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 marketplace!” 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. – John 2:13-22
The time is right before the national holiday of Passover: the celebration of freedom from slavery. The place is the outer courts of the temple in Jerusalem, at the top of the temple mountain, with the city at its feet.
Jesus and the disciples are there in the outer courts of the temple. And Jesus is royally ticked off. He’s found some leather, and sits weaving the strips into a whip. As he does you can see the temperature rising.
When he’s done, Jesus takes the whip and starts a stampede. The outer courtyard of the temple is crowded with sacrificial animals up for sale – cows and oxen and sheep and goats – and all of a sudden, with Jesus behind them, they take off, running in every direction down the hill and into the city streets. Can you picture the scene?
Then Jesus throws over the tables of the moneychangers and all the coins go flying, rolling over the stone floors and into the streets. I like to think that some of the poor beggars sitting near the temple got their bills paid that day.
In the middle of all this the priests come dashing out and confront Jesus and demand to know who-he-thinks-he-is to be doing such things.
The disciples meanwhile remember the words of the prophets, who said of the Messiah:
“Zeal for God’s house consumes me”.
Or in more modern language, “I’m on fire for God’s house.”
What does that mean, to be “on fire for God’s house”? And what does that have to do with the Path of Community we’re looking at today?
First question first. When Jesus is described as being ‘on fire for God’s house,’ the prophets are not talking about the physical temple. Jesus himself predicts the destruction of the temple that happens in the year 70AD. Granted, places of worship are beautiful and meaningful. But there’s an important question to ask: if the building God’s people worship in disappears tomorrow, would we still be the church?
As the congregation up at Hill Top, has discovered since last year’s fire, the answer is yes. Because the church is not the building, the church is the people. So when Jesus is described as being passionate about God’s house, we’re talking about Jesus being passionate about God’s people, about us.
Getting back to the scene: Jesus shouts at the moneychangers:
“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
Or, in other words, ‘God’s people are not your emporium’. (Emporium is the literal word in the Greek. It’s not just a small business, it’s more like a shopping mall.) Jesus says, ‘God’s people are not your commercial enterprise.’
And then Jesus is confronted by angry temple priests who have no clue what he’s going on about. These men who are supposed to represent God to the people have gotten so used to seeing the people of God as a source of profit that they demand that Jesus defend his actions! They say:
“What sign can you show us?”
— without even realizing they’ve just witnessed a sign.
Jesus takes advantage of this teachable moment and draws a parallel between the temple and his own body. Actually it’s a three-way parallel: between the temple building, the ‘body of Christ’ or God’s faithful people, and Jesus’ physical body. All three – the building, the people, and Jesus’ body – are the dwelling place of God. All three are being desecrated by men who claim to represent God. All three are about to be cleansed and made whole by God’s Messiah.
This passage is a picture of how passionately Jesus loves us, and how passionately Jesus hates injustice. The temple system he overturned that day wasn’t just commercialism. It was that; but the animals were there because they were required for worship, for sacrifice. But the people couldn’t sacrifice just any animal. The sacrifice had to be a perfect animal, according to the law of Moses: an “animal without blemish”. And you can bet if the people brought an animal from back home on the farm, the temple inspectors would find a blemish. So they had to buy animals perfect enough to sacrifice. And they couldn’t buy these animals with Roman coins. The Roman emperor – whose face was on the coin – claimed to be a god and you couldn’t bring false gods into the temple. So you had to change your money from Roman coins to temple coins. And you can bet the exchange rate was a bit high. So God’s holy house had become a place where people were ripped off before they were even allowed inside to worship.
And that’s not all. These animals and moneychangers were set up in the outer courts of the temple. The inner courts were for Jewish worship; the outer courts were for the seekers and the Gentiles, the foreigners and the beggars. The very people who needed God most were being crowded out of God’s house.
Jesus was royally ticked off. Praise God!
So what does this scene have to do with the Path of Community? The community of believers, also known as the Church or the Body of Christ, faces injustice today just like God’s people did back then. There are still people around today who see us as their own personal marketplace. I got something in the mail awhile back from a ministry out in Ohio saying “pray on the enclosed prayer mat” They had enclosed a decorative piece of paper about the size of a place mat that you were supposed to put on the floor and kneel down on. The instructions said: “pray on this mat and ask God how much money God wants you to send our ministry.”
