Text: John 2:13-25
Imagine, if you will, a young Jesus… preparing to be bar mitvahed… mentally composing his essay on this topic: “What the Temple Means to Me”. What does he write? “It’s the place where I see all my family a few times a year”? “It’s a loud place that smells like a barn”? “The services are too long”? “The temple is me”?
John’s account of the cleansing of the temple is right up front in the Fourth Gospel. Fitted in between the wedding at Cana and the night chat with Nicodemus, this is a carefully crafted understanding of Jesus’ actions. Key features of this account are its place in the gospel, its connection to the Passover celebration, and the details of the witnesses and “believers”.
By placing this story early in the Gospel, the cleansing of the temple underscores what has already been made clear in the Prologue and in the first Sign (the wedding at Cana). Jesus is God’s presence on earth. Like Father, like Son- when we see Jesus, we are seeing God. What Jesus does is reveal God’s habits, character, and location. The temple was understood to be God’s dwelling place. When Jesus compares himself to the temple, he is explaining that he is God’s dwelling place. The Spirit of the Lord is not constrained by the walls of the temple. Rather, the Spirit is revealed in the body of Jesus.
Placing this understanding early in the Gospel means that the reader moves forward from this story with an unambiguous understanding that Jesus reveals God because Jesus is intimately connected with God. God lives in Jesus. Those who are able to comprehend that are then able to move on to understanding birth in the Spirit, to receiving the Living Water, to being part of the flock of the Good Shepherd. Those who do not perceive this (that God is present in the world in Jesus) do not enjoy those gifts. (I hesitate to say that they dwell in darkness, but that would be the upshot of the gospel writer’s perspective.)
The cleansing of the temple at the start of the Passover ceremony should not be seen as a rejection of Judaism. As an observant Jew, Jesus is going to the temple to participate in the celebration and remembrance of God’s freeing actions in history. In John, Jesus is particularly prescient (he is God, after all). Thus, Jesus is also anticipating the second Passover- from death into life. The readers of John (both historically and now) are also anticipating this Passover.
Turning the water into wine was not a rejection of Jewish purification rituals, but instead showed how God was bringing something new, deeper, and richer out of Judaism and God’s covenant with the people of Israel. By cleansing the temple (getting rid of the moneychangers and the animal sellers), Jesus is, again, not ridding the temple of Judaism. He is, instead, ridding the temple of the practices that are separating people from the heart of Judaism- from the history of God’s promises and work with the people, from the prophecy and power of the prophets, from the hope and renewal of the wisdom literature, from the transformative power of prayer.
By cleansing the temple at the Passover, Jesus is drawing attention to himself as God’s dwelling place, first. Secondly, though, he is cutting through the “expected” temple life. People come to the temple for an experience of God. The authority of the temple does not come from facilitating an experience of God through commerce and regulation. Instead, the authority of God is revealed through how the temple creates community and (for the Fourth Gospel) connects to the Father through an understanding of the Son- passing over rejection into faithful action.
Finally, this account reveals three levels of believers in Fourth Gospel. There are the disciples who witness the cleansing and connect Jesus’ actions to the Psalms. They are among those who are coming to understand that Jesus reveals God.
Then there are those who believe because of the signs. For the sake of the gospel writer, these people would believe anyone who could do what Jesus does. They do not perceive the presence of God in him. They are not able to see beyond his actions into the holy and the mystery. Jesus doesn’t rely on their belief because he sees it for what it is- a house on sand. Yet, he doesn’t fail to feed them or heal them. He simply knows that they are not yet disciples.
There is a third group here. Nicodemus will actually be the spokesperson for this group in the next chapter. These are people are watching what Jesus is doing. They are uncertain as to who he is or why he is, but they cannot look away. Is it possible that he is one sent by God? They are not yet sure that he is THE one, but still…
For this week’s sermons, steer clear of condemning the temple practices. That’s not the point of this account. Consider, instead:
1) Jesus is God’s dwelling place on earth. After the resurrection, we are the body of Christ. Therefore, we are God’s dwelling place as well. What does it mean to have God living within us… for how we regard ourselves, our communities, our neighbors?
2) The authority of the temple (church) does not rest in what it regulates, but in how it creates community and opens people to an experience of God. Are the worship practices of your community habit for the sake of habit or habitus for the sake of experiencing God among you?
3) There are people all around us with different understandings and expectations of Jesus. How do we clarify who we understand Jesus? How do we hear the understandings of others? How do we respond?
This is a TOUGH week. What are you thinking about?