On this Third Sunday of Lent, we are in the midst of one of my favorite narratives in all of scripture coming from John 2:13-22. Like a no-nonsense consultant or maverick CEO, Jesus comes to work to provide a wake-up call. The mighty are about to fall.
John has this episode of Jesus tearing up the temple near the beginning of his gospel, while the synoptics describe it as occurring during the last week of Jesus' life before the crucifixion. The story is common to all four gospels, which would seem to indicate that it's a key event in the life of Jesus and the psyche of the early church. John's first readers would have known that the temple was already a smoking crater by the time they read his gospel, since it was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. Jesus' words and actions were thus not only prophetic, but a stark reminder that any institution that claims to be of God is doomed to failure if it refuses to pay attention to God's own core purpose and values -- and what's going on in the shadows of the temple altar is symptomatic of a huge problem in temple worship.
Jesus launches "Occupy Temple" protests
By the time Jesus walked up to the temple that day, it was clear that it was a shell of its former glory and mission. Instead of being a holy place -- its core identity and function -- it had become a shopping mall, bank, government building and revolutionary symbol wrapped into one. The money changers and sellers made a profit selling sacrificial animals to the people, especially the poor (the mall); the treasury and records of debt were administered there (the bank), the high priest, who was a Roman appointee, and the scribal lawyers had their offices there (the government); and the zealots looked to it as a national symbol that, if it could be recaptured, could house a new government (the symbol). Every interest group saw the temple as the symbol of salvation, but none of these functions were going to save it or the people.
So Jesus walked right in and drove out the sellers, which effectively shut down the temple's sacrificial function for a brief time. Jesus was performing an acted parable, presaging in his actions the great going-out-of-business day to come. Jesus was occupying Wall Street, as it were. He announced a foreclosure on the temple but, like a passionate and visionary leader, announced that a new initiative would take its place. The temple would be destroyed, but a new one would be raised up: the temple of his own body (vv. 20-21). Jesus embodied God as the Word become flesh (1:14) and represented the very presence of God with his people -- especially those who were outside the temple establishment.
I wonder what Jesus would do if he were to walk through our church doors some Sunday morning and see our coffee bars with the sweetly flavored lattes, the merchandise we sell in our church stands and the clothes we wear there. Have we as African descent persons become so materialistic that we have turned what are supposed to be houses of prayer for the nations into dens of robbers and markets? Maybe it's not our dress codes that eliminate most of the de-churched and unchurched from feeling comfortable. Maybe the real robbery goes on deep inside our hearts: zeal for Jesus' Father's house often gives way to other things consuming or killing us spiritually, such as spiritual complacency. I rob God-and the church-and myself-every time I go to church to go through the religious motions rather than to meet God. During this liturgical season of Lent, I wonder what would we do to him if he were to start "moving furniture" around and cracking the whip? Jesus' actions and zeal to put business out of business reminds me of not too long ago while visiting Atlanta on its most famous street Peachtree that I was going down a one-way street, and I noticed somebody coming the other way. Obviously there was a problem. That car was going the wrong way. As I kept driving, I heard sounds all around me. After a while it became clear that all these chorus of voices were trying to get my attention, trying to confront me that I was wrong. You see, I thought stuff was wrong with everybody else, when the problem was with me. I suspected that there were two reasons for their concern. One is the damage that I could do to myself. The other is the damage I could do to others. They could have simply ignored it and said, "That's his business." Or, they could do what they did, which is try to get my attention, because they understood that when you're going the wrong way, somebody needs to confront you, so that you can reverse your direction. In this passage, Jesus gets our attention and teaches us lessons that show us that he puts business out of business such as greedy corporations and even the exploitative nature of the institutional church. As a Lutheran (ELCA) that is my interpretation of Martin Luther, the German Reformer actions of protest when he nailed the Ninety-Five Theses at the Church at Wittenburg.
Jesus' temple action challenges us to look within our own churches to determine whether we're being faithful to his call, or whether God's prophetic confrontation is merited for misinterpreting what the church should be.
- Do we measure the church's success in ways that cause us to have hubris rather than humility? Are we so enamored with our own attendance figures, buildings, high-tech gadgets, myriad programs and charismatic leaders that we fail to question whether we're doing what Jesus wants?
- Are we caught up in the undisciplined pursuit of more -- more people, more facilities, more money, more everything -- that we equate bigness with success? Are we growing the institution at the expense of making disciples one person at a time?
- Do we avoid the risk of being prophetic and challenging people with the gospel of the kingdom, and instead placate them with pithy quotes, feel good theology and gimmicks popular for the times? Do we blame the secular culture, the economy, the government or any other outside force for our decline?
- Are our churches grasping at speedy fixes -- new programs, charismatic leadership, and better coffee -- that will turn everything around quickly?
- Does the church have a spirit of hope or a spirit of defeat?
All of these are warning signs that the church is going out of business. The only way back is to allow Jesus to come in and clean house, making him the center of our worship and our mission.
If Jesus were to come into African descent communities of faith, what would he want to drive out in order to accomplish his purposes through you? What practices or programs or perceptions do you need to discontinue in order becoming the incarnate Body of Christ in your community? What would it mean for Jesus to put your church out of business, in effect, in order to start something new?