240310 – Wondering – Zeal

Yr B ~ Lent 4 ~ John 2:13-22

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild…goes to the Temple in Jerusalem and doesn’t like what he sees – people selling animals for sacrifice at a profit, money-changers skimming off the top of the temple tax – so gentle Jesus, meek and mild…makes a whip out of some cords, waves it around, and drives the whole lot of them out of the Temple, overturning their tables, and pouring the coins out all over the floor.

Imagine you were standing in line to buy one of those animals and pay your tax. I wonder how you might feel in that moment. It’s an incredible scene. And it’s recorded in all four gospels, although with slightly different details. What’s unique to John’s telling? Well, the whip, for one. There’s no whip in any of the other three.

The reaction of the authorities is different here too. In the others the authorities begin to plot to kill Jesus, and they do exactly that in the Holy Week story we’ll rehearse in a few weeks. Not in John though. In John, the authorities enter into a dialogue with Jesus, and the first thing they say is, “What the what?” Ok, they actually say, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” John’s gospel is all about signs and wonders, so they’re asking “How is this a sign?”

Jesus answers with a riddle. John 2:19 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’

You and I hear that and we instantly get the riddle. In three days I will raise it up. Three days, raised – he’s talking about the resurrection. We know the rest of the story. They didn’t. But they get something we don’t. And who do I mean by ‘they’?

John 2:20-21 The Jewish authorities then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But (Jesus) was speaking of the temple of his body.

Ok, a couple of things here. First, you should always substitute ‘the Jewish authorities’ every time John’s gospel says ‘the Jews’. ‘The Jews’ are always the bad guys in this book. It helps to remember that John’s gospel was written by Jewish Christians who were in a nasty synagogue fight with other Jewish folks who didn’t accept Jesus as Messiah. (You may have heard that church fights are often nasty!) So the phrase ‘the Jews’ always comes out feeling derogatory, because it was meant that way by those infighting, but taken out of that context and across a few centuries it sounds remarkably anti-Semitic. It’s best to rephrase it as ‘the Jewish authorities’ which is much more respectful for us, so far removed from that time and place.

Now let’s talk about the Temple. This gets tricky. We have to step out of the narrative and remember that John is not writing a historical documentary; he’s writing theology to persuade the audience. It’s critical to remember the time line. Jesus did his ministry in the early 0030s. The Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE, 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. John’s gospel was written in the 90s (probably). In other words, anyone hearing John’s version of the Jesus story had experienced the trauma of the Temple destruction, and they were still reeling from it 20 years later because it gutted the Jewish religious system.

As the memory of the Temple destruction is stinging the narrator offers a wild new theological idea to the audience. Verse 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. [mind blows] Since there was no Temple in the 90s there was a void, and into that void comes this new theological idea that the body can be the temple of God’s glory – and later we expand on this idea and extrapolate to say that it’s not just Jesus who is the temple wherein God resides, but all of us are the temple of God too. God doesn’t reside behind a curtain in a secluded room in the Temple that’s only visited once a year, but instead God’s glory can dynamically reside within our temples, our hearts!
That’s awesome. That’s wondrous. That’s wonder-full!

The Jewish authorities missed that, but it’s too bad the disciples didn’t get it either, because John 2:22 says After Jesus was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

That the disciples don’t recognize the depth of Jesus’ teaching in the moment, when they were right there, gives me comfort!

There’s a pithy saying that goes, “In the bible we learn that the Word became flesh, and we’ve spent all our time turning it back into words again.”

What’s this building we’re in called? A church. We say we’re going to ‘the church’. We even call these places holy temples. But what did Jesus just teach us? That we are the real temples of God. The English word ‘church’ has a long and complicated etymology but it essentially came from the idea of the ‘Lord’s house’ – kyriake oikia – but curiously the house part (oikia) got dropped and kyriake got mangled over the centuries into the Old English circe, which evolved into ‘church’.

But when you see the word ‘church’ in the bible it doesn’t mean Lord’s House – it’s actually translating the Greek word ecclesia which means ‘the gathered ones’ or ‘the assembly of called out ones’. The bible understood ‘church’ as meaning people, and over time we mangled that understanding to become bricks and mortar buildings. Turns out we’re just as dim as the disciples, and the Jewish authorities.

So yes, this place is a temple of God’s glory, of course it is. And like the Temple in Jerusalem temples like this can be desecrated in all sorts of ways – and maybe we need gentle Jesus meek and mild to whip up another whip and do some table flipping. I’m sure we can all think of examples of churches that have twisted Jesus’ teachings so badly they’ve turned into hateful and judgmental places. They definitely deserve to have their tables flipped! And that’s why we need so many rainbows around here to counteract all that unlovingness.

But let’s pause, and take a deep breath, and remember that it’s really you and me who are the temples of God’s glory. And, sadly, we are capable of some pretty nasty desecration of these temples too. Our bad habits, our lack of exercise, our poor choices, our half-hearted spirituality, our mistreatment of these beautiful houses of God. Maybe Jesus needs to come and flip my tables too – and yours?

Happily, we’re already attending to our temples. That’s why we are ecclesia (the gathered ones) today. We’re at church [building], being church [people], to take care of our church [body]! And lots of us do a lot of attending to all 3 temples. You might even say we have a real zeal for it! This ‘church’ (building and people) functions so well, and does such wonderful ministry because of your collective zeal. All the groups, and committees, and ministries, and events that we’re hearing about through the Annual Report, and the issues we’re attending to in this annual meeting, are the result of your abundant zeal. Zeal means to be fervent, enthusiastic, burning with emotion, ardour. Spirit-filled zeal is the rocket fuel that powers this ecclesia! And when you’re doing your thing you are a wonder to behold!

However – just like gentle Jesus meek and mild, sometimes our zeal can get the better of us and we can overdo it. Remember what the disciples said as they watched Jesus flip out? John 2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’

That’s from Psalm 69:9, which is about a character known as ‘the righteous sufferer’ who is being persecuted for zealously defending God. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.

Zeal for God’s house – the bricks and mortar ones, and the flesh and bone ones – can be a very good thing – and it can also be a bad thing and consume you if it becomes overzealous. Finding that balance is not easy. That’s why we journey together, to help one another figure it out.

It will be your spirit-filled zeal for this ecclesia that will carry you through this next season in the life of Faith. You could say that my departure in June will symbolically ‘destroy’ this current version of this ecclesia – this unique gathering of people of faith. But I have every confidence that you will zealously rebuild this ‘church’ in a fresh, renewed way. It’ll probably take more than three days though – but it won’t be 46 years! And if you don’t do it well I might have to come back and flip a few tables.

May your zeal for God’s church not consume you, but inspire you and empower you to journey forth in wonder, awe, and love.