March 11, 2012
Last week in our Gospel lesson we heard the often-repeated description of what it means to be a Christian: to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Today, I am interested in where that pathway led you in the past week. Where did following Jesus take you? Any surprises? Unexpected turns? Where did you see God? In what ways did you experience communion—that it, unity—with God?
I think often people say that they come to church to find God, or to spend time with God. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that this is a very narrow way of understanding both God and Church. I bet you learned the little image “Here is the church, here is the steeple” thing with your hands when you were little. But even though it’s cute, it’s not valid theology. THIS (hands folded) is not the church. The church is not a place that contains people—the Church is us, the beloved people of God. And that is as true when we are at a ballgame or a concert or in our kitchens as it is when we are gathered in a lovely building with stained glass windows. The Church is described in the Bible as the Body of Christ, as a “holy nation,” “a royal priesthood”—any number of images that involves a collection of separate components, but it’s never a place.
And it’s not even true that this is the only (or even the most likely place) to encounter God. I asked some people this week where they encountered God. One woman talked about a mysterious neighborhood angel who always made sure that her newspaper made it up to her front door, so that she won’t have to put on her boots and trudge out in the snow to the end of the driveway to pick it up, risking a fall on the way. Another person talked about knowing God was present with him when he was able to confide what a financial mess he’s in and heard a Christian friend respond that he was far more valuable than his bank account signified. Another person spoke about finding God whenever she hears the wind in the trees, an unseen but powerful force. Maybe these don’t seem like “encounters with God” to you, but that’s because we have too small a picture of how God works in the world. I think that if we expect to experience God’s presence mostly—or only in this place—we severely limit both God and the Church.
That’s why I don’t think we need to fret about the fact that our pews are not filled to capacity. If Trinity Lutheran Church were the only place around where people could meet God, I would be gravely distressed. But that is not the truth. The truth is that God will not be held captive inside a stone building. God is in here, to be sure—I see evidence of it every day—but God is also out there—working and blessing and saving and loving the whole world. And what’s more, when we all leave this building, it’s not the Church anymore. It’s just a building. Because the Church is out there—comforting and challenging the folks they encounter at work, at school, at home, or at play.
All of which leads us to today’s Gospel lesson. Did you think I forgot? Not a chance. This is an important story—all four Gospel writers offer it, with a few different twists. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all put this event of Jesus overturning the money-changers tables right at the start of the events of Holy Week. It’s a logical place for the story because it offers a catalyst for why Jesus was eventually arrested as a disturber of the peace. But John puts it right at the start of Jesus’ ministry, as one of the first things Jesus does in John’s Gospel. I think he’s making a very specific point. Do you remember how John’s Gospel begins? It is the reading we always hear on Christmas Day: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God.” John goes on to make the point that “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
Today’s story about Jesus wreaking havoc in the Temple is a concrete way of saying that now that God has become flesh in the person of Jesus and lives among us, the Temple is obsolete. The world no longer needs a place to find God, because God has come to find us and live with us. Two chapters later in John’s Gospel, we’ll hear Jesus telling a Samaritan woman that, “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem.” Why? Because God is present in the person of Jesus, and after his resurrection, God is present everywhere through the Holy Spirit.
Until Jesus arrived, the Temple was the central place where encounters with God happened. That’s why the money-changers are there in today’s story—so that faithful believers could exchange the dirty Roman coins with which they conducted business for the pure Temple money used for holy business, like animal sacrifice. Although the other three Gospel writers have Jesus scolding the money-changers for turning the Temple into a den of thieves, John doesn’t say that. He simply has Jesus complaining that it has become a marketplace. A place where connection with God is for sale. If you pay us, we’ll give you access to the Holy One. Jesus is angered here not by dishonest business, it seems, as much as by the idea that anyone or anything could stand in the way of people and the God who loves them. Perhaps we need to examine what it is that keeps people from risking approaching our modern-day Temples. What message are people getting that causes them to stay away from this place dedicated to God? That they need to learn a certain code language? Certain ways of dressing or singing or behaving? I think it’s worth examining how we insiders become gatekeepers, restricting access to worship for those who seek entrance.
But unimpeded access to the Temple for worship is not what Jesus is worked up about. Or at least, not the only thing. Jesus starts talking about tearing down the Temple and rebuilding it in three days, which confuses everyone. The people assume he means the physical place that he is in the process of messing up—a place it had taken almost half a century to build. But Jesus is not talking about a place. He talking about his very self. He is making the point that no one needs to have pure money to approach him. No one needs to make the proper sacrifice or speak a certain way or like a particular kind of music for God to come near to them. He announces, “I’m right here, right now, with you.” He wants them to see direct, immediate access to God whenever they look at him.
Which all makes the point that we don’t have to come to church to experience God. For one thing, our buildings do not contain God—we cannot go to church. We ARE Church. God doesn’t stay here, waiting for visitors. God is out there. So why come? If we can encounter God on a mountain trail or a fishing boat, why spend time in this building at all? Because of this simple, but sometimes overlooked point: the whole world does not pivot on our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, THANK GOD we have a direct connection to God in our Savior Jesus! THANK GOD there is no longer any barrier between us and the One who loved us into being—no Temple rules, no holiness code, no indulgences. We are blessedly assured that God is with us every hour of every day.
But to use our central symbol, the cross, we do not live only on this vertical axis—the me-and-Jesus track. We also live horizontally. We live in a society, in a country, a state, a city, a community. We live in relationship with God, yes, AND we live in and with and—frankly—for the sake of God’s world. And you don’t need me to tell you that living in relationship is challenging. I often point out to confirmation classes that the first three commandments are about our relationship with God. But the last 7 are about our relationship with everyone and everything else! Living as the Church takes practice and encouragement and forgiveness and reassurance. I don’t think we need to come to church to find God. But I am certain we need to come together to find and be found by one another.
And so Christians eat and drink together in this place to remember and renew our connection to Christ and to each other. We collect and pool our money for the good of those who need our help. We sing and pray and listen to God’s Word. We wrestle with what following Jesus means for us individually and collectively, and share ideas about how to embody God’s vision of wholeness in daily living. Here we are washed clean in the waters of Baptism, reminded that we are not alone on our faith walk but are part of the family of God. Here the communion of saints helps carry one another’s burdens, and shares in the excitement of how God is at work among and around us. We don’t come to Church because we have to do so in order to get right with God. We get together as Church because it is a gift to us and to others to do so.
May the same zeal for the Lord’s house that drove Jesus to passionately and dramatically redefine relationships seize us as we go out to be Church this week.
~Pastor Susan Schneider