Sermon preached by the Chancellor, Dr Mark Hocknull, at the 9.30 Eucharist on 11 March 2012
Image of Jesus
What is your picture of Jesus? In other words what image comes into your mind when you think about Jesus? What do you think he looks like? At theological college in one of the rooms was a picture of a blue-eyed Christ we often used to call “surfer Jesus” because his hair was bleached blond and was long and windswept. Certainly not the dark olive skin, brown eyes and black hair that is most likely to be the historical Jesus given the time and place he was from. But your image, what is your image? I’d willing to bet that for most the image that springs to mind is of a man with long hair in some sort of calm and peaceful setting perhaps, or else as a shepherd of the flock, or a guide pointing the way, or perhaps yours is an image of Christ in agony on the cross or on the way to the cross.I’d be surprised if any of us picture Jesus as we see him portrayed in the gospel this morning. Whip in hand, consumed with rage, driving out both livestock and people and turning over tables, sending money and birds flying in all directions. Not you’re average day in the temple I would have thought. Here we catch a glimpse of Jesus that we rarely see.
As the Holy week advert some years ago put it: Gentle Jesus meek and mild? As if!
Unlike many of the stories of Jesus which appear in some gospels and not others, this episode, the cleansing of the temple is found in all four gospel accounts. All of the gospel writers thought that this particular story has something of vital importance to contribute to our understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus does. In Matthew, Mark and Luke it is to be found near the end, in what we now call holy week, the last week of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.
But John moves the account forward to the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Some New Testament scholars try to argue that John is talking about a different event from the one we read in the other gospels. In other words that Jesus cleansed the temple twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of his public ministry. I don’t think that is the case. I think the gospel writers are quite free with the individual episodes of Jesus’ life that they tell to give us a picture of who Jesus is. They don’t worry about keeping things in the right chronological order. The writers put individual episodes in different places because it suits their way of telling the story.
The writer of John’s gospel puts the episode right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. By putting the story of the angry Jesus here, the writer of John turns it into an interpretive lens, focusing the whole gospel. Understanding what made Jesus react in this way will give us a clear insight into the meaning and purpose of his life and actions.
The Focus on Jesus
Although all the gospels tell this story, John’s account is a little different from the others. Not only does the writer move the episode to the start of Jesus’ public ministry, three years earlier than the other gospels, but he also removes reference to any economic injustices that might have been going on in the exchange of currency and in the sale of sacrificial animals. No den of robbers in John’s gospel, just a pun about turning “My Father’s house into a trading house.” The way that John uses the story, it is making the same point as the story of the wedding at Cana and the changing of water into wine. The old order is passing and the new order has come. Everything has changed as Jesus fulfils the old covenant and inaugurates the new. The casting out of the traders in John’s gospel is programmatic for the whole of Jesus ministry.
There is another difference between John’s retelling of the temple incident and that of the other gospel writers. John alone includes the saying of Jesus about rebuilding the destroyed temple in 3 days. Often in John’s gospel a sign or action s followed by a piece of dialogue which explains it.
Jesus’ response to the demand for a sign shifts the attention away from a protest by Jesus about the temple to a concentration on himself. A sign in John’s gospel always reveals something about Jesus.
Instead of a sign, Jesus offers a riddle, which the authorities interpret literally as referring to the stone temple that has been forty six years under construction, and wasn’t finally completed until AD63, almost another forty years after the time of John’s setting of the clearing out of the temple. But john tells us that Jesus was referring to himself. In the new order, when water is turned into wine, sayings about the destruction of the temple actually refer forward to Jesus’ own death. Temple sacrifices are replaced by his sacrifice on the cross.
This whole incident is not about a prophetic cleansing of the temple of abuses at all in John’s understanding. The focus is on Jesus himself. Just as at Cana water was transformed into wine, so Jesus transforms temple worship to Resurrection faith.
As some of you know, I belong to a book group that meets more or less every other month. The book we’re reading at the moment is by Tim Parks. It’s called “Teach us to Sit Still.” It’s autobiographical and is a telling of the author’s attempts to deal with his mid-life crisis. Parks is the son of an Anglican priest, but though brought up in the church he has long since lost his faith. He eventually finds his way into Buddhist meditation and goes on several meditation retreats. He does not believe any of the teaching that the retreat leader is giving, but he does find the practice of meditation very helpful.
At one point in the story, I was pulled up very sharply indeed. Parks is saying how irritated he is with the long technical explanations of what the meditation is doing and what state of mind they are supposed to be achieving. He says that this obsessive interest in the mechanics of meditation is as though his teacher has “swapped revelation for liturgy”. In other words as though he had swapped the real experience for simply talking about it.
It was the phrase “swapped liturgy for revelation” that stopped my reading and started me thinking.
It is very easy for us to do the same thing. It is particularly tempting and easy to do here in the Cathedral where the music and the liturgy are so carefully and painstakingly prepared. Yet all this effort in preparing worship serves but one real purpose: to promote that revelatory encounter with the risen Christ which is at the very heart of the Christian life.
The sermon, the music, the liturgy is of no avail we fail to move beyond them to the thing to which they point: the reality and presence of Christ.
We can let ourselves off the hook by reading the cleansing of the temple as Jesus’ protest against the corruption of the worship of his day. Reading it like that puts the story firmly in the past. But by making Jesus himself rather than his actions the centre of the story, John’s gospel brings out the eternally significant point of the story. He moves it beyond the historical and literal to the spiritual.
If the old order and its practices was failing to bring people into relationship with God as the text implies, the challenge for us today is to ask ourselves “what are the practices in my life and in my ways of worshipping God which need to be replaced by the new order in Jesus.”
Of course that brings us to the heart of lenten discipline and the focus on renewing our own faith. Let it be our concern this lent to rediscover Resurrection faith.