Sunday, January 21, 2018

1-21-18 “Losing My Religion”

1-21-18  “Losing My Religion”


   When I was younger I used to like to build card houses. I would use one, two or even three decks of cards and see how high, how big, how complex a house of cards I could build. I had my own personal way of starting - my initial building block if you will  - that began with 6 cards as the central core of my house.
   However, even with my 6 card starting block, as I worked away from that central core, going wider and higher, the house became increasingly more fragile, more unsteady, more susceptible to collapse from a breeze or too sudden of a movement. The farther we move away from the strong central core, the easier it is for the entire house of cards to come crashing down.

   So,  I want to invite you to ponder some questions: Can you be a Christian without being religious? 
  Or, put another way, does being a member of a religion make you, by default, a religious person? 
Do you have to be part of an organized religion or even a religious person to experience God’s love?
   Do you consider yourself to be a religious person? Think about those things as we move through our discussion of John.

   The first church book study I ever participated in was titled How To Be A Christian Without Being Religious, a study of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, while in youth group in the mid 1970s. And while I remember nothing about the book, the title has intrigued me for over 40 years: How to Be Christian Without Being Religious. Now, when you think about religion in general, what do you think of? Ritual, tradition, rules, laws, doctrine, faith, practice, dogma? One of the most famous collections of rules or laws, either within or outside of organized religion, is the Ten Commandments. And we’ve talked about them before - the first four commandments are about our relationship with God, and the last six, generally, are about our relationship with one another, and that it is from these ten that the 613 rules or laws of the Torah came to be. And among these 613 are those concerned with temple sacrifice - what was and was not allowed. For example, animals offered for sacrifice had to be pure, spotless, and unblemished. Well, good luck with that right? Especially if you, like most people, had to travel to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration to make your sacrifice.
By the first century the Passover had kind of merged with the Festival of Unleavened Bread into a celebration, rooted in the tradition of the exodus from Egypt, of God’s preservation and protection of God’s peoples against all forms of oppression, danger, and evil. It had transitioned from what originally was a localized family ritual into a national pilgrimage festival celebrated in Jerusalem. 

 For many, days of travel made it nearly impossible to bring an animal suitable for sacrifice. But fortunately, they sold pure, spotless, and unblemished animals for sacrifice at the temple! Who knew?! And remember that commandment about having no graven images? Well, the Roman coinage of the day was engraved with the image of Caesar and the words “Son of God” on them. So, the people couldn’t pay their temple tax with THOSE coins, but as it happens, there were money-changers there who could exchange those Roman coins for temple coins that were acceptable for the tax. Cha-ching!
   This was how the Temple system operated, it’s how they had always done it. There was nothing inherently wrong in the selling of the animals or the exchanging of the money - it was a needed service. Rather, it was the systemic corruption built into it, benefitting a few at the expense of the many, that was the issue that led Jesus to condemn the whole lot as a den of thieves, according to the synoptics.
   But John, instead of pointing to corrupt activities within the system as the synoptics do, points to the corruption of the system itself. “Don’t make my Father’s house into a place of business.” That is, don’t make God’s presence, God’s love, a transaction, we might hear. Don’t try to limit God’s presence only to those who play along with this Temple system. Don’t use God as a tool to divide people into insiders and outsiders, us and them. So these are among the temple rules and laws that the people faced - that Jesus encounters in our passage today. And in making his point, we see the only real act of violence by Jesus in the gospels.
   Now, some background. All of the gospels are written sometime after the temple about which they write was destroyed by Rome in the year 70 CE. So, they’re all reflecting back in time when they write. In the synoptic gospels, the gospels that should be “seen together” - Matthew, Mark, and Luke - Jesus spends his entire ministry in Galilee and Judea - away from the big cities and nowhere near Jerusalem. A timeline based on these gospels suggests Jesus’ ministry lasted about one year. John’s gospel, on the other hand, has Jesus going to Jerusalem for the Passover three times - a ministry of at least three years. 
   And this is one of the rare stories found in all four gospels. That said, John’s version is very different from the others. First, there is his placement. 
The synoptics place this story in Jesus’ final week, what we call “Holy Week,” and it is this act that results in the authorities having Jesus arrested and eventually crucified. In John, on the other hand, this is the first public act of Jesus’ ministry, following the miraculous changing of water into wine at a private wedding. So for John, this is how Jesus begins his ministry.
   Another way that John’s telling differs is in the words Jesus uses. In the synoptics, Jesus accuses them of having turned the temple into a “den of thieves” or “den of robbers,” depending on which translation you use. 
In John, again depending on the translation, he says they’ve made the temple into a “marketplace” or a “place of business.” There’s no suggestion or accusation of the people being cheated here, Jesus is criticizing how they’ve turned the practice of worship, the ability TO worship, into some sort of transaction. Salvation for sale, if you will. Even more, the money-changers and merchants had filled the Court of the Gentiles, the outermost and largest part of the temple grounds where the most people could gather, so there was no room to gather, no place for them to worship and to pray. 
The trappings of religion, the rules, the laws, even the dogmas, had pushed out God’s people - there was no room for God’s people in God’s house.
   And there’s one other difference. In the synoptics, Jesus sees what is going on and explodes, immediately turning over tables left and right. In John, though, he sees, he stops, he considers, he then finds some good rope and makes a whip - that is, Jesus has a weapon - and then he basically goes berserk on anyone and everyone. John tells a very different version of this story.
   So what is the result of Jesus’ action, the most immediate effect? By dumping the tables and driving out the animals he makes it impossible to offer sacrifices according to the law. Why? Well John the Baptist told us earlier, in a speech found only in the Gospel of John: Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” When Jesus, the Word made flesh, comes, in other words, everything changes. And among the first of these changes is that there is no longer need to sacrifice, as God will interact with God’s people in a whole new way.

