Third Sunday of Lent John 2:13-22
The account in today’s gospel reading happens at the beginning of Jesus ministry, in the other three gospels the account happens the week of or before the crucifixion. This will have a bearing on the interpretation we put on it.
A popular interpretation has been to see this as an example of Jesus’ humanity – he got angry just like the rest of us! But in our eagerness to claim similarity between Jesus and ourselves there is a danger of missing a far deeper truth. Have you ever gone to get something out of your airing cupboard, spare room, or shed and found that that place has become so full with the ‘stuff’ of life that the only thing to do is have a massive clear out? Or have you ever had to pack up to move to a new house? I am sure we can all identify with some or all of the above.
There’s a reason why clearing out doesn’t often happen until circumstances force us to take action. Not only is it time consuming and messy; it can be an emotional minefield. Clearing out represents a moving on, a change, a different phase. That might be just about having a tidy airing cupboard, but often there is at least a hint of a deeper importance. Whether it is full of sadness, or full of joy – moving on almost always involves emotional turmoil and physical mess.
This account in John’s gospel of Jesus cleansing the temple is amazing? It is of course much more than clearing out the airing cupboard – but the principle is the same. It is also in stark contrast to many of the popular held beliefs about the character of Jesus. This is not a picture of a gentle, soft-spoken Jesus calmly confronting the religious establishment with authoritative teaching and divine wisdom. Rather, here is Jesus with His sleeves rolled up ready for confrontation. After making His very own whip, He charges through the heart of the religious establishment striking forcefully and aggressively at a religious system that has become distorted. Just try to imagine the scene. Jesus is opening the pens of the oxen, sheep, and doves with one hand, while, with a whip in the other hand, He is overturning tables there is money, animals and money changers tumbling in all directions.
Is this really our Lord Jesus? What about His commandments to turn the other cheek or to love our enemies? Mercy and love do not seem evident in this account, yet all four gospels agree that Jesus charged through the temple like a bull in a china shop.
This account doesn't fit too well with our cherished views of Jesus as a gentle shepherd, so we may be tempted to tone it down a bit. Perhaps Jesus didn't swing the whip too hard, surely he didn't hit anyone with it. Jesus would never do anything that disruptive, would he?
The truth is, this is a clearing-out with radical implications? Jesus knew what he would find in the temple that morning. He had seen it many times: traders trading, money-changers cheating the visitors, animals tied and unsettled waiting for slaughter, but this day it was all too much; He finds something to make a whip of cords, and drives into all that activity making a huge scene and a monumental mess.
This story has disturbed people over the centuries because it doesn’t fit with the “meek and mild” version of Jesus that we love. There is something quite disturbing about his reaction. He didn’t just grab the nearest thing to hand – John writes, he made his whip. This is radical behaviour. But if we think about it as a symbolic clearing out of the old order, it begins to make a bit of sense. If we stop and think, there is nothing meek or mild about Jesus’ death and resurrection – the Christian story is always one of power, transformation and, lasting change. We do have a clue that this is how we are supposed to read the story as John’s Gospel is always layered with meaning, and he tells us that Jesus does this now because it is part of setting the scene for his own death – which will be the ultimate clearing out of the old order. No wonder the church has struggled with this, the disciples didn’t make the connection until they looked back after Jesus’ death.
One of life’s strange truths means that sometimes, in order to move on, spiritually and practically, we have to disrupt the present. Sometimes the disruption or change is made for us, and we need to accept it, sort it out and move on. The temptation is to put things back just the way they were, but if we do we will die spiritually. In this Benefice disruption and change is happening to us, and we must be careful and not fall into the temptation to put things back just the way we were and risk spiritual death. Now is our opportunity to clear out, to get rid of any ‘sacred cows’ and be open to the Holy Spirit rebuilding us into a new temple.
It is also Lent, which is often a quiet and meditative time, but we also need to embrace something of the spirit of Jesus with a willingness to embrace change because we are in the process of becoming - the people of God in this time and place.
In a few moments we will be sharing in Holy Communion and we will hear the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Do what in remembrance of him? Participate in a religious ritual because that is what we do at the same time each Sunday? Surely not! If that is what we are doing, I think Jesus would be justified in walking in and overturning the table spilling the bread and the wine.
Do what in remembrance of him? Receive bread and wine, receive the life of Jesus so that we can show compassion to one another. Forgive one another, share the Good News of salvation. Pursue justice and mercy this coming week as we protect the rights of the vulnerable. Do that in remembrance of him. And then the bread and the wine, which symbolise our union with Christ, will be filled with meaning. Jesus was radical in the temple, his death and resurrection was radical and the gospel we are called to live and share means we need to check our spiritual airing cupboard, be willing to have a clear out and move on to be the people of God in this place.