by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Normally, we hear the story of Jesus in the temple with the moneychangers as a critique of commerce.
The way Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story certainly alludes to such a critique. But for John, Jesus cleansing the temple of cows and sheep, Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers is a sign, indicating there is deeper meaning in it than the strictly visible and mundane. Strangely, Jesus says: Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up. John the narrator informs us: He was speaking of the temple of his body.
When Jesus turns over the moneychangers’ tables and herds the animals from the temple, everything in the temple stops. The sale of cows and sheep and doves was a convenience for people who had traveled a long way to sacrifice and fulfill their religious obligation in the temple in Jerusalem. All the little towns in Israel likely boasted a small synagogue where the local Jewish community would go on the Sabbath for worship. But the temple in Jerusalem was the place for sacrifice, for adoration of God, the place where the ark of the covenant lay, the holiest of all holy places. Jesus stops this well-oiled machine. Not simply because he doesn’t approve of commerce in the temple. Apparently, he disapproves of the enterprise of temple life, the entire institution, the legalities that transform a place where people worship God into a place where obligations are defined and met.
When confronted by his disciples, Jesus redefines the temple. He moves the conversation from a building of stone to the temple of his body. Now, the disciples are confused, but the narrator lets us in on the secret: Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body. The place for sacrifice, the place of adoration, the place where the law resides, the holiest of all holy places is not in the four walls of the temple in Jerusalem circa 30 of the common era. The place of sacrifice, adoration, law, and holiness is Jesus himself, in his very body. The building, not so important.
And of course, we know this. Right? It’s obvious to us from where we stand, two thousand years later, on the other side of the world, practicing a different religion than Jesus and his disciples. We know that the temple was temporary and Jesus everlasting, the temple, a place of obligation, Jesus, a messiah of love. We understand and don’t have any problems with this interpretation of this story. Except…here we are, two thousand years later, and so often, our focus as people of faith is on the building and the institution of the church. I’m as guilty as the next person, maybe even more so because I tend to the administrative aspects of our shared life. The reports necessary for the synod and churchwide, the requirements of the city and county, the detailed legal aspects of renting space to groups, forming and following policies that are all well and good. But is this the church? Would Jesus be turning over the tables in our own beloved place of worship if he were here bodily?
This morning, Jesus redefines the temple, the religious institution. And as much as we love the institution of the church, it is not the building or the institution that will be raised up in three days. It’s not the building or the institution that will die and then come back and surprise everyone with new life. (I want to pause here and point out how much I love Grace in particular and the ELCA in general as an institution. This institution has given us ELCA World Hunger and Lutheran World Relief, fabulous colleges and universities, campus ministries and Bible camps, the malaria campaign and ELCA disaster relief. An institution, yes, but as fabulous an institution as they come.) Regardless, it’s not the building or the institution that will be destroyed and then raised in three days. It’s Jesus. Jesus will be destroyed and then raised in three days. Jesus moves the focus of the whole religion from the institution and its many obligations to the person, the body, the word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. At the center of our religion is not a building, not our offering, not Sunday morning worship, not even scripture, not even our own faith. The center of our religion is Jesus. And yes, we encounter Jesus in all those other things, and yes, they’re all important, but they are not the thing that dies and is raised from the dead.
Every 4-6 weeks for an hour, I sit and talk with my spiritual director. He’s not a pastor, but it’s like me going to see my pastor. We talk about the things you typically talk about with me: spiritual practices, troubles with forgiveness in my relationships, questions about faith and life, where and how God is working in my life. This past week when I met with my spiritual director, we were talking about how we encounter God, and he shared a metaphor about experiencing God from the Roman Catholic priest Father John Keating. Keating wrote, essentially: Imagine you’re in a church, and you can see the light of God shining through the stained glass windows. The light is muted and colored, the space still relatively dark despite the beams of light. Now imagine you’re in the same church, but the windows are clear. The light of God shines through the windows freely, lighting up the space but shielding you from the direct sun. Now imagine no windows, just the light of God.
Immediately upon hearing this, I exclaimed to my spiritual director: When I’m with people, there are no windows! I experience God directly. But scripture and worship and prayer, these are like the light of God shining through stained glass and clear glass. I see God but indirectly.
That’s just me; that’s my spirituality. In you, in my day to day encounters with God’s beloved people, I see God directly. In these post-resurrection days, the body of Christ is still present here on earth, and it’s us. We are the body of Christ on earth. We are the hands and feet and ears and heart of Christ. How we treat one another and our neighbors, both near and far, both personally and systemically, is not a small part of our religion. I think we get confused—like the disciples and the people Jesus shocked when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers. We start to put the institution of religion, the obligations and the correct beliefs, we start to put these ahead of the very center of our religion. Jesus is the center of our religion, and we share in the life of Christ even now as we love and serve one another and our neighbor, as we seek justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God.
Probably more than anyone in this room, I love and am deeply imbedded in the church as an institution, yet this morning, as Jesus redefines the temple, for us now, he redefines the church. And at the risk of being super cheesy, to quote a Dakota Road song—and if you know the words, please join me, “We are the church, the body of our Lord. We are all God’s children, and we have been restored. The church is not a building where people go to pray. It’s not made out of sticks and stones; it’s not made out of clay. We are the church, the body of our Lord. We are all God’s children, and we have been restored. The church is not a business, a committee or a board; it’s not a corporation for the business of the Lord. We are the church, the body of our Lord. We are all God’s children, and we have been restored. The church it is the people, living out their lives, called, enlightened, sanctified for the work of Jesus Christ. We are the church, the body of our Lord. We are all God’s children, and we have been restored. We are the church, the body of our Lord. We are all God’s children, and we have been restored.”
Because the church is the people living out our lives, the institution need not remain the same. The institution of the church will and does change, and that’s okay. Because the church really is the people, us, as we participate in the life of Christ, the life that is forgiveness, love, justice, peace. That is the church. We are the church. 10 years from now, dear friends, I assure you the ELCA and Grace Lutheran will look really different. Not better or worse, just different. But the church that is the people of God, we will continue to love and serve one another and our neighbor, empowered and inspired by the One whose everlasting life enlivens us all, Jesus. Thanks be to God! Amen.