St Michael’s, Lent 3, 11 March 2012
Preacher Rev Dr Stewart Gillan
John 2: 13–22, Jesus cleanses the Temple
‘Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.’ John 2: 15
Today’s gospel reading is a rocky one. It has made for a rocky sermon.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen
Jesus made a whip out of cords. It is a considered action. It would have taken him some time. We sometimes think it came on him all of a sudden. His anger. That he flew off the handle in a moment of rage. But the account in John’s gospel adds this remarkable detail, not found in Matthew, Mark and Luke: Jesus made a whip. It slows the story down, and concentrates the mind.
The word used for whip in the text – phragellion – was a loan word, borrowed from the Latin flagellum: a lash, a scourge used in public punishment. This is the only place the word is used in the New Testament. I think it is significant that phragellion came into the everyday Greek of Jesus’ time via the language of the Romans, the overlords of Empire.
Jesus made a whip.
Perhaps we can picture his disciples, watching him make it. Wondering what was going on in his mind. There in that sacred place, the Great Temple of Jerusalem, as it stood some 46 years into its construction. Still with a long way to go, but already hugely impressive. Herod the Great’s masterpiece. Never mind he would not live to see its completion.
And it is Passover. Thousands upon thousands of people are streaming into the city, making their way to the Temple precinct to offer sacrifices to the Lord, to give thanks for deliverance from slavery in Egypt so long ago. It is heaving with people.
And with animals for sacrifice: John places cattle, sheep and doves in the Temple precinct itself. And there are moneychangers. For Roman and Greek coinage, because of the imperial or pagan portraits that they bore, were not acceptable currencies in the Temple precinct. Denarii and drachmas had to be exchanged for what we might call ‘kosher coins.’
These coins were used in the purchase of animals for sacrifice. If you had not brought one with you from home, or if the one you brought with you had any blemish at all, you needed to buy one at or near the Temple. And so the traders in cattle, sheep and doves were doing a brisk business, as were the money changers, who charged commission on each transaction.
If you were filming it, it would be a crowd scene, loud, with a lot going on. And there, in the midst of it, would be a man making a whip out of lengths of rope. Or rushes. With his disciples looking on, getting that tight feeling in the pits of their stomachs. What was he going to do with it?
Weapons were not allowed into the Temple precinct for a start. This is why Jesus has to make his own. Not to mention the fact that he knows how to make a whip. Perhaps it was not difficult.
So he’s winding it and weaving it, and then he’s all action. This was his Father’s house – it is personal for him – a house of prayer that the traders and moneychangers had turned into a common market. It was a holy place set aside for sacrifice, for approaching the Lord with thanksgiving and praise. To trade on people’s piety, on their spiritual obligations before the Lord, was to profane that space. And we might note that the sellers of doves are signalled out especially: it was the poor who bought the doves, being unable to afford anything else.
Now, the need for the cleansing of holy places was not new in Israel. Jesus stands in a powerful prophetic tradition, as he would certainly have known. Here, for example, is the prophet Amos, some 750 years earlier, proclaiming the word of the Lord:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. (Amos 5: 21-24.)
Powerful images of cleansing. The Lord’s language is uncompromising. Harsh. What was wanted was justice and righteousness. Ritual camouflage would not do; the Lord saw through it.
Jesus made a whip.
And we, what are we doing? We seem to be busy making rods for our own back. The Church seems to think it can promote justice while remaining complicit in injustice itself. Promote change while remaining unchanged itself. Christianity, together with other religions, stands accused of fomenting violence, child abuse, and hypocrisy regarding the poor and exploited. To name but three. A cleansing would seem to be needed.
There is historical precedent for such a cleansing. We need not cast about. I wish to cite two prominent examples from the 20th century.
In Nazi Germany, during a time of great testing for the Church, when the German Christian Movement was placing swastikas in churches, and Jesus was being made over into an Aryan, stripped of his Jewishness, a minority of Christians in the German Evangelical Church (Lutheran), including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, resisted the efforts of the Third Reich to co-opt their faith and church. The Barmen Declaration of 1934, drafted in the main by Karl Barth, proclaimed that a Christian’s allegiance was to Jesus Christ, ‘the one Word of God,’ and took this as the foundation of its resistance to the theological claims of the Nazi State. A status confessionis was declared. They rejected the so-called ‘Fuhrer principle’ for organising church government. It affected the integrity of the Church’s basic confession of Christ as Lord. It was not a matter upon which Christians could disagree and still stay together. It was of that order. To be a Nazi was thus to be out of communion with Christ and with one’s fellow Christians. Sadly, the Confessing Church was in the minority among Christians through the Nazi years.
