3 Lent B 2015 '
March 8, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A couple of months ago I took some steps to address a serious clutter issue at home. I ordered a couple of key ring holders from Amazon and I put them on my wall near the dresser. Each one had 5 little hooks. And finally I had a solution for bringing order to my many crosses and the neck chains that hold them.
Each cross has a story behind it. One is made of little tiles of glass and I bought it on a vacation. A Celtic cross I wear often came from a bookstore where I went to seminary. Another was given to me at graduation. One was an ordination gift. One came from a friend. It goes on and on.
It’s been good to organize these beautiful crosses. And the arrangement I came up with / actually looks good on the wall.
But when I stop to think about it, what I’m organizing are various depictions of instruments of torture and death. The cross is at the center of our faith; and how often we sanitize it by making it pretty, by making it jewelry, by having it sprout leaves or be encrusted with jewels.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our symbol and central truth was something like a flower—or maybe a puppy? But it’s not. One of the brothers from SSJE said this about the cross:
“If only we could get out from under the cross, but it seems to hang over us all the time. If only the archetypal symbol which we placed behind our altars, and stained into our church windows, and wore around our necks were something other than the cross. If only the chief Christian symbol were something else, say, a tree of life, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, it would be so much more pleasant and less troubling.”
[Curtis Almquist, “Cross,” in Brother Give Us a Word, ssje.org, September 14, 2014]
What does the apostle Paul say about the cross in today’s reading? He’s writing about the paradox of an instrument of death in the Roman empire actually being the gateway to eternal life in God’s Kingdom for those who know the Savior. He says, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…” and he exults in the fact that Christians preach Christ crucified.
And I’m not so sure that we’re very different from people in the first century. We, too, may be tripped up by the paradox of suffering and death that leads to life. We may be swayed by louder and louder voices of the so-called neo-atheists, calling us to task for believing in something that cannot be proved.
We are often looking for some satisfaction that this religion we follow is “legit.” We may be swayed to question our experience and to seek scientific and academic proof, for these are some of the big idols of our day. And as we know, there is no proof, for then there would be no faith, and we would be puppets with no freedom to choose God’s way of compassion and love.
Now, seeking legitimacy is a theme in today’s gospel, as it turns out. We learn that the Jews—the temple officials and the merchants, probably, ask Jesus about what sign he can show them to justify his turning over the tables, for ordering the doves out, and for actually driving out the large animals with a whip of cords. That is one scary side to Jesus’ personality, isn’t it?
It’s interesting to consider that the things that Jesus attacked were actually necessary to worship in his day. People needed animals for various sacrifices. They needed to change over their everyday money, that had faces—idols—of Roman emperors—for the shekels that bore no offending images. So what’s up here? Why is Jesus so adamant and even belligerent?
Let’s come at this question from another direction. It’s interesting to note that John’s gospel that we read today puts this event right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. But the other 3 gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—put it right at the end—right before Jesus is arrested. It’s treated there as the last straw. Scholars tend to think that that chronology is probably correct—that this temple event happened shortly before Jesus’ passion and death. So why might John put it so early in his gospel?
We think that the story comes so early in John’s gospel because he uses it to make a statement right at the beginning that Jesus is showing the sacrificial system is outdated. One writer put it this way: “As the Passover lamb, Jesus knows animal sacrifice will no longer be necessary.” [Gracia M. Grindal, professor emeritus of rhetoric at Luther Seminary, in “Living the Word,” Christian Century for March 4, 2015, p. 18.]
And there’s more: Jesus knew that God’s true location on earth was no longer a building, even if it was built on one of the most sacred spots on the planet. No—the true locus of God on earth was the person of Jesus.
After Jesus returns to his Father we believe he gave the power to the Christian church to be his body on earth—the Body of Christ, despite all the wrong it would be committing over the centuries. The church is now the BODY of Christ.
Now, the 10 Commandments will always remain a concise guide to moral and godly living in obedience to God’s will. But now, under Jesus, the old systems of regulated worship through the Temple in Jerusalem fall off, and worship now is to the person of Jesus, who is God, through the Body of Christ, his church.
So it’s good for us to remember that the things of worship are merely human things, meant to point us to God, to Jesus, who is the ultimate receiver of worship. Of course, we derive comfort from churchy things and we hate to see them changed. But look at what Jesus did here in our story today—he overturned the old. He made quite a statement about change in worship. The old order was replaced. Now Jesus is the place where God dwells, not the temple in Jerusalem. No wonder he stirred up so much animosity toward himself.
Now, we know, even if we don’t admit it, that the church is changing. It’s no longer 1955, when we had 65 or more kids in our church school. Those days will probably never come back. We are morphing into something we can’t even discern quite yet. And it’s really unsettling, because changing what we rely on for security is very, very frightening.
One Christian theologian posits that every 500 years in our history, the church has gone through some cataclysmic change. Every 500 years, she says, there is a big “rummage sale” in the church. First there was the Great Transformation, when God walked among us in the person of Jesus. Then, there was the time of Gregory the Great, when the papacy’s power was consolidated (for better or worse), then the Great Schism when the Eastern and Western Churches split. Then came the Great Reformation and the birth of the Protestant churches. And now, the time we can’t see very clearly yet, when something new is emerging, and many things of the old order seem to be undergoing stress and change. [Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence]
There is change all around us. The tables of our church are being turned over. But take heart! We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles. And Christ will always be at the center of the story, at the center of the Christian community. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that he is the same—yesterday, today, and forever [13:8]. So even if the church does go through its changes and crises and cataclysms periodically, he is the same. He will never change. The Church will perpetually be cruciformed.
We can hang on that.