Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
(Click above link for the Scripture texts upon which this sermon is based)
Close your eyes for a moment, and try to picture Jesus in your minds eye.
What do you see? What do you envision Jesus to be doing?
Is it Jesus with a whip…?
Well, after just reading this story, maybe
But any other day, I’m willing to bet some Royals tickets that its not…
That’s not an image we see everyday: Jesus with a whip of cords.
There have been many many portraits of Jesus painted,
Perhaps the most famous subject of fine art in human history.
Some of them adorn the walls of our Nelson-Atkins museum
Some of them are on the walls of our homes
portraying Jesus in all sorts of situations:
Jesus in the tender arms of his mother, Mary
Jesus with the children gathered around
Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane
A gentle, peaceful, wise, beaconing Jesus. An inviting Jesus.
But Jesus with a whip? Not a popular pose. Not in today’s religious imagination.
But here he is, this Jesus, at the Temple in Jerusalem during Passover,
Raising a whip of chords and causing chaos
During the holiest of religious festivals…
What a mess it must have been, after the scene described in today’s text.
Jesus is gone, the tables disheveled and thrown about
Animals running all over the place, some still meandering about
Others bleating down the road or poking around in some shop a few blocks away.
A real mess. And all of it was because of this Jesus.
What right did HE have to come and to hinder all these faithful people
All these thousands upon thousands of people
From completing the sacrifices and prayers
God MANDATED them to perform, centuries ago?
All these faithful Jewish pilgrims, four hundred thousand of them, by some estimates
from countries far and wide
making a special trip just to be here during Passover,
God wants them to offer sacrifices.
So they all had to buy the right animals for the ritual.
But now! How can they possibly do it now?!
Things are such a mess. It will take hours to clean up and get back up and running.
What a mess, this Jesus has made….
Anglican Bishop Tom Wright offers this analogy.[i]
It is drawn from the British school system,
but I think we can adapt it for our use here:
Imagine a scene in a school.
The pupils are all taking their end-of-year exams.
And the teachers are preparing for a big Open Day
when parents and friends will come to visit.
Everyone is excited.
It’s the biggest moment in the school year.
Suddenly the door of the head teacher’s office bursts open.
[And] In walks a student, with a few friends behind…
He goes straight to the desk where the secretary is organizing a pile of exams
And turns the desk UPSIDE DOWN, scattering the exams all over the room.
He proceeds into the head teacher’s private room,
Where with a single sweep of his arm,
He knocks to the floor all the letters and papers,
The invitations and arrangements,
So carefully made for the big day that’s coming up.
He turns on the astonished onlookers.
“This whole place is a disgrace!” he shouts!
“Its corrupt from top to bottom!
You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!”
Before he can get away, the head teacher herself arrives.
“What right have you got to behave like this?” she asks.
“You can fail me if you like,” replies the student.
“You can throw me out. But I shall go on to the university.
I’m going to train as a lawyer. And one day I’ll put an end to corruption like this!
Your system is finished!”
And before they can stop him, he leaves. And they all look around, empty eyed,
Wondering what just happened!
Stories such as these, Wright admits,
only partially get at what’s going on in this astonishing scene at the temple.
And that’s because
It is hard to find a modern day equivalent that mirrors the importance
of the Jewish temple at Passover.
The temple was the beating heart of Judaism.
It wasn’t just, as it were, a church on a street corner.
It was the center of worship and music,
Of politics and society,
Of national celebration and mourning.
It was a place where you would find more animals (alive and dead)
than anywhere else.
It was where politics and culture intermingled. It held the hopes of a nation.
And it was the place, of course, where Israel’s God, Yahweh, had promised to LIVE
In the midst of God’s people.
It was the focal point of the Jewish way of life.
And this is where the then unknown prophet from Galilee came in
And turned everything upside down.
We can forget how shocking it must have been.
Maybe someone streaking at a presidential inauguration,
Or turning the power off at the super bowl
But even don’t seem to rise to the level of audaciousness
That this Jesus of Nazareth was able to achieve.
We have to understand what was happening here at the temple.
You see, It was a religious duty to offer sacrifices at the temple,
And people came from all over to do so.
You couldn’t just sacrifice any animal, you needed unblemished animals,
And you didn’t bring these from home, miles away,
You bought them. Because you wanted to be sure they were the right animals.
I mean, your relationship with GOD was at stake, so it was thought
and you don’t just entrust that to your dove, your sheep.
So you bought them from the authorized temple vendors.
But they wouldn’t take just any money. Oh no.
Greek and Roman money, the money in your pocket,
those coins with the face of the emperor on it
it was not approved. Too secular. Too profane.
Other foreign currencies were not allowed, either.
Thus the money changers, who would happily convert your Greek or Roman coin
Into the correct currency….for a fee.
