An outrageous challenge to the religious authorities

Stephen Adam, 4 March 2018

1 Corinthians 1: 18–25; John 2: 13–22

We are midway through the Lent season and our gospel reading this morning is a pivotal moment, as the tempo quickens and we look to the flash point of Jesus’ confrontation with the religious authorities in the Temple at Jerusalem, and Jesus points to his own death and resurrection. The account of the Temple cleansing appears in all four gospels, although John gives us most detail. What’s most immediately striking, though, is that whereas the other three gospels associate the story with the end of Jesus’ life, John locates it right at the start of his ministry.

There’s no way of reconciling this difference in chronology. I don’t think we need to go to the lengths of some conservative commentators who, anxious to preserve the internal consistency of the Bible, argue that therefore Jesus must have cleansed the Temple on two different occasions. No, the author of the fourth gospel was a master theologian, and he surely placed the story at the beginning consciously.

In the Jewish understanding found in the Hebrew Bible – our Old Testament – the Temple was the holy of holies, the place where God dwelt and could be discovered. John is building a new theology, and from the prologue it’s imbued with Temple themes. Right at the beginning John makes that awesome declaration, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us’ – literally, ‘he pitched his tent among us’ – ‘and we have seen his glory’. Now, that word ‘glory’ lay at the heart of the Jewish concept of the Temple, so John is proclaiming something really radical – that God is no longer confined to a building or to a place, but is to be discovered in a person – Jesus – dwelling among us.

And then John develops this outrageous idea further. He tells of how John the Baptist sees Jesus and declares, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’: the sacrificial animals central to the Temple cult are no longer needed; Jesus on the cross will be the once and for-all-time sacrifice. Then the first sign that John gives us, pointing to Jesus as the Messiah, immediately before our gospel reading this morning, is the wedding at Cana where the water is turned into wine – Jesus challenging the traditional Jewish purification rites, where water was so central.

So it’s no surprise that the Temple cleansing then follows, as John puts in place all the building blocks of his theology. It’s surely much more than Jesus protesting against the excessive commercialisation going on in the Temple precincts; rather, John wants us to understand that Jesus is directly challenging and bringing to an end the whole Jerusalem Temple cult.

To help us get our heads round just how radical this action was, remember how significant the city of Jerusalem was in Jesus’ time – this is the focal point for the Jewish people, the beating heart of their faith, the centre of worship and music, of celebration and mourning. Above all it’s the city of God, the place of the Temple – as the psalmist puts it, ‘Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God’ (87: 3). It’s the place of promise, the seat of God. And that understanding may help us to appreciate just why the city of Jerusalem continues to be so bitterly fought over and contested to this day.

But by his radical action Jesus challenges this whole Temple theology of place. He’s making the claim that he is the true Temple, he is the reality to which the Temple points, in his person God can be discovered and found – ‘the Word made flesh’.

And then in the dialogue that John reports, Jesus goes even further, as he talks of the destruction and raising up of the Temple. The Jewish religious leadership think he’s referring to the physical building, but Jesus invests the exchange with a much deeper, richer meaning. When Jesus talks of ‘raising up’ the Temple, the Greek sense of the word used by John and translated as ‘raising up’ is ‘resurrection’, not just ‘re-building’, and through this play on words the evangelist is showing how Jesus is pointing to his own risen presence as the true locus, the place of the divine presence.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, St Paul draws a sharp contrast between human wisdom and divine wisdom. By ‘human wisdom’ Paul is not referring to any particular philosophical tradition, but rather to the whole human endeavour to see the meaning of life in any way that excludes God. He is scathing about rhetorical cleverness, the way of words – though ironically Paul’s own language soars and is itself rhetorically brilliant as he argues that the power of Christ crucified carries a power far greater than human wisdom!

So in contrast to all the worldly wisdom, all the posturing and boasting, all the emphasis on wealth, power and prestige, the Christian good news is all about God dying on a gibbet in an obscure part of the greatest empire of the day; it’s about God babbling nonsense and foolishness to the philosophers; it’s about God inaugurating his kingdom, a kingdom where the weak and foolish find themselves just as welcome as the strong and wise. As John puts it in the soaring words of his prologue: ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’ (John 1: 12).

The Christian good news is all about God dying on a gibbet in an obscure part of the greatest empire of the day.

For St Paul the church corporately is the new Temple, the living home of the living God. As we proclaim week by week, we are the body of Christ and we are called to represent that new humanity. You may recall those challenging words of St Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

If, as we proclaim, the church corporately is the new Temple, we should resist any temptation to be inward looking; we mustn’t let the contents of our rituals take the place of the greater realities to which they point.

What then should be the hallmarks of the church as Christ’s Temple? A community where we can learn and anticipate a kind of living characterised by loving care, by striving for justice, a community imbued with worship and prayer: ‘What does the Lord require of you’ asks the prophet Micah (6: 8), ‘but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’

By a coincidence the anniversary of the death of George Herbert – perhaps our greatest religious poet – was just a few days ago. He died on 1 March 1633, and he is commemorated each year on 27 February. Shortly after his death his great friend from Little Gidding, Nicholas Ferrer, published his poems for the first time, in a collection entitled, appropriately enough, The Temple.

In his beautiful hymn ‘King of glory, King of peace’, Herbert challenges us to see ourselves in body, heart and soul as the Temple of God where true worship is to be found. It’s found in a love that never ceases, in prayer that never ceases, and in praise that never ceases.

May the prayer we say each year on the feast day of George Herbert be our prayer this morning and guide us in our Lenten journey:

King of glory, king of peace
who called your servant George Herbert
from the pursuit of worldly honours
to be a priest in the temple of God and king:
grant us also the grace to offer ourselves
with singleness of heart in humble obedience to your service;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.