March 8th, 2015 “Challenge and Change” Rev. Heather Jepsen
For the next several weeks we will take a break from Mark and look at the gospel of John. Unlike the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the gospel of John does not get its own year in the lectionary. Rather it shows up at random times throughout the lectionary readings of the other three gospel years. And so for the next few weeks of Lent, we will leave Mark in the distance and jump forward in time to the gospel of John.
Mark and John provide an interesting contrast. Mark was the first gospel written and presents what I like to think of as a very human portrayal of Jesus. Mark was probably written about 30-40 years after Jesus died. John was written about 20-30 years after Mark and so we are looking at a document that is a generation after Jesus. You will notice in today’s reading, and in the other things we look at, that the Jesus that John presents is very different than the Jesus that Mark presents. By now the church has established some beliefs about who Jesus was and his relationship with God. The Jesus of John’s writing possesses many more divine attributes then the Jesus of the synoptic gospels.
Because John is written later, and probably written in isolation, he does things his own way. Today’s story, of the cleansing of the temple happens at the end of the other gospels. In the Synoptics, Jesus is in his final days in Jerusalem, the Passover during which he will die, when he goes through this ritual act. By contrast, John places the act at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Prior to this story, Jesus has changed the water into wine, a private act which signifies his divine status and attributes. Now, for his first public act of ministry, Jesus heads to the temple to stir up trouble.
John always requires some explanation and this temple scene is no exception. As modern readers we need to be reminded of the policies and procedures of the temple cult, as both the sellers of animals and the money changers were in the temple area for good reason. Folks would be traveling from all the surrounding regions to offer a sacrifice in Jerusalem during the Passover ceremony. People would need animals that were without blemish, which would be hard to transport in a perfect condition across great distances. So, animals that were acceptable for offering were available for purchase on the temple grounds. The same goes for the money changers as you could not use Roman money for the temple offering, you needed to change your money for special temple coins.
What was going on were basic services that were helps to pilgrims coming to the temple to worship, there is nothing inherently wrong with either of these practices. And yet here comes Jesus into the temple and making a scene. He is yelling, he is turning over the tables and sending the money flying. He is whipping people and animals with a cord he made and creating a general scene of chaos. And as we can see from his actions, he is frustrated and angry. Rather than simple Jesus meek and mild, this is someone you don’t want your children around, let alone sitting on his lap. Angry righteous Jesus is not the subject of many stained glass windows!
So what is he doing? I am not sure I have the correct answer to that question, but it appears to me that this Jesus in the gospel of John is challenging the religious system. The church had gotten too comfortable with the world and they were content to let little worldly conveniences intrude upon the way things were done. The religious institution had lost its focus, and the area that was for Gentile prayer and worship had become nothing more than a market. It was probably with the best intentions that all that got set up in the first place. People want to be hospitable to those coming in from out of town, we want to make worship as welcoming to everyone as we can, and so these little systems of exchange were set up to make things easier for everyone. I don’t think anyone intended to do anything wrong, but before long all the little helps became more of a hindrance.
Jesus makes it clear in his statements that changing the marketplace system within the temple gates is not the only dramatic thing he is going to do. Jesus suggests that if the temple is destroyed, then in three days he will raise it up again. The writer of the gospel of John makes it clear that the temple Jesus is talking about isn’t the brick and mortar building; rather it is his very own body. Here is where we find one of those big divine statements from Jesus in John’s gospel. Through the language Jesus uses and his own writing, the author of John makes it clear that the whole temple cult of worship is being destroyed and a new religion will be founded upon the temple of Jesus’ body. It’s complex theological language, but John is clearly marking a change in the religious culture of his time. Making this Jesus’ first public act just adds to the significance of this shift.
So, we have a twofold message in today’s reading. We have both Jesus challenging the comforts of the religious institution, as well as the writer of the gospel of John creating an even bigger challenge, the birth of a new faith. Both of these points imply a change to the system, an overhaul in what we might believe and take for granted. This passage is all about challenge and change.
As modern readers of the text, I believe we are called to examine our own lives and faith and to ask where Jesus and the writer of the gospel of John might be challenging us today. Angry, righteous Jesus comes into the mix to remind us that maybe we have gotten too comfortable with the ways of the world, maybe we need to increase the volume of our prophetic voice and challenge the things the church takes for granted.
There was a great example of that this week which happened at the Mid-America Nazarene Campus in Olathe. Like me, you may have read this story in the paper or seen it online. The chaplain of the campus, who also served as the second vice president for community formation, dared to preach a sermon calling for peace. Like Jesus coming in to turn over the tables, he questioned our country’s penchant for war and pointed out that the scriptures call us to pursue peace instead. That makes sense to me, but in a more conservative religious community them’s fightin’ words. After the sermon the chaplain lost his higher ranking vice president job. No one likes a rabble rouser.
While I don’t think a sermon on peace would cause much conflict in this church, I wonder what would. What are the things in our own community that we take for granted? What topics are taboo for discussion and criticism? If Jesus were to march in here today, what tables would he overturn?
I want to spend a few minutes today talking about that second point as well. The writer of the gospel of John is implying a change in the culture of religion. The move from the temple cult to the worship of Jesus Christ as the Son of God was obviously a major shift, and one of which we are all a part. While that was shocking and offensive to many at the time, I would venture to say that is the way the church always is. Rather than being something that is permanent or fixed, it appears to me that the church and faith are things that are in flux or evolution. The Jewish community became the Christian community and over the years that change continued. There was the Catholic Church, and then the Reformation from which our own denomination comes. Then there was a new wave of belief, with the rise of Baptists and non-denominational churches. And the evolution continued as post-Christian faiths developed including the Seventh day Adventists and the Mormons. Faith is always growing and evolving. Rather than complaining about this trend, I rejoice, as there are so many options for folks to find a place where they belong.
Today we gather at the communion table and I believe this represents one of the great changes in the churches history. What once was just for the priest to eat, became something for the community. What once was just for church members, became something that everyone could share in. What once was something about rules and restrictions, became something open and free for all to share in. While Jesus still may come and overturn even this table, I am thankful that it has evolved into a place that welcomes all.
Today, as we shift from Mark to John, we are reminded of the history and theology of the church. Even in the first decades after his death, the ideas and stories about Jesus began to change. What remained was Jesus’ role as the one who challenges us to think and reconsider all that we hold dear. It is good to be reminded that Jesus was offensive to many people and perhaps should be offensive to us still today. What areas of our lives does his angry righteous judgment threaten? What patterns of our church does Jesus threaten to overturn? This Lenten season it is good for us to be reminded that it is all not blue skies and sweet flowers. The person of Jesus is the one who brings dangerous challenge and change. Amen.