Not quite as bad, there’s Christian merchandise and Christian books and Christian music – which I enjoy – but it’s become big business, and there are many stories of believers who go to work for these companies and walk away disillusioned.
And there are churches that lift up an impossible standard of perfection in Christian living, so much so that people who are single or divorced or childless or sick or poor or out of work or in recovery don’t feel welcome because they don’t measure up.
The community of believers should not be like this. And Jesus is as ready today as He was back then to cleanse the church, with the power of His death and resurrection.
Which leads us to the Lenten discipline of the path of community. So what is Christian community all about? There’s a lot that could be said, but five things I want to look at today:
- As the Body of Christ, we are one. This may sound a little strange given that there are hundreds of denominations in the world. Christian unity has proven to be elusive for the past 2000 years. Nonetheless, everyone who believes in God and in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord is a child of God and a member of God’s family. We are one in Jesus.
- The Christian community is counter-cultural; it goes against the grain of the culture around us. Christians believe what Jesus said about the last being first and the first being last. We believe that the poor and the meek and the persecuted and the lovers of peace and the children are the greatest in God’s kingdom… not the rich or the powerful or the popular.
- Christian community is a place where anyone can find welcome. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done. The door is open, and we can offer a hot meal if it’s needed, or a listening ear, or a shoulder to lean on, or a prayer.
- Christian community is not found in just one place. It can be found wherever two or more believers are gathered together, anywhere around the world. One of the greatest joys I find in travel – across this country or in other countries – is meeting and getting to know believers from all kinds of places. People who love our Lord can be found everywhere on this planet. And wherever they are, Christian community is. They belong to us and we belong to them.
- The Christian community also extends through time. Jesus said that when God says, “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” that God is not the God of the dead but of the living. So Christian community includes our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents; our ancestors who came across the ocean; and the ancestors who stayed in the old country. Christian community includes the saints: John Wesley and Martin Luther and John Calvin and St. Benedict and Peter and Paul, and Abraham and Isaac. The community of faith is forever. Even death cannot end it.
These five things are a large part of why it’s important not to give up on coming to church. Yes, we can worship God on the golf course… but not as part of the community. When we gather together as a community, we worship, we celebrate the sacraments, and we send people out to do mission, locally or around the world. We pray, and we study and learn, and we serve – together. And the fact that you’re here today tells me most of you already know how important Christian community is. You’re here, and I’m preaching to the choir. But it’s good to hear anyway.
So what does this mean for us today? I think this: to ask ourselves where are we in Jesus’ scenario? Where do we find ourselves in the community? Are we among the worshipers in the inner courts, praying and praising God, enjoying God’s presence? Are we in the outer courts, where we can hear the praise and worship happening on the inside, but things seem worldly and commercial where we’re standing, and God feels kind of far away? Are we outside the temple completely, on the city streets, unsure about anything, unsure about God, but feeling strangely drawn to this man from Galilee?
To anyone who is here today who is feeling unsure about God, or feeling like an outsider, I want to say this: It takes a lot of courage to feel the way you feel and still set foot inside a church. I admire that kind of courage and I’m glad you’re here. Jesus said, when He was talking about His body, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” He was talking about His death and resurrection, which is the heart of our faith and the reason for our hope. The grave could not hold Jesus. The grave could not defeat His love. If you get nothing else out of today, take that faith and that hope with you.
To anyone who is here today feeling like they’re in the outer courts, feeling like God is far away: I want to say this: don’t let the world distract you, and don’t let people who make a show of religion discourage you. God has called all people to Jesus and that includes you. God loves you, and it’s your turn to enter into the inner courts.
And to those who are in the inner courts, enjoying fellowship with God and the family of faith – praise God for you! Just remember one thing: remember the people in the outer courts. Invite them in, help them feel at home.
The Path of Community is an intentional journey. We are being built up into the Body of Christ day by day. And that can’t happen if we’re not here. We are called into God’s family. Let us live into that calling, cleansed and defended, created and redeemed by our Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/8/15