’t reach out as a church to allow people space to come in and meet God within the boundaries of their own culture, then woe betide us.

Jesus is passing by and many people are searching for him. Are our lives, and is our worship welcoming them in or making them feel excluded? Is our approach to each other welcoming them in or making them feel excluded? Do they see real love here or just a community of people with the same interests in common, like the gardening club or the film club?

This, for me, is at the hub of what I have been trying to do here as your vicar; to make it possible for people to engage with this great mystery that Jesus is passing by, that he is present, and we simply need to be able to say to people, in whatever cultural language they’re speaking, ‘Look, the Lamb of God.’

On Palm Sunday we’re going to have a different kind of procession at the 10.30 service. We normally process through the village to church but on Palm Sunday, because it’s the first Sunday of April, we’re going to process from the Church at the end of the service down to Messy Church in the school. I’m so grateful to those who had the vision for this service and have worked tirelessly to make it happen.

And I want you all to be able to see a new way in which the Church is saying, ‘Look, the Lamb of God.’ And I promise you this: many of you will watch what’s going on with puzzlement because it is completely at the opposite cultural extreme of a service of Morning Prayer, and that’s the whole point. For many of us it is not a place where we would feel able to begin to engage with God, but I think that for some of those who come it represents important steps on their journey.

Every time I have been there I have had conversations with people I would not normally see. And little by little the team are beginning to make relationships with the broad array of those who attend. In many ways the closing ten minute worship service is not where the real engagement is going on. It’s vitally important, but it’s in the quiet one-to-ones, the conversations, the prayer requests and the like which is where we find ourselves, in one form of words or another, gently saying, ‘Look the Lamb of God.’

And at the other end of the spectrum in our Celtic Night Prayer service, The Well, we are seeing other lives changing as in a quiet reflective environment another different group of people approach the mystery of the presence of God, of Jesus passing by.

We do Choral worship very well, and it’s well established thanks to Anne and the work of the choir as a form of worship which says, Look, Jesus is passing by. But just as some people are completely turned off by the mayhem of Messy Church, so we also need to understand that a different group of people are completely turned off by Choral worship. The Church of England can no longer fulfil its mission by offering a one-size-fits-all approach to worship.

Jesus was concerned that so called worship was excluding those who most needed it, and so he acted to show God’s displeasure. Likewise we must continue our mission of maintaining and developing traditional worship for those who find that such forms are ways into God’s presence, whilst developing and encouraging new ways of worshipping for those of a different culture.

So let us continue to look closely at how we live, what we do, how we worship, and ask whether it reveals the mystery that Jesus is passing by. Behold the Lamb of God. Let us be people who point in the right direction and make sure we don’t stand in the way of those searching for the Truth.

No comments:

Post a Comment