Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Power of Loyal Love

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Lent includes Exodus 20:1-17; I Corinthians 1:18-25; and John 2:13-22

The story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers and sellers of livestock in the temple precincts—here’s a Gospel event I’ve never seen as the subject of a stained glass window. Have you?

Imagine it. All those coins falling to the pavement. Tables tumbling at odd angles. Terror in the eyes of the animals. Shocked faces, as peoples mouths are left gaping.

I wonder if we know what to make of this one, how to display it in our gallery of Jesus moments.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke locate this spectacular temple protest near the end of our Lord’s public ministry. We’re accustomed to imagining that this strategic disruption of the status quo uniquely fueled the fires that would consume Jesus.

But John places this event right near the start of Jesus’s ministry. What a way for Jesus to make his mark! Unlikely he would have lasted as long as he did, says one commentator, if this is how he starts his itinerant preaching. Likelier, John moves the story up front because it serves his purpose as evangelist and theologian. What has immediately preceded this story is the transformation of water to wine at the wedding feast in Cana. Revealed there was the grace and glory and abundant new life on offer in Jesus Christ. What follows in today’s portion is the challenge and threat to the existing order posed by that new life. These two stories, back to back, create a kind of Gospel in miniature: God’s self-revealing in Jesus erupts at a wedding feast in Galilee. It is with humanity that God delights to dwell. Not so much the temple, not the ecclesiastical-industrial complex, not the hierarchy-bound ritual-blindered blood-soaked sanctuary made with hands. No, God is more the open-country village-life type who identifies with the kind of loyal love that is at the heart of a wedding feast.

But this God has a message for the ecclesiastical-industrial complex, and Jesus the messenger delivers it, exposing himself to the fiery backdraft.

It is not his message that simple abuses to the temple sacrificial system must stop. Perhaps that theme is there in Matthew, Mark, and Luke when they report Jesus railing against how the temple has become a den of robbers. But no, John’s Jesus says that the temple system has become a marketplace ruled by business-as-usual, a Charles Schwab investment office at each entrance. John has Jesus deliver a penetrating bunker-busting message: the entire temple sacrificial system must end.

And it is only John who reports Jesus’s words about destroying the temple. While he means the temple of his own body, his figure of speech has a double edge. John, last of the four Gospel-writers, has woven into his Gospel prescient words of Jesus that help the church make sense of the devastating obliteration of the temple by Roman armed forces, late in the first century.

When the temple is gone, something will take its place. That will be the Spirit-infused risen Body of Christ that has passed through the obliteration on Calvary, then burst the boundaries of Roman force, leaving an empty tomb to testify that no stone edifice can contain the divine.

When the temple is gone, something will take its place. That will be the Spirit-infused risen Body of Christ, the church, the community of people unified by loyal love, both his and theirs: united by the loyal love of Jesus Christ crucified and revealed by Easter light to be the power of God and the wisdom of God, and bound together by the loyal love of disciples, apostles, and countless ordinary people made extraordinary by having hitched their wagons to the star of God’s foolishness that is wiser than human wisdom, God’s weakness that is stronger than human strength.

Across this nation now, a large and growing number of congregations have to face the foundation-shaking challenges of merger and closure, requiring them to discover what will take its place, when the temple is gone. We don’t have far to look, to see our sister churches on the front lines of transformation, wondering what they are becoming. Are their water-barrels half empty or half full? Are they called to hold their own, or is God calling them to pour themselves out and so become fine wine?

Churches that are closer to these issues of life and death have much to teach congregations that seem insulated and secure. All churches need to hear the stories of congregations facing the loss of sanctuaries made with hands, while finding their security not in temples of stone and wood, but in the loyal love of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, showing itself in their experience of spiritual community and flesh-and-blood outreach.

The cleansing of the temple. That’s how today’s Gospel event is remembered by name. But, as we have seen, that emphasis comes more from the other three evangelists, whose message was more along the lines of summoning the religious community to clean up its act.

John’s Jesus has gone for the jugular. Rearranging the deck chairs will do nothing to change the course of our temples, which need more than cleansing. They need the power and wisdom of God; and, if I may add to St. Paul’s words, our temples need the pleasure of God—that is, we need to care, to know, and to commit our resources to what pleases God.

What that is hovers above us and within us in the radiant vision of the prophet Micah, whose timeless questions and answers must have been ringing in John’s mind as he wrote the words we heard today.

“’With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8)

Not the cleansing of the temple. The recovery of the temple’s primary purpose. The turning upside-down of the temple’s agenda, to serve the world and not the ecclesiastical-industrial complex, to convert a hierarchical system into a servant community that lifts up the lowly and puts the mighty to the task of washing feet and feeding the hungry. The tables are turned, announces Jesus at the start of his brief public ministry in John’s Gospel. And the water barrels are no longer for keeping: they are to pour out the rich wine of God’s new creation.

“The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…” Well, aren’t we all? “…but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Not the power of magical intervention, demanded by people needing signs and wonders to reveal God; not the power of holding the right philosophy or getting it right theologically, expected by people who believe they can think their way to God.

The message about the cross is the lasting durability of loyal love, foolish and weak from the standpoint of imperial powers, but the very cornerstone of the kingdom of God and the compass of the church.

(Gail O’Day’s commentary on John’s Gospel, Volume IX of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, was helpful in preparing this sermon.)