So here, in the SECOND CHAPTER of John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem! And one of his first acts is an act of violence – the CLEANSING OF THE TEMPLE! Jerusalem! A seething political and religious battleground in the 1st Century, just as it is in the 21st Century. And today exacerbated by Donald Trump’s recent decision to recognise the city as the capital of the Jewish state. I have just finished reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “History of Jerusalem.” It’s a fascinating read. I can strongly recommend it to you…..I even purchased the DVD!
I guess our question is …. Is this an authentic Jesus story? Interestingly the members of the Jesus Seminar are divided – Jesus’ actual words echo Old Testament prophetic texts: they are not his own words. However the fact that this narrative appears in all four Gospels, shows the importance the incident had for the Gospel writers and the churches of their day. Theirs was a different time and age – both from Jesus’ time and ours. Externally, the new young church was facing political and religious persecution, while at the same time experiencing explosive expansion into a foreign and hostile Roman world. Internally, the church was beset by quarrels and struggles over organisation, beliefs and religious practice. Gnostic Christianity was attempting to introduce syncretistic pagan practices – demanding the adherence of believers to petty dietary rules, unorthodox ascetic practices and the rigid observance of ritual laws. BOTH of these factors make this story RELEVANT for their day – and for ours!!
The Johannine version of the event is certainly different from that found in the Synoptic Gospels. It seems more descriptive, more radical. Somewhat Shocking? Surprising? Even a bit embarrassing? The Cleansing of the Temple in Matthew, Mark and Luke is placed discreetly towards the end of their Gospels. After the Triumphal Entry, after Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, during the very last week of his life. His anger seems more understandable then. What with his critics picking and poking at him for months – trying to provoke him, trying to entrap him, trying to discredit him. And so his rage seems excusable – is this the final tortured lashing out of one whose patience has finally been exhausted?
But here, less than two chapters into John’s Gospel, it’s difficult to explain away Jesus’ uncontrolled rage and violent behaviour. Up to this point nobody has said a word against him. In fact everyone has been very impressed with him – clambering to be his disciples, marvelling when he turned water into wine at the Wedding feast in Cana. There doesn’t seem to be any way to explain this sudden outburst – not just of temper, but of violence!
How do we cope with this? This is NOT the “gentle Jesus meek and mild”…. there’s an uncontrolled rage here. And we’ve always been taught that Christians shouldn’t be angry! Well certainly not to the point where they destroy other people’s property or possessions.
And certainly not to the point of using physical violence – attacking with fists, whip or firearm! It seems totally unacceptable! Totally unjustifiable!
During the Springbok Tour in 1981, Marion and I, and our teenage children Debbie, Stephen and Todd took to the streets with the protesters. We knew what Apartheid was all about – we had experienced it first hand! While living in Rhodesia on a Mission School in the 1960’s we had taken into our home an abandoned “coloured” child, who we later adopted on our return to NZ in 1972. We knew what it was like to be refused admission to “whites only” cafes, cinemas, hotels, toilets and even churches! We had been discriminated against ourselves! While our decision to march with the protesters was strongly opposed by several members of the church where I was the Minister at the time, we were so outraged by the Rugby Unions decision to go ahead with the tour, regardless of the injustices of the Apartheid system, that we marched anyway.
However I do remember the shock I felt when we were watching the TV News after the game at Eden Park and actually saw the violent and brutal confrontations between protesters and police. It all seemed to have gone too far! To have got out of hand! Totally unacceptable! Totally unjustifiable! We had not been in that area, and had not been aware of what was taking place. I strongly questioned whether we should continue to participate. But after a lot of soul searching we were back again on the following Saturday! After all it was all about injustice, inhumanity, intolerance and racism – in its worst form! But our passage this morning is not about violently demonstrating against political authority or social issues – or is it? Perhaps the early Church thought it was! What is it about then? Isn’t it about demonstrating against the religious establishment – the Church if you like? It’s an attack from within! Jesus attacked worship. He assaulted the religious practices of his day. He confronted corruption and compromise in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It was a protest against the “status quo” – a passionate cry for reformation. A cry for reformation? Mark Yaconelli, a previous editor of the satirical magazine “TheWittenberg Door” said: “The problem with the church today is not corruption. It is not institutionalism. No, the problem is far more serious than something like the Minister running away with the organist. The problem is pettiness – blatant pettiness.” Is that what Jesus was really protesting about? Peripheral things had taken over! Worshippers concerns had been reduced to the petty, the trivial, the unimportant – the irrelevant.
I think John chose to tell this confrontational disturbing story right at the beginning of his Gospel, because he wanted us to know from the outset the sort of person that had come amongst us. That this Jesus is not just on about peripheral, inconsequential things. No, John wants to show Jesus right from the beginning pounding at the door, brandishing a knotted whip, overturning tables, driving unleashed sheep and oxen down the aisles. For in Jesus’ eyes to reduce the Good News to trivia, to get involved in petty and unproductive religious practices, is definitely not what true religion is all about! Then what is it all about? Here’s how the Epistle of James defines it: “True religion is this: to care for the orphans and the widows in their need and not to become embroiled in petty worldly pursuits.” To care for the needy. To seek social justice. And not become embroiled in the trivia that so often overwhelms us. And this of course can be COSTLY.
When during the Springbok Tour, Marion and I and our family sat on the Southern Motorway to disrupt traffic heading for the game at Eden Park, we were threatened by truncheon-wielding police. Threatened with arrest, a night in the cells and our day in court. We were breaking the law! But we didn’t budge! And we physically resisted being forcibly removed! That was our “brandishing the whip” moment! Wasn’t it Dietrich Bonhoeffer who talked of “Costly Discipleship”? Following Jesus can be costly - It can cost us. Like Jesus, Bonhoeffer vehemently opposed a system he believed was wrong – and it cost! It finally cost him his life! Costly discipleship: Supporting the needy, opposing injustice, standing up for what we believe is right? Brandishing the whip? Does it …. should it …. happen today?
Have you read The Boston Declaration? I recommend it – you can find it on the Internet. The Declaration was signed by over 300 Christian Theologians on November 20th 2017 at a gathering of over 10,000 American religious scholars and professionals at Boston. In a dramatic Press Conference, where supporters dressed in sackcloth and ashes, an impassioned call was made for repentance and radical change in Christianity in the United States. The Press headline read “Repent and believe in the Gospel! Over 300 Christian Theologians challenge the corruption of U.S. Christianity!” A ‘cracking of the whip’ moment! An attack from within! An attack on all that is petty, peripheral and corrupt in the church! In an introduction to the Declaration, Susan Thistlethwaite, Professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, compares the present situation in the USA with that in Nazi Germany: The Christianity that Bonhoeffer denounced is the same Christianity we denounce today! It is a Christianity that literally enables hate; hate for people of colour, for immigrants, for those of other religions, for gay, lesbian and transgender human beings, for women and girls, for the poor and most vulnerable among us …. Our task as Christians is to announce the good news of the Gospel. The good news of the radical inclusiveness of God, for God so loved the world ….the whole world. Including the world of animals and plants and the entire ecosystem that is a victim of this same rapaciousness and nearly mindless drive for political domination …..” So what was the reaction? I leave you to guess!
What is this “Reflection” all about this morning? Could it be about James’ …. or John’s …. or Jesus’ definition of true religion? To care for the needy, to seek social justice, and not to become embroiled in the petty trivia that so often threatens to overwhelms us? Perhaps …. sometimes …. costly discipleship requires a brandishing of the whip moment?