You can see how the system provided some profit for the religious leadership
And the temple priests themselves.
And this Jesus, himself a faithful Jew in every respect,
One who followed the religion and its precepts,
Who travelled to Jerusalem like all the others for Pentecost,
Who took part in Jewish community
inspired by the Jewish prophets who saw the sometimes corrupting influence
Of their own leaders, their own priests
The prophets who taught against exploiting the poor and the weak
For personal or religious gain
This Jesus, who saw the conversion of money at the temple
And the monopoly on the sacrificial animal market
As taking advantage of the faithful, the seeking, the lost…
This Jesus, full of zeal, the text tells us, for the God who is supposed to dwell here,
This Jesus couldn’t stand it, and he caused a huge scene.
Money flying and animals running and people fleeling…
Jesus with a whip…. What a portrait!
Jesus the faithful, challenging the faithful….
Its important to ponder this scene today, and particularly to consider
What is happening in our culture and our church today.
W. Hulitt Gloer argues that if the texts last week urged us to consider
“What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus,” to give our lives
that others might have life…
then THIS passage before us today focuses on the question:
What does it mean to be the CHURCH of Jesus.[ii]
Or, to put it another way, to be the RELIGION of JESUS
Or the INSITUTION of JESUS.
Jesus here is offering a challenge to a form of religious community
That takes advantage of its people,
that operates through religious coercion,
rather than through love and grace and openness.
We live in an age where more and more people than ever are spiritually hungry,
But, at the same time, so deeply suspicious of institutions and organizations.
Not too long ago, Religion Scholar Diana Butler Bass
Wrote this in the Washington Post:[iii]
For decades, Americans have been turning toward spirituality as a protest vote
Against conventional religion.
In the last dozen years, American religious institutions
have undergone a myriad of crises—abuse scandals,
conflicts, schism, and partisan political entanglement,
to name a few—resulting in a great religious recession.
This reminded me of a video that went viral on facebook and throughout the internet
a few years ago, called “Why I hate Religion, but Love Jesus.”[iv]
In the video, and I’ll offer an early warning now, he uses some sharp language,
Jeff Bethke offers a poem that was hit some deep core
In the hearts and minds of many American youth and young adults
And others, I suspect.
Its been watched more than 29 million times on youtube alone.
Here’s a taste of what Bethke said:
What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion
What if I told you that voting [Democrat] really wasn’t his mission
What if I told you that Republican doesn’t automatically mean Christian
And just because you call some people blind,
doesn’t automatically give you vision.
I mean, if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars
Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor
Tells single moms that God doesn’t love them, if they ever got a divorce
But in the Old Testament, God calls Religious people whores.
Religion might preach Grace, but another thing they practice
To ridicule God’s people, they did it to John the Baptist
They can’t fix their problems, so they just mask it,
Not realizing that religion is like spraying purfume on a casket
See the problem with religion, it doesn’t get to the core
Its just behavior modification, like a long list of chores
Lets dress up the outside, make it look nice and neat
But its funny, that’s what they used to do to mummies
while the corpse rots underneath
Now I ain’t judging, I’m just saying quit putting on a fake look
Because it’s a problem if people only know you’re a Christian by your facebook
I mean in every other aspect of life you know that logic is unworthy
Its like saying you play for the Lakers just because you bought a jersey
I don’t have to hide my failure, don’t have to hide my sin
Because it doesn’t depend on me, it depends on him
Because when I was God’s enemy, and certainly not a fan
He looked down and said I want that man
Which is why Jesus hated religion, and for it he called them fools
Don’t you see its so much better than just following some rules
Now let me clarify, I love the church, I love the bible, and yes, I believe in Sin
But if Jesus came to your church, would they actually let him in
See, remember, he was called a glutton and a drunkard by religious men
But the son of God never supported self-righteousness, not now, not then
Powerful. It touched a nerve.
According to a Barna study,[v] the word “church” has never had such a negative view
Among those aged 18-30 in the decades they have been doing the research.
Only around 7 percent of those in that age range look at the word “church” positively.
And the reason, Barna says, is because the word is more often associated with
And the reality is, when I talk about this study, and this video,
With the people and the churches I actually know and serve,
There couldn’t be more disconnect for me.
Perhaps that was your reaction too. Disconnect.
What kind of religion and church are they talking about?
I imagine that that would be the case for you as well, as you ponder
What your connection to this church has meant for your life.
I believe Bethke has it wrong in important ways.
Often it is the voice of the faithful, through the church,
Who advocate for peace in a culture full of violence and warfare.
It is often the faithful, through the church,
Who collect food for the poor, and turn their buildings into homeless shelters.
Who go install clean water systems and
Build colleges and universities
Who serve and love others, because that’s what Jesus taught us to do.
