Third Sunday in Lent
Remember this? “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 very good 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 when we are gathered in this lovely building with its stained glass windows and pipe organ. In the Bible the church is sometimes referred to as “the Body of Christ,” or as “a holy nation,” or “a royal priesthood”—and any number of other images, but it’s never a place. When people say they come to church to find God, or to spend time with God, they have too narrow a view of both God and Church.
This is not the only place for us to encounter God. If we expect to experience God’s presence mostly—or only–in this place, we severely limit how God is present in the world. That’s why I don’t fret about the fact that our pews are not filled to capacity. If Trinity Lutheran Church and other places like it were the only places where people could meet God, I would be gravely distressed. But that is not the case. God will not be held captive inside a stone building. God is here, to be sure—I see evidence of it every single day—but God is also out there—blessing and healing 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 folks at work, at school, at home, or at play.
All of which leads us to today’s Gospel lesson. The story of Jesus raising a ruckus in the temple is an important story—all four Gospel writers tell 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 presents a catalyst for why Jesus is eventually arrested: disturbing the peace. But even though we are reading this story during Lent, we are reading it from John’s Gospel, and John situates this event right at the start of Jesus’ public ministry. After changing water to wine, this is one of the first things Jesus does in John. This different placement is deliberate to make a very specific point, unique to John’s Gospel.
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 the story of Jesus with the idea that the world no longer needs a place to find God, because God has come to live with us. That’s what John wants us to get out of this story about Jesus wreaking havoc in the Temple. Jesus is God in the flesh, living among us, making the need for a brick-and-mortar 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 considered the central place for encounters with God to happen–though in the earliest Hebrew Scriptures we also see God meeting people in caves, on mountains, in the desert, or wherever they might be, including lion’s dens. But by the first century, it’s established that this magnificent Temple in Jerusalem is God’s permanent residence. That why the money-changers are there—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 indicate any such issue. 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.
But 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 massive 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’s talking about himself, his very body and blood. He is making the point that no one needs to have pure money—or any money at all, for that matter—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 find in him direct, immediate access to God.
Bear in mind that by the time John was writing his Gospel, not only had Jesus been executed, but also the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans. The people John was writing for needed to be reminded that the absence of these tangible locations for God did not mean God was not with them. Jesus had indeed been raised, and was still among them, although not quite as he had been.
All of which makes the point that we don’t have to come to church to experience God. Our buildings do not contain God—we literally cannot go to church. We ARE the Church. God doesn’t stay in here, waiting for visitors. God is out there. So, you might wonder, why do we come in here? If we can encounter God on a mountain trail or in a fishing boat, why spend time in this building at all?
For this simple, but too often overlooked, point: the whole world does not pivot on our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, THANK GOD we have a direct conduit 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 entirely on a 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 horizontal relationships are challenging. It’s why God gave us some guidelines for how to do it. We call them the 10 Commandments.
Often we understand the first three of the 10 Commandments to be about our vertical relationship, the one we have with God, while the other 7 are about our relationships with everyone and everything else. [Although I could make the case that honoring the Sabbath Day is really about God wanting everyone to have a rest, and any number of other interpretations that would prove all 10 of the commandments fit both the vertical and the horizontal axis—but that’s another sermon for another time.] The point is, God sees that living peaceably together does not come easily. Being Church, being HUMAN, 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.
Here the communion of saints carries one another’s burdens, sharing our excitement of God at work among and around us. Here we get to eat and drink together, renewing our connection to Christ and to each other. We get to collect and pool our money for the good of those who need help. We get to sing and pray and listen to God’s Word together. Here we wrestle with what following Jesus means for us individually and collectively. When we share ideas about how to embody God’s vision of wholeness in daily living, we live into that reality, literally becoming the flesh and blood image of God for the sake of the world. Here we are knitted together as the Church so we can go outside to BE the Church.
~Pastor Susan Schneider