The Barmen Declaration became a touchstone for the Christian resistance of unjust states after the war. In South Africa, the Belhar Declaration of 1982, drafted and first adopted by the Sendingkerk – the so-called Coloured Dutch Reformed Church – declared racism to be a sin and apartheid a secular gospel and a theological heresy. It declared apartheid to be a status confessionis for the Church, a matter in which the very truth of the gospel was at stake. Such that you could not support apartheid and be in communion with your fellow Christians. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), at its Assembly in Ottawa in 1982, took up the call, declaring: ‘Racism is a sin, and apartheid is a heresy.’ Alan Boesak, of the Sendingkerk, was elected President of the WARC in Ottawa. Member churches that supported apartheid lost their membership of the WARC, and it has been only in this century that complete denunciations of apartheid have been made and membership and fellowship restored.
Today, in the Church of Scotland, some are calling for a status confessionis regarding same sex relations. For a Declaration stating that same-sex issues – for example, the blessing of a civil partnership or the ordination of a gay or lesbian minister – are of similar gravity, something that threatens the core of our Christian confession of Christ as Lord. Something over which we could be out of communion with each other. Estranged from each other at the Lord’s Table. As if this were on par with the evils of Nazi Germany or of the Apartheid State.
May I say I am in complete disagreement with this call. Can having gay and lesbian clergy – and the CoS has had them for some time now – be commensurate with the evils of Nazi Germany?! Can the blessing of individuals in same-sex civil partnerships be on par with the evils of apartheid South Africa?! That we should be out of communion over this? I think it an unnecessary and dangerous over-reaction.
What I am prepared to say, regarding matters sexual and a status confessionis, is this:
The Church, some branches more than others, stands accused, rightly, of damaging terribly the lives of young people in their care by abusing them sexually and psychologically, and by seeking to manage the damage by suppressing the facts and moving perpetrators to different places, parishes or dioceses. Reports of the sexual abuse of children in dioceses in Ireland, for example, have fundamentally changed relations between Church and Nation there, as the Irish Prime Minister stated so dramatically last year following the publication of the Cloyne Report on child abuse in County Cork. It has been hugely damaging and traumatising.
Such abuse and scandal leaves the Church without credibility in the public eye regarding matters that have to do with human sexuality. And much else. And the lesson has still to sink in. I find it astonishing, for example, that a Cardinal, no doubt a fine person in himself, still expects the public to listen to him as he declaims on matters of a sexual nature – including same sex relations – given the track record of some priests and officials in his church in recent decades. And it is not only his church, of course, let us be honest, that has members who have perpetrated such crimes and sins. Reformed Churches have had members pulled up on charges of child molestation and child pornography on the internet in recent times.
If we are going to have a status confessionis on matters sexual, let it be concerning this: the sexual abuse of vulnerable persons, the propensity of ecclesiastical authorities to cover it up and resist investigation, and the shocking lack of humility that perpetuates denial and inhibits repentance and reconciliation.
Sexual matters aside, we would do well to examine ourselves regarding the links between religious fanaticism and violence. Religion, as we know, stands accused of aiding and abetting extremist violence throughout the world. That religious fanaticism – whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to name the Semitic faiths – is related to violence in any way gives the lie to the compassion that religions espouse in the eyes of millions of our fellow citizens here in the UK, never mind in the rest of the world. They look at the violence of terrorists, of invading forces, of illegal occupations, and listen to the wild God-talk coming out of the extremists, and want shut of religion. And who can blame them.
What is needed is spiritual discipline, not religious fanaticism. The spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting, of humility before God, of manifest compassion, of the search for wisdom and the courage to act to effect justice and healing. Let us call for a status confessionis on this.
Further, if that were not enough to be getting on with, let us consider recent protest against systemic injustice in global finance and the global economy. As part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, one protester dressed himself as Jesus, complete with crown of thorns, and held up a
sign that said: ‘I threw out the moneychangers for a reason.’ Some Christians who have been part of the Occupy Movement – and I do not know how many Christians there are in it – have been calling as well for an ‘Occupy Church’ movement. Their demands, as I read them, include the following:
· The creation of a culture of peace in place of war
· The value of people over profits
· Equal rights for all, not just those in the majority
· The protection of the environment before the corporate bottom line
· The same quality of justice for the poor as for the rich
Now, you may say this sounds like the kind of thing sophomores come up with on a rainy day. With no attention paid to the need for strategic nous. There may well be truth in such criticism. But we should not need protesters to set up camp outside St Michael’s to be true to our calling! The call of the protesters is for us to apply the lens of the Occupy Movement to the Church, to see for ourselves wherein our true values lie. To see whether our practice gives the lie to our preaching. I dare say we would find a degree of complacency has set in with regard to matters of social injustice. The thing is, we are not accused of mere complacency; we are accused of complicity. This with respect to violence, poverty, and the right of vulnerable persons to integrity of body.
Let us be in no doubt, we stand accused on many fronts. What is wanted – from the time of Amos to Jesus to our own time – is justice and righteousness, within and without, locally and globally. A Church cleansed of arrogance, indifference and anxiety. Have we the courage to examine ourselves, and to act? So to become a Church that not only promotes change, but is itself changing. A Church that not only promotes social justice but models a community of justice and healing? That we bring glory to God’s name. And not shame.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.