Getting the Temple Back

A sermon based on John 2:13-22
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 4, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott

For those of us who picture Jesus like Hollywood usually portrays him , as always very calm and sweet and gentle, today’s lesson can be a bit of shock. It portrays a very different Jesus.

In John Jesus appears at his first fully public place – as we just heard Cliff read– in a non-docile mode. Jesus is an intense protestor. He makes a whip of nearby cords and drives people and livestock out of a Sacred space in the Temple being used to buy, sell and exchange things. He pours out coins and overturns tables. He tells merchants to “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” This is not a soft spoken, quiet and calm Jesus, he is agitated, agitating, animated and angry. He’s a real person and passionate . . . like the rest of us, Jesus gets angry.

Earthly powers, including church backed elite and governments and government and elite backed churches, do not like this Jesus. They’d rather we not emulate him or look too deeply into what he’s protesting . . . because it is their actions. They don’t mind telling us to be like Jesus when we imagine him as they’d like, docile, calm and genteel, when his mission seems to just be to save individual sinner’s souls from the afterlife. But an angry animated protestor Jesus working to save humanity from earthly power’s ways in the here and now, to save humanity from THEIR decisions– does not bode well for them. Because, by God . . . and I mean that literally . . “by God” leaders and nations are supposed to take care of all of humanity– the minorities and the majority. This is especially religious leaders’ duty. All the Jewish prophets before Jesus taught essentially that!

And in Jesus’ Day there was no difference between government and religion. Caesar was considered a god and the leader of Rome’s religion. The Temple and Jewish Kings in Palestine were religious leaders who in the gospels helped Caesar and his cronies (like Pilate) govern.

The prophets in Judaism had long taught that houses of worship, temples for God and all their trappings mean absolutely nothing if the sick and the poor and the stranger and the imprisoned – AND actually everyone else– are not being properly cared for in any place and any time. Micah and Amos and Isaiah all prophesy in one way or another that God does not give a fig for religious acts if they do not lead to working for justice and kindness in humble relationship with God. In other words, religion without action toward the well being of others– ALL OTHERS– is meaningless. Religion that oppresses is even worse. It makes God angry.

And yes, Love can be angry and still love. And so Jesus can be loving and still be angry. He can grab a whip and crack it and upset the Temple and chase people and cattle out of a Holy place. Indeed that very act can symbolize what all the prophets are about, if we understand Jesus’ conduct to have been done to seek justice and to get us to love kindness! Nowhere does our lesson say Jesus hits anyone, this is not about hurting people, its about getting the attention of leaders to stop them from hurting people or letting people get hurt by denying them access to God . . . who IS love.

The Gospel of John was the last Gospel written, probably seventy years or so after Jesus was crucified. The author does not appear to have had access to the other gospel accounts, or the communities they were written in. In fact John’s community appears to have been somewhat isolated from other Jewish Jesus Followers. They also were very likely embroiled in a type of crisis created throughout Judaism after the fall of the Temple in 70 AD. Without the central Temple in Jerusalem local synagogues became centers of authority. Conflict over who would control the synagogue and the have the authority appears to have sometimes occurred.

Two of sects of Judaism that are in the New Testament are likely the two in conflict in John. One was Pharisaic-Judaism the predecessor of modern Judaism. The other was Jesus-Follower-Judaism, the predecessors of modern Christianity. Apparently the Jesus Followers in John’s community experienced being expelled as heretics from a synagogue. That appears to be a huge part of the conflict going on and the barbs being exchanged.

It is important that we understand this is a conflict between two Jewish communities in the throes of upheaval with the Temple falling and the loss of the whole Temple system that had been in effect for centuries including the time when both Jesus and Paul walked on the earth. Both of the Jewish communities in John’s locale – we are not sure where that was– are frustrated and angry with each other and while the Gospel of John is not solely about that conflict, the writing reflects it.

The heresy that caused the expulsion of the Jesus Followers is not stated, but it is fair to guess it at least included the Jesus Followers’ replacement of circumcision with baptism as an initiation rite into Judaism. They allowed Gentiles into the faith without compliance with a central tradition. We know too that by this time Jesus Followers were also lax on enforcing kosher food requirements on the Gentile converts. Many in Judaism including the first disciples of Jesus found the lax following of long held Jewish requirements problematic, even heretical.

And while modern Christians tend to side with the Jesus Followers in John (since they are the sect we come out of and understand best as present day Gentiles), we need to be respectful of Pharisaic Judaism as a whole, and not blame Jews back then or today for the misbehavior portrayed on either side, especially elite religious leaders portrayed as acting to placate Rome. Moreover, objectively, it does not seem unfair of those in Pharisaic Judaism to remove from a synagogue those who oppose centuries old religious practices. On top of which, Jesus and his following came out of Judaism and were Jewish– this is a Jewish movement at the time. Which makes for a lot of irony looking back at history and this story.

I struggled with how to explain the irony as I put this sermon together. Here is what I settled on, hoping (and praying) it makes sense while honoring history and both forms of Judaism. One irony is that the Jewish Jesus Followers later become Christianity which develops its own orthodoxies that have little to do with Judaism or Rabbi Jesus’ teachings–and later Christians elites often placating governments turn around and use them to expel heretics and Gentiles and Jewish people for non-compliance– there has tragically, of course, been very awful violent and very evil mistreatment of Jews in the name of Christianity.

Another irony is– as I mentioned– that the Jesus Following is very Jewish, led originally by the Jewish Rabbi Jesus who got the core of teachings from Judaism, as did the Apostle Paul himself a Pharisee. In addition, all of Jesus’ disciples, and all of the Jesus Followers, up to and even beyond the time that John was written continued to practice Judaism. They were Jewish and following Yahweh the One of God of Judaism. As I also mentioned, Jewish prophets traditionally protested like Jesus does in our lesson. So today’s lesson began as a Jewish story about a Jewish hero to a Jewish sect. He’s a hero in it for behaving prophetically Jewish.