   So when we are confronted by this story, and we really are confronted by it because in many ways it can be disturbing to those who like their Jesus “meek and mild,” we find Jesus “cleansing” the temple, as it has come to be known, but cleansing it of what - of animals? of merchants? of money-traders?

 I would suggest that he’s cleansing it of religion; religion in the form of adherence to a strict set of doctrines, rules or laws. Theologian Nibs Stroupe suggests that in this act, Jesus strikes a blow “at the heart of his religious tradition,” and this act should be seen as “a challenge to all religious establishments captured by the powers of the world.” Jesus tells the Temple powers-that-be, when asked for a sign to show by what authority he has created such chaos, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.” 
  Unlike the synoptics, the author of John tells us that Jesus meant this metaphorically, speaking of his body, and that his disciples remembered this and came to understand Jesus’ meaning later. “Even as a metaphor,” Stroupe suggests, “Jesus’ answer is a threat to the religious establishment…Jesus is making the claim that his life, death, and resurrection will replace the temple as the location of the dwelling place of God - a bold and outrageous claim indeed. [So] we can see why John places this story at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. While the Synoptics may be historically correct in their placement of the story in Holy Week near the end, John lifts up the foundational meaning of this event by placing it toward the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ purpose is not just to clean up the temple. His resurrected body will replace the temple. John is emphasizing that the Christ event - his life, death, and resurrection - changes everything, especially long established religious traditions and understandings.” The Word that was with God and is God and now has become flesh making the invisible God known, has come onto the scene precisely to reveal God. As Jesus will tell the Samaritan woman two chapters later, "the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" (4:21). Why, because God is present in Jesus and Jesus is the central core of the faith.

  This second sign from John - remember a sign functions to point us in the right direction - is pointing to who Jesus really is, and is a dramatic departure from the miracle-induced joy, celebration, and abundance of the wedding in Cana. 
Here, we move to a prophetic tension-filled sign, and as Stroupe alludes,  “This is heavy and dangerous stuff for all institutions and systems. In our modern world, which emphasizes the marketplace and money as the keys to life, this passage should serve as a strong warning about our captivity to the systems of the world. In this story one can almost hear the prophetic power of Amos’ harsh words [that we heard earlier]: “I hate, I despise your festivals…Take away from me the noise of your songs…But let justice roll down like waters.”

  The cleansing of the temple is God’s sign that the Temple religion and laws had been surpassed and that it is in Jesus and his teachings that we find God revealed, confirmed when he said, “I have come to fulfill the laws and the prophets.” To fulfill them means to complete, to move on from, or to replace the system they represent, to bring to an end the temple religion that resulted in, perhaps even intended, people’s being excluded from the worship of or the realm of God. Jesus is saying that the temple had stopped being the house of God when it became an idol of sorts, a symbol of mere religion. “Religion” or “religious practice” had become more important than faith, and teaching, and relationships. Strict adherence to and enforcement of the laws had surpassed the intent of the commandments from which they were derived, especially as Jesus would re-form them and our understanding of them when he responded that the greatest commandment was “to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” In Jesus, grace surpasses law as the way of God.

   You see, Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. 
He was never called or considered a Christian; he was certainly not a Christian. Christianity developed as a result of the work of his followers in the post-resurrection period which is described in the Book of Acts and in the various Epistles. No, Jesus was trying to reform the Jewish religion, how it was practiced and understood, while Christianity developed as an offshoot of Judaism. Jesus wasn’t trying to starting a new religion. He never said, “worship me,” only “follow me.”