Yesterday, scores traveled to Selma, Alabama, to
commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday
on the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
I remember that it was the church,
and other faithful people (such as many faithful Jews)
Who marched and organized during the civil rights era.
Who gave their lives that others may have life.
The church, when it has been truly the people of Jesus the Christ,
Has been anything but what Bethke says it has been…
And Bethke has reflected on this and has largely recanted the dichotomy between
Jesus and religion that he offered in the video.
But still, there is something here we need to attend to:
Why is it that so many people associate the word “church”
with Judgement, Exclusion,
Why is it that so many people read this story of Jesus at the temple
And see it applying to the Christian community today?
The answer, of course, is that there are churches exactly like that.
And they often get the news, the fame.
Too many voices that claim the name “Christian” ARE moralistic, exclusionary,
Focused on their own survival rather than
Spreading the Gospel of God’s incredible, inclusive, love for EVERYONE.
Just to give one recent, local example[vi]
a few weeks ago Randy Beckum,
the chaplain at Mid America Nazarene University preached a sermon
challenging America’s addiction to violence
and how some confuse patriotism with faith.
Beckum was fired from his position, and it made front page news
and was shared all over the internet. I saw no fewer than 40 references
on my humble facebook feed alone.
We as the church will not counter the perception until we name it,
own it, atone for it
And seek to offer anew ours as a different way of understanding church,
A more authentic way of understanding church
A hospital for saints and sinners alike
All of us welcome because of the grace and love of God.
Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, the Lutheran pastor for a church called,
Interestingly enough, House for all Saints and Sinners in Colorado,
Offered this reflection on the Bethke video:[vii]
“Here It is: I totally get it…
I resent the way in which the term “Christian”
has become synonymous with a [particular] social agenda
and exclusion of the poor and outcast
(namely, the people Jesus chose to hang out with).
I too reject religion that does little more than prop up
an identity of sanctification and righteousness
based on the adoption of a particular affect [or] style…
I too think that Jesus is about grace and being with those on the margins
and the unbounded way in which God is coming TO us.
I believe that religion can be beautiful.
For every war it has started how many hospitals have been built?
How many children found homes?
How many people found community?
How many non-profits established to serve the poor?
How much beauty created?
“There is much to confess.
I confess that the church has [sometimes] done a poor job
of being Christ’s body….
But we are called to be members of one another,
dying for the sake of the world….
So…I believe in Religion AND Jesus.
I believe in the Gospel.
I believe in the transformative, knock you on your [butt] truth
of what God has done in Christ.
I believe that I can only know what this following Jesus thing
is all about when I learn it from people
I would never choose out of a catalog
when we gather together
as the broken and blessed Body of Christ
around the Eucharistic meal.
I believe I am the problem at least as often as I am the solution.
I believe in participating in sacred traditions
that have a whole lot more integrity
than anything I could come up with myself
I believe I need someone else to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to me
because I cannot create that for myself.
I believe that Jesus is truly present in the breaking of the bread
and that where 2 or more are gathered he is there.
That’s Religion AND Jesus. May God make us worthy of it all.
Jesus in the Temple wasn’t attacking religion.
Jesus fully participated in religion, its sacred traditions,
Its rituals, its community.
Jesus in the Temple attacked forms of religious coercion
That enabled the powers that be to profit over the faith of the faithful.
Jesus in the temple attacked a church
that doesn’t give its life for those who need it.
Jesus instead would offer HIMSELF as THE example of
selfless, grace-filled, radical love
This Jesus, who would later stand up for the woman caught in adultery
Who would feed the hungry, heal the wounded,
Teach us that the neighbor cares for those in need…
And bid us to go and do likewise.
We, the church, are that legacy. This church follows THAT Jesus
Let us see this Temple Tantrum as a calling to all of us to speak truth and love
And to BE God’s loving and caring people
And by our example, our love, our faith,
Show others what a wonderful thing TRUE church really is….
[i] N.T. Wright, John for Everyone: Part One Chapters 1-10. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox, 2002) 24-27.
[ii] “Homiletical Perspective” for Third Sunday in Lent, John 2:13-22. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2. Lent Through Eastertide.
[iii] “Is religion dying—or reinventing?” http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2012/03/07/is-religion-dying-or-reinventing/11168 Accessed March 7, 2015
[iv] Why I hate Religion, But Love Jesus || Spoken Word, http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=1IAhDGYlpqY Accessed March 7, 2015. See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Why_I_Hate_Religion,_But_Love_Jesus
[v] From David Kinnaman, unChristian: What a New Generation Thinks about Christianity…and Why it Matters. (Baker Books, 2007)
Image credit from the Brick Testament, “Temple Tantrum,” http://www.thebricktestament.com/the_life_of_jesus/temple_tantrum/jn02_15a.html