Before I move onto that, I need to point out that the late penning of the Gospel of John; the community’s isolation; the upheaval from the loss of the Temple; the disputes over Jewish practices; along with all the events that transpired in the decades since Jesus’ ministry, they all add up to a gospel in the Book of John that is very different from the other gospels. Stories familiar from Matthew, Mark and Luke when found in John often have different twists and appear in different chronological sequence. There are also unique stories not in the other gospels, as well as different sayings and symbolism . . . and theology. And while all the Gospels mention Jesus’ protest in the temple, John is the only one to record Jesus beginning his public ministry with it. And John is the only one to record a whip and large livestock and Jesus asserting “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Jesus’ protest took place in the part of the Temple called the “Court of the Gentiles” the only place where the non-Jewish people could come into the Sacred Temple grounds. It was an outer area, but Holy ground none-the-less. It may not sound like much but having an area for Gentiles was important. Like today, Gentiles far outnumbered Jews in the world. But as Judaism became better known in the Roman Empire through interaction and occupation by Rome, a good number of Gentiles followed Judaism, followed Yahweh, but most did so without officially converting to the religion. Gentiles tended not to convert because very painful circumcision was required, along with strict (and strange to Gentiles) dietary restrictions. The Gentiles followers of Judaism were though otherwise devoted to Judaism and were called “God Fearers” and they hung around local synagogues.

Back when the Temple in Jerusalem existed though, no matter how devoted non-converts were they were restricted to the Court of the Gentiles. This court is the area of the Temple where religious leaders in Jesus’ time decide to put markets for sacrificial animals and money changing. The Temple elite apparently did not give priority to a Sacred worship area for Gentiles, but gave priority to sales and money conversions, acts that could have been done outside the Temple.

All four gospels have Jesus protesting the Temple elite relating to and the market area. All four have Jesus a prophetically decrying the elite for putting form over substance, for in essence having worship without aiming toward helping others. Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus protesting at the end of his ministry that the elite have made the Temple a den of robbers. The elite are in cahoots with Rome taking taxes, leading God’s People with the trappings of worship, but failing to provide justice by not actively opposing Rome’s injustices.

The Gospel of John varies here, Jesus not only begins his out in the public ministry by protesting in the Temple but does so focusing on the market place, not on the den of robbers. The Temple area that Gentiles were supposed to be welcome in has been made inhospitable and un-worshipful as least as John portrays it full of all sorts of animals and buyers and sellers and change making. The presence of this market in John’s telling denied a Holy place for “God Fearers,” the Gentile followers of Judaism. And as John tells it, Jesus is very angry about it.

Although Gentiles in the form of Roman legions and bureaucrats occupied the Jewish homeland and terrorized its inhabitants, Judaism had long called for the love of neighbors and strangers, and hospitality and welcome for them. Jesus teaches that this includes enemies. The Temple had at one time had such a welcoming place. Synagogues did too.

The Jewish Jesus movement tried to do even more by removing obstacles of circumcision and dietary restrictions. The Jesus Followers at this time are trying to practice Jewish egalitarianism as Rabbi Jesus emphasized and taught, where even members of the oppressive Gentile race could be radically welcome they did this by setting aside what they saw as formalities. So we can understand John emphasizing a Gentile friendly place in Judaism was taken away in the Temple –not unlike the Gentile friendly place in Judaism was taken away in their former synagogue. In both cases the suggestion is that Gentiles were being denied full love and welcome in the Way that the very Jewish Jesus followers radically understood Yahweh and the priorities of Torah required. The story suggest that they are angry about the discrimination and they show Jesus is too. Not only that, when the story was written we know that the Temple is gone and John has Jesus claim that he is the Temple. Confusing the religious elite but not us or John’s community.

John has Jesus refer to himself and his resurrection in the lesson when he says “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” While our reading can be heard as Jesus making a way for Gentiles in the Temple– while he was alive– John was written well after Jesus lived and noone when John was written had a Temple building to go to, because Rome had destroy it. Jews and God Fearers in John’s day were meeting in local synagogues throughout the Mediterranean.

Here’s some important meaning from all this: John’s community having been removed from a synagogue, found a way to move on without one, by reclaiming the superior locale of God in a new Temple. The new Temple being the resurrected Jesus. They metaphorically get the Temple back and he goes where they go. He is understood as the locale of Christ, God’s incarnational presence on earth. The Temple building is replaced with the Temple Body of Christ. This allows the Jewish Jesus Followers to have a Sacred presence to worship with whether they had a synagogue or not.

But I think that the greatest take away from the lesson is that these early Jewish Jesus Followers took Jesus approach to the Jewish teachings with a message of loving neighbors to heart so much so that they understood Jesus to be prophetically angry when even the otherwise non-marginalized Gentiles were being excluded form worship. So Jesus is portrayed upset with the mistreatment of Gentile neighbors, and even seventy years later Jesus Followers were willing to be cast out of a synagogue for their Gentile neighbors. That is how vibrant their love through Jesus’ Way was!

Over the years Christianity has at times failed to embrace that Jewish teaching by the Jewish Rabbi Jesus. There have been, and continue to be, lack-love denials of access to places for worship, not because of misconduct or misbehavior but because of traditions that put form over substance. In churches like this, we try to get back to Jesus’ Way, to John’s way of being a Follower of Jesus. In that respect we are conservatives, trying to conserve Jesus’ vibrant love-everyone-Way that has a place for everyone minorities and majorities.

May we continue to be such a place and followers of Jesus.