1 Corinthians 1:18–25
Often people say they come to church to find God, or to spend time with God. But I am increasingly convinced that this is a very narrow way of understanding both God and Church. When you were little you might have learned the little rhyme, “Here is the church, here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” It’s cute and memorable, but 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 this 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, but it’s never a place.
It’s not even true that this is the only (or even the most likely place) to encounter God. Last week those who gathered downstairs after worship to converse about how God is calling us to be were asked, “How have you seen God at work through you or around you?” One woman talked about a mysterious neighborhood angel who always makes sure that her newspaper makes it up to her front door, so that she need not risk trudging out to the end of her snowy, icy driveway to pick it up. Another person mentioned seeing God in the person of dear Lori making coffee for us here at Trinity week after week. Someone else saw God in the beauty of nature. If these don’t seem like “encounters with God” to you it’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 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 case. The truth is that God will not be held captive inside a stone building. God is here, to be sure—I see evidence of it every day—but God is also out there—blessing and saving and loving and redeeming the whole world. And what’s more, when we all leave this building, 1904 Winnebago St. is 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. 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 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 is eventually arrested for disturbing the peace. But in John’s Gospel it occurs right at the start of Jesus’ public ministry, one of the first things Jesus does. This different placement makes a very specific point, one that John’s Gospel tries to drive home again and again.
Do you remember how John’s Gospel begins? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.” John begins with the idea—and keeps reiterating it in various ways—that the world no longer needs a place to find God, because God has come to live with us. That’s what today’s story about Jesus wreaking havoc in the Temple exemplifies. Jesus is God in the flesh, living among us, making our need for the Temple obsolete. Later in John’s Gospel we’ll hear Jesus tell a Samaritan woman, “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem.” Why not? Because God is present in that moment 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 for encounters with God to happen—though even in the Scriptures we see God meeting people in caves or in the desert, or wherever they might be. But the Temple is God’s house, and that’s why the money-changers are there in today’s story—so that faithful believers could exchange their dirty Roman coins (used to conduct ordinary business) for 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’s version doesn’t say that. Here Jesus simply complains that the Temple 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 but by any attempt to obstruct the connection between God and the people God loves.
What is it today that prevents 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/singing/behaving/believing? It’s worth examining how we insiders become gatekeepers, restricting access to worship for those who seek entrance.
Unimpeded access to the Temple for worship is not what Jesus is worked up about. (Or at least, not the only thing). Jesus talks about tearing down the Temple and rebuilding it in three days, confusing everyone. They assume he means the physical place that he is in the process of messing up—a place it took almost half a century to build. He thinks he can rebuild it in 3 days? But Jesus is not talking about a place. He talking about himself, his very body and blood. 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 to be near God. Jesus wants all people to see in him direct, immediate access to God.
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 in here, waiting for visitors. God is out there. So why come here? If we can encounter God on a mountain trail or a fishing boat, why spend time in this building at all?
For 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 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 families, 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 for the sake of God’s world. And you don’t need me to tell you that living in relationship is challenging. Notice that the first three of the 10 Commandments are about our relationship with God, but the other 7 are about our relationship with everyone and everything else! Living as the Church takes practice and encouragement and forgiveness and reassurance. We don’t need to come to church to find God, but we do need to come together to find and be found by one another.
So Christians come to this place to eat and drink together, 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 together. 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 the communion of saints carry one another’s burdens, and share in the excitement of how God is at work among and around us. We don’t come to Church because we have to. We don’t need it to get right with God. We get together as Church because it is a gift to us and to others to do so. We do it because we get to!
I pray that the same zeal for the Lord’s house that drove Jesus to passionately and dramatically upset the Temple system in today’s reading will inspire us to explore and redefine relationships as we live out our identity as Church this week and always.
~Pastor Susan Schneider