   Religion is something we build with our hands and our minds - and like that house of cards, it often comes crashing down. Faith, on the other hand, is something that God plants in us and that guides us in how we live our lives. Religion is often about both mental and physical compliance and conformity, while faith is about trust, and about who or what are the guiding forces that we trust in deciding how we live this life as well as with our eternal life.

  In a very striking way, Jesus is “reforming” the church. Like Martin Luther 1500 years later, Jesus is making very clear where he is in disagreement with the ways of religion and how it is practiced at the expense of people, God’s people. Jesus becomes angry, even violent - images that “religion” doesn’t like because if Jesus is seen modeling violence and anger then the adherents 
to the religion might see that and copy it. No, religion likes to keep Jesus meek and mild, and toeing the company line.

   In addition to reforming the church, Jesus is also “re-forming” or remaking the church. His inclusive teachings about “who is my neighbor,” his fellowship with those considered to be unclean and/or sinners, his repudiation of the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees in public, his criticism of the trappings and rituals of their religious practice that excluded the least, the last and the lost, all were attempts to re-form the church, challenges to the status quo. And challenges to the status quo will always be disputed by those empowered by the status quo.

  John, as a gospel writer, displays a a recurring pattern: Jesus speaks, he is misunderstood, and then clarifications follow. When Jesus says the temple will be destroyed and rebuilt in 3 days, the religious leaders mistakenly assume he means the Herodian Temple building. That idea that Jesus might rebuild such a temple in 3 days is ludicrous...when misunderstood.
   John’s gospel continually warns us against misunderstanding - thinking we understand Jesus, when the Jesus we think we understand is a Jesus of our own design, created in our own image. And we all have our own preferred ideas of who Jesus is, our favorite way of thinking about what Jesus is like. Here’s an example of just how far-fetched that can get:


   Not only does this clip speak, with humor, to the idea of how we can sometimes create or cling to unrealistic ideas about Jesus, it also points to how our faith can be influenced by money, consumerism, and all the worldly influences.
   But what if there are more to his words than what we are hearing, more to his will than we are doing? We cannot begin to understand Jesus without knowing the whole story.  Even the disciples who were there with him everyday didn’t understand what was happening until after the resurrection. Then this and many other things that mystified them about Jesus became clear. And the message to all of his followers is clear-you can’t understand this man without knowing the entire story. And that part of the story comes during Lent.
  So, while this passage is about Jesus’ attempt to reform, or re-form the church, the season of Lent is about re-forming or reforming ourselves. 
This reforming gives us new identities as followers of Jesus and calls us to do new things. This passage in John today is an attack on accommodation, on accepting the status quo, it’s not about having bake sales in the sanctuary, it’s about the church being seduced by society, being in bed with the powers that be. 
The ways of the world invade the church gradually, subtly, always appearing to be in service to the church and its mission. But soon the church is full of cattle and sheep and turtledoves and moneychangers.

   The Law based religious system of the day had lost its way. Some argue that parts of the church today have also lost their way. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a not so subtle commentary on why and how. 
  What John is really saying is that temple religion (with all its baggage) will be no more - then or now. Instead Jesus, as the central core of our faith, reveals God to us. For John, the community - the church - is to be so centered on Jesus that it cannot help but invite a positive comparison with the temple community. 

   Is the church good news for the poor or does it seek 
to exclude like the temple authorities? John invites the church, and with it its people, to take a good look at itself, and consider whether we are religious people who care more about rules and order, or people of faith in Jesus who desire to model relationship with Jesus in how we live. 

   We, the church, are the body of Christ in the world today. The church, rather than being the place where God lives, is the place where God equips disciples to go out and be church - understanding the word “church” as a verb, and not just as a noun.  The church is not the Temple - the church is the training grounds, the place of preparation. This hour on Sunday morning is more like a weekly pitstop in a race, to equip us, to retool, to refuel, to change our tires if necessary, in order that we might continue to run the race that Christ calls us to. 
   Church is to be a place of safety, where all can come in out of the storms of life for a while and be reminded that God loves us, that God is with us, and that God gives us strength. And it is here, that Christ seeks to reform and “re-form” his disciples and his body the church to care for the least of these.

   We come to church, not because God can be found only here, but because when we worship together as Christ’s beloved community we can hear God's Word proclaimed in a way that helps us see and experience God in all of life. We come to church, not to practice our religion, but to grow in our faith, that when we go out into the world, people might come to know a little bit more about the love of God in us and through us. Ame

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