“Provoking Jesus”

What is your image of Jesus? A quick internet search reveals a typical Jesus “look” out there in our culture. Long, flowing hair and beard. Gentle, sad eyes. Holding a lamb or hugging a child. Light emanating from behind his figure.

But this “nice” Jesus isn’t the real Jesus. It certainly isn’t the Jesus we meet in today’s text. He wields a whip, roars with anger, shoves tables over, stomps around, throws coins on the floor. He’s pissed. He’s rude. He doesn’t care about the consequences.

Anger is a natural response to so much in our lives. It is an important emotion, a feeling that often tells truths we need to express or hear. And yet, as Debra Dean Murphy, religion professor and blogger, points out, anger is almost never talked about in church. She writes: “The seething rage I may feel in a board meeting or Bible study is more likely to come spilling out afterward in a private conversation in the church parking lot” [good thing we at First Church don’t have a parking lot!] (and thus my personal ire and the group’s larger discord will almost surely go unresolved). The “niceness” that Christians have taken to be our highest calling has us regularly avoiding conflicts both large and small, and leaves us bereft of the skills to distinguish between petty acrimony and righteous anger, between misplaced indignation and anger as both gift and necessity.” (Debra Dean Murphy, assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College, 3/7/12 blog post: http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2012/03/anger-in-church/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=anger-in-church)

What was it, exactly, that provoked Jesus? Addressing this question turns out to be a complex and thorny task. My untangling of its difficulties in this sermon will rely heavily on Marcus Borg and John Crossan’s discussion in their book The Last Week. (By the way, this excellent book is what our Tuesday Bible study is reading during this Lenten season).

First of all, we need to acknowledge that we, as Christians, often look at passages like this one through the prism of centuries of anti-semitism. It’s true that throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus spars with the Jewish authorities. Unfortunately, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible does not address the subtleties of this interaction, and simply calls those adversaries “The Jews”. The Gospel writer; however, doesn’t mean the Jewish people as a whole, or the Jewish religion or culture. He means the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the priests and the scribes. Even more specifically, Jesus clashed with those religious leaders who controlled the life of the temple. Borg and Crossan explain that in those days, the Jewish high priest was “Rome’s primary local collaborator” and that the temple as a building and an institution, was “both the house of God on earth and the institutional seat of submission to Rome.” (The Last Week, p. 42)

So… was Jesus upset with corruption on the part of those doing business in the temple? There’s no hint of that, at least in John’s account. Those selling animals and exchanging coins were just making a living by providing a necessary service. What about the practice of sacrifice itself? Was that offensive to Jesus? Again, we have no reason to think so. Animal sacrifice may be strange to us, but for Jesus, it would have simply been a normal way to worship. (The Last Week, p. 36-37)

Jesus’ action in the temple was rooted in the perspective of Jewish prophets that reached back many centuries. These prophets condemned not worship or the temple, per se, but specifically, worship that had become a substitute for a living faith, for an ethic of justice and care in relation to God’s people and God’s world. (The Last Week, p. 43-47) Jesus shouts, “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” In other words, because of the ruling authorities’ collaboration with Rome, the house of God had become only a marketplace, only a place that served the outer trappings of a religious life, without supporting the inner transformation of that life. The temple had become an institution that bought and sold the allegiance of people of faith to the violent, oppressive powers that ruled their world.

In the face of the misuse of his religious tradition, Jesus commits an act of what we might call “civil disobedience”.  Jesus’ angry outburst stops all the normal day to day operations of the temple. Crossan and Borg argue that this momentary shut down is a symbolic destruction. (The Last Week, p. 48-49) It is a dramatic way of raising the question: why is this institution here? Is this community of worship and practice serving its true purpose, or not?

What would Jesus symbolically destroy if he came into our sanctuary? What part of our budget would he angrily tear up? What business would he rudely interrupt if he visited the meetings of our church boards? What would he say when he stormed into our educational programs or service work or actions for justice?

Personally, I hear the tables clattering and coins clanking when I think about our stained glass windows, for instance. Now don’t get me wrong; I was in support of the decision the Trustees made a couple of months ago to repair one of the windows to the tune of $25,000. But I still find myself doing some soul searching. Is it right to use that money for windows, rather than the needs of people around us? Do those windows – and indeed our whole physical structure– support our deeper reason for being as a church? Or do these things keep us from our real purpose? If there’s a disconnect there, how can it be healed? Is it an either/or or can we have a both/and? Believe me, I don’t have the answers. I just know these are the kinds of questions we must ask openly and without fear of offending each other if we are to be committed to being an institution whose worship and community life supports our own inner transformation and that of our society, if we are to resist, rather than serve, powers of violence and oppression.

Getting back to anger, Jesus’ and ours, what makes it righteous, rather than destructive? Jesus shows us that appropriate, productive, respectful expressions of anger are always rooted in love. The temple authorities challenged Jesus, asking him for a “sign” that his actions came from God. And in response Jesus said something pretty breath-taking. He declared, “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Gospel writer clarifies: “he was speaking about the temple of his body.” Jesus didn’t angrily condemn the way things were and then walk away. He took the struggle into his own body. He made it personal.

On the cross, Jesus incorporated the brokenness of the whole human body, and the whole earth body into his own being. He joined his body to the body of those being torn apart by the cruelty of Roman oppression and by the indifference and silence of his own religious leaders. As Paul puts it, this act of solidarity looked like foolishness, but there is a wisdom in it. The temple that serves God’s true purposes, Jesus insists, is not an ornate edifice that towers above the rubble of human life. It is a weak and humble body, constructed out of that very rubble. Like the ancient ruins of the church depicted on our bulletin cover, Jesus’ body-temple is raised to life again in subtle, unexpected ways which resemble the moss that clings to crumbled stone and the vines that spring from the very rock.

Jesus is the foundation of the church – as we’re about to sing. But which Jesus? The nice Jesus? Or the real Jesus? The Jesus who mildly submits to the image created for him by Hallmark? Or the Jesus whose anger destroys and disrupts our status quo to tell difficult truths with love? Is our Jesus bound by the walls of some temple of stone, Or does he build an earthy temple out of the bone and blood of life itself? Which Jesus do we want, the Jesus who serves the empires of violence and oppression? Or the Jesus who transforms these powers by way of cross and resurrection? Amen.