The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
March 4, 2018
Psalm 19, John 2:13-22
On this third Sunday in this holy season of Lent, our biblical assignment is the so-called “cleansing” of the Jerusalem temple. I say “so-called” because the language of “cleansing” has become so much more problematic than when such good scholars were instructing me in seminary, some thirty years ago, using this language. Since then, the language of “cleansing” has been used by political and military leaders to justify their killing of people unlike themselves, people whom they believed to be interlopers on land that is historically in the possession of their particular community. “Cleansing” is now when you kill off the people who illegally occupy the lands that you believe were always reserved, with the approval of no less than God Almighty, for your people. Of course, these other people “deserve” to be moved, by lethal force if necessary.
I want to reclaim in these minutes the idea of “cleansing,” as Jesus performs it at the Jerusalem Temple around the year 27 of the Common Era. He makes a whip, he uses it, he executes violence––he cracks it––but he does not kill. He removes people not because of who they are but because of what they do. They are out in front of the Temple entrance, in what’s called “the Courtyard of the Gentiles.” That’s the place where non-Jews are allowed to be present, and also to pray to God. It’s also the place where anyone, including Jews, is allowed to sell the birds and animals that can be taken into the temple and handed over to the religious leaders as sacrificial offerings. There is a lot going on in this situation!
The different Gospel writers include this story of Christ’s “cleansing” of the temple, but the emphases and interpretations are different. In some, the focus is on disrupting the ability of wealthy persons to monopolize the idea of how to be faithful. That is, the birds and animals that were sanctioned for ritual slaughter inside the temple were expensive. If being faithful required producing live animals for slaughter before the priest, only a small group of wealthy people could afford to do so. The rest weren’t even buying animals to eat for protein; they were eating whatever grain they could afford to grow or buy. Jesus’s “cleansing” of the temple was about disrupting the idea that being faithful should cost money, and that those with more money were therefore more virtuous.
Another gospel-based interpretation of Jesus’s “cleansing” of the temple is that it was intended to challenge the corruption associated with the selling of animals. We read of the “money-changers”—these are the people who took the money from the people who had bought the sanctioned animals on temple property. They literally changed the money like one would find today at an international airport—your dollars become Euros, Swiss Francs, Thai Bhat, whatever. They changed your secular currency, stamped with the head of Herod, into temple money, a denomination useful only at that Jerusalem temple. They probably took a hefty commission. So—people who wanted to worship at the temple—who wanted their prayer petitions heard at the temple—had to buy animals for sacrifice and then change their money for an unfavorable exchange rate, perhaps an extortionary exchange. To use a word in recent American parlance, the system was rigged. Jesus’s intervention among the money-changers and animal-vendors was meant to disrupt this way of fleecing the general public who simply wanted the priests to know of and to pay for their loved ones who were ill, who had died, who wished to start a family, etc. The gospels portray Jesus’s disruption of temple commerce as anti-corruption.
The Gospel of John’s version adds some unique elements to this story. For starters, in John’s text this “cleansing” is at the very beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, not at its end. Wow! Imagine Jesus launching his work with this whip-snapping, yelling, disrupting chapter, rather than concluding his loving ministry of healing and raising from the dead? Jesus starts with whipping, with driving out, rather than healing and welcoming in: two different ways of starting a revolution!
The unique contribution of John’s gospel to Christ’s episode of cleansing at the temple is the idea that Christ’s very body is the new temple. We know in retrospect that the Jerusalem temple will be destroyed by Rome around the year 70 of the Common Era, some 30-plus years after Jesus’s crucifixion. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells us, predicts for us, that the temple will be destroyed, and that the new home of worship will be in his very body—a body that is itself destroyed, and then revived. He is the new temple; the new temple is Christ’s body.
There is a large and important body of theological and exegetical work about how this text from John may encourage a supersessionism—a replacement—of Judaism by Christianity. The temple is no longer useful or existing—it has been replaced by Jesus. The temple was always the meeting place—the place of intersection—between God and humanity, and Jesus is saying that this new place of intersection is within his very body. His body is the new temple, since that building’s destruction. I want to lift up this morning what I believe are the non-competing claims of the global contemporary Jewish community, so beautiful, to its own ongoing integrity of worship and of deliverance, and to that of the global, beautiful, Christian community.
To Christians, Jesus’s body becomes the vessel of our salvation, and of our daily connection to God. The body! We each have one. Jesus had one. They are so fickle, so subject to corruption and to pain. We corrupt our own bodies, and so do the actions of others. How many bodies have been born free but then turned into slaves, diverted into addictions, compulsions, hatreds, fears, diseases. Our bodies are holy, grace-filled vessels but are corrupted by the actions of others or ourselves; of situations we never dreamed of, of substances and tinctures that prey upon our deepest pains and turn us then into their subjects. Our bodies fail us through age or neglect. We age. Our parts give out, just like on our cars.
Jesus had a body: a real body like yours and mine. On the night before his death, he prayed his heart out, so much that he sweat, that he might be spared the bodily torture that he knew was before him. I spent some minutes this last week in the dentist’s chair getting a new filling: a minor challenge in terms of all the pains that can come to the human body. I share that just to say––we all know the pains that can come to the human body.
The Black Lives Matter movement has used the language, front and center, of “black and brown bodies,” and I (as the inhabiter of a white body) am so glad. This language takes away any appeals to personality, class, choice-making, everything, to simply point to the physical presence of black and brown humans among us. Real humans. Valid humans. Equally valid and beloved humans. Jesus reduces the point of intersection between God and humanity to his very body, his real body, his probably brown body; he says that the intermediary between God and humanity is his frail, desecrated, whipped, executed, and resurrected body. Who would want that as the bridge to the divine? Well, for those of us who are Christian, that is our inheritance and our deliverance. The resurrection of his body could not come without the desecrations before.
Friends, if we were to cleanse our own lives and bodies today as Christ cleansed the Jerusalem temple, what could that mean? We would void ourselves of corruptions, certainly, as his actions did. But what would it mean to embrace his very body as our intermediary to God, and to embrace the frailties of our own bodies as points of connection to our savior? What do the glories and challenges of our bodies have to teach us about God’s goodness and Christ’s salvation? How do we look at the body of every person and see the sanctity of Christ’s? The child who is hungry in New Jersey, shot in Florida, trafficked in Cambodia? How do we see the sanctity of Christ’s body in everybody around us—black, brown, and white, and what does that mean for how we live day-to-day? If we believed that Christ’s body is the intermediary between us and our salvation, between us and the holiness of eternity, where do we see his beautiful brown body broken in our midst, and what, then, shall we do?
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