For Sunday March 7, 2021
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Among the many changes that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into our lives is a change in how we define and “do” church. What is church, these days? Is it the livestream service we watch on YouTube? Is it the gathering of the faithful over Zoom? Is it the private devotional time we spend with God in our living rooms? Whatever it is, it is not “business as usual.” For better or for worse, our global circumstances have forced us to change. To question. To deepen our comprehension of what “church” means.
I know that for many of us, this has been an occasion for sorrow. We wish we could go back to how things were. But even in our grief and longing, I wonder if God is issuing a hidden invitation. A hidden invitation to reimagine, develop, evolve, and grow. A hidden invitation to ask the most basic, ground-level questions about what we’re doing, and why.
In our Gospel reading this week, Jesus forces exactly these kinds of questions. The story is a difficult and perhaps even offensive one. The Jesus we’d rather keep tender and soft-spoken makes “a whip of cords,” drives sacrificial animals out of the temple, overturns tables, pours coins all over the floor, and tells the moneychangers to stop making his Father’s house a marketplace. When his stunned audience asks for a sign to authorize his violent actions, Jesus doesn’t bat an eye: “Destroy this temple,” he dares them, “and in three days I will raise it up.”
Not exactly gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
Biblical scholars have different theories about this story. Some argue that what Jesus calls out in his “cleansing” of the temple is not Judaism or its various forms of worship, but a system of exploitation via exorbitant tithes and taxes that blocks equal access to the divine, keeping the poor outside the gates of the temple, and forcing them into more and endless debt before they can approach God.
Others argue that what displeases Jesus is a Sabbath-only form of piety that separates temple rite from holy living, or a compartmentalization of faith that renders the temple “sacred” and the home “secular.” Professor of New Testament, Amy Jill-Levine is a proponent of these latter views, and makes a compelling analogy from the lection to our contemporary Christian lives: “The church member sins during the workweek, either by doing what is wrong or by failing to do what is right. Then on Sunday morning, this same individual, perhaps convinced of [their] personal righteousness, heartily sings the hymns, happily shakes the hands of others, and generously puts a fifty-dollar bill in the collection plate. That makes the church a den of robbers -- a cave of thieves. It becomes a safe place for those who are not truly repentant and who do not truly follow what Jesus asks. The church becomes a place of showboating, not of fishing for people.”
In my mind, all of these interpretations are compelling, and all point to a deeper and more unsettling truth about the one we call “Lord:” when it comes to our spiritual lives (both individual and collective), Jesus is not about “business as usual.” Jesus is not a protector of the status quo. Jesus has no interest in propping up institutions of faith that elevate comfort and complacency over holiness and justice.
No. Jesus is a disrupter. A leveller. An upender. As his disciples immediately realize when he throws out the moneychangers and occupies the temple, zeal is what animates the Messiah. Fervor, not casualness. Depths, not surfaces. He will not tolerate the desecration of his Father’s house. He is not impressed by “marketplace” faith.
Where does this leave us as Christians and churchgoers? What can we carry away from this disturbing story as we move deeper into Lent, a season of penitence and self-examination?
Perhaps we can begin by asking honest questions about our reactions to the story itself. How do we feel about Jesus’s posture, language, tone, and actions in the temple? Are we offended by his anger? His violence? His zeal? If yes, why? What cherished version of God, church, piety, or worship does Jesus threaten in this narrative?
And then: what are we passionate about when it comes to our faith? What are we most inclined to defend, to protect, to hoard? What are we zealous for as members of the body of Christ? Is zeal even on the radar, anymore? Or have we settled for a way of being Christian that is more rote, safe, casual, and comfortable than it is disorienting, challenging, transformative, and missional?
We don't hear much about anger in mainline churches these days. After all, there's something unseemly about rage, right? Something unsophisticated, something crude? It's not polite to get angry, and it's positively insupportable to stay angry. But Jesus — the temple of God — burns with zeal for his Father’s house. He doesn’t use love and forgiveness as palliatives; he allows a holy anger to move him to action on behalf of a more robust, equitable, holistic, and impassioned spiritual practice. In the story of the temple cleansing, there is nothing godly about responding to complacency or injustice with passive acceptance or unexamined complicity.
Jesus interrupts “business as usual” for the sake of justice and holiness. He interrupts worship as usual for the sake of justice and holiness. His love for God, the temple, and its people compels him to righteous anger. If we ourselves are temples — holy places where heaven and earth meet — then what would it be like to work, as Jesus does, to preserve and protect all bodies, all holy places, all temples, from every form of irreverence and desecration? What would it be like to decide that our highest calling as Christians is not to niceness?
In her widely influential essay, “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love,” Beverly Harrison writes: “The important point is that where feeling is evaded, where anger is hidden or goes unattended, masking itself, there the power of love, the power to act, to deepen relation, atrophies and dies.”
Where, I’m asking myself during this Lenten season, has my power to act, to deepen relationship, or to love fiercely, atrophied? Where has my faith become so rote, so abstract, so disembodied, that I no longer find it natural or easy to rejoice with those who rejoice, or mourn with those who mourn? Where am I refusing to ask the hard questions -- the questions that will pull me into uncharted and risky territory for the sake of the church, Christ’s body?
Whenever the pandemic winds down, our communities open up, and we find ourselves free to return to “business as usual” on Sunday mornings, I hope we won’t. I hope we’ll remember Jesus, who upended the temple when it forgot how to be the Father’s house. I hope we’ll burn with the passion that animated the whip-wielding, coin-scattering Christ. I hope we’ll settle for nothing less than churches that are, truly, houses for prayer, welcome, freedom, and hope for all nations.
Debie Thomas: email@example.com
Image credits: (1) Art UK; (2) St Andrew's - The Scots Memorial Church - Jerusalem; and (3) A Church for Starving Artists.