2015-03-08 by Jeremy Clarke
Preacher: Ruth Gouldbourne
8th March 2015
Readings: Micah 6:6-8, John 2:13-22
6 With what shall I come before the LORDand bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.
15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”
17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?”
21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
We were reflecting at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church the other day on the fact that all our stewards are — currently — men. And in my capacity as oldest in the ministry team, both in age (and with the grey hair to prove it!) and as far as my connection with the church goes, I got to do my “well, here’s a bit of the story about why this is the case.” And part of the reason is that, at various points though not for a few years, which must say something but I am not sure what — those who are stewarding have had to take care of security during worship; and sometimes, on rare, and therefore memorable occasions, this has involved dealing with folk who for one reason or another have felt it important to interrupt our worship.
But as far as I know — and somebody can correct me if I am wrong — this has not so far ever involved somebody overturning Fair Trade stands or setting free various animals to run loose round the church.
If this chaos happened here, this story that John tells, then we would go on talking about it for not just days or even week, but years.
This is hardcore stuff — chaos of animals all over the place, money scattered over the floor, furniture upended. A whip of cords. Anger and accusation.
We refer to it as the cleansing of the temple, and we identify with Jesus challenging unjust trade practices and patterns that exclude people on the basis of financial capacity.
And all of that is important. And if we had read this story in Mark’s gospel — or Matthew’s or Luke’s, we would be right with what Jesus is doing, asking the questions he puts for us, turning towards the challenges he raises for us, as he throws out the money changers and accuses those with the power of “turning my father house into a den of robbers instead of a house of prayer.”
But John tells this story very differently. He puts it in a different place in the gospel narrative; rather than part of the few days that lead up; to Jesus arrest and execution — indeed, one of the events that actually provokes that, John puts it right at the beginning of Jesus ministry — but he links it with the end in that little verse After he was raised form the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this. After all, such an event could hardly fade from their memories. But for John, remember has a very particular meaning; it’s a kind of — Oh, now I get it, now I understand what was going on — a reconnection and making connection as the event and words seen now in the light of other events — take on fuller meaning and impact.
And here is why we read this story of the temple event at the beginning of John’s account; for him, this sets a trajectory — and so fits at the beginning of the story; it determines the direction that things will take.
And it makes sense at the end, with the resurrection.
But that’s not the only difference.
There is also his emphasis on what is going on here — and that is part of this central thrust of the whole gospel.
See, as John tells the story, it is not about turning the temple into a den of thieves or rebels — it is not about the commercialisation of religion or the exploitation of the poor and the corruption of the rich.
Take these things out of here. Stop making my Father’s house a market place.
It’s still angry and challenging. But the — what we might call “accusation” is different. The word market place is pretty innocuous — it doesn’t have the loaded charge of den of thieves or den of rebels. It is something that needs to happen if the sacrifices are to take place.
And interestingly, it is the sacrificial animals that are specifically named — unlike in the other accounts; it is the cattle, the sheep and the doves that are set free, the animals that are going to be offered on the altars.
The heart of the religion going on in the temple was sacrifice. And it wasn’t neat and tidy. The temple was on a hill for all sorts of reasons — but one of them, subsidiary perhaps but necessary was that that times of the festivals there needed to be some way of draining off the blood that poured form the sacrificial animals over the altars and into the drains. Queues of people arriving with the offering to make sacrifice for their sin, to offer thanks, to do the many things that were symbolised by the sacrifice, bringing the animals to the priests who operated a kind of production line of death and dismemberment.
This was the centre of worship in the temple, this was the reason for its existence. And this is what Jesus is undermining in refusing the market place, truing out the animals and those who sell them.
Here, in john’s telling of the story, this is not a cleansing of the temple, but a closure of it, an ending of its whole raison d’être.
And just in case there is any doubt, look at the dialogue, the controversy that John links with the event; the people around ask for a sign, and Jesus says, “destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days.” And they say the temple has been under construction for 46 years — building projects are never fast. And then John lets us in on what the disciples “get” later — he is talking of himself.
John, understanding the story from the end, and wanting to make sure that his readers do too, deliberately links this temple event not with provoking Jesus’ death as the other writers do, but as a model for what Jesus’ death is about.
That is — the temple is now ended and what God is about is here in Jesus body.
Stay with this: what the temple is for is ending and what God is about is here in Jesus.
What happens in the temple — people bring animals to sacrifice them in order to please or to be put right with God.
What God is about in Jesus is — well, it really isn’t that.
Rather, it is the other way around.
In Jesus, what God is about is not about waiting for some sacrifice to make things ok and then to build a relationship — which might or might not last — and which has to be sustained by ongoing sacrifice.
There is an interpreter called Rene Girard who suggests that sacrifice is central to human attempts to live together and to live at peace with God. His thesis is that all cultures develop patterns of sacrifice in order to deal with internal tension and with fear of divine. It will show in different ways, but it is there. He goes on to argue that in Jesus, God overthrows this pattern and says life in him, life for him, life as humans fully living as God created is something different, which is brought into being through Jesus. And he puts it this way:
Jesus didn’t come and say, “The temple is finished. Thank you and goodbye.” He said, “The temple is finished, and I will take its place.” And we have to ask ourselves, “how can that be so? That’s an outrageous claim.” Jesus says, “you have used the sacrificial system up to this moment to stay sane and civil. I’m now going to take it away from you. You’re now going to have trouble staying sane and civil. I’m going to give you another way, and that is to fall in love with me, to follow me.” Not out of some piety, or “wouldn’t it be nice,” or “isn’t he a lovely guy,” or even “he’s God’s incarnation.” No, it’s the alternative to the anthropology that we humans have lived with since the beginning of culture.
Jesus isn’t cleansing the temple here. He is stopping it.
And this is not anti-Jewish as it has so often be used. It is a challenge to every human culture that has sacrifice and sacrificing at its centre — a call, an invitation, an offer of something quite different.
And we can’t get away with saying interesting anthropological point — or even interesting theological point — but it doesn’t really touch us.
Think about sacrifice for a moment. It is ritualised in the kind of religion represented by the temple practices — and indeed, occurs in many of the same ways in most forms of religion in some part of its development.
Basically, sacrifice is the giving up of something which I value and have control over — that is, I have the right to pass it over — in order to achieve some good or satisfy some need.
It can, especially if the party to whom whatever it is is being handed over is conceived of in divine terms, involve the destruction of the object; but what is most important is that I give it away. And what is important about whatever it is that is sacrificed is that I have — or have taken — the right to do this to it. I treat the object being sacrificed as just that — an object which I have power over. Regardless, sometimes of whether the sacrifice is actually an object — human sacrifice is not unknown in human history and involves the depersonalising or the othering of the person to be sacrificed; they are sometimes talked of in cultures where this is practised as being divinised, or translated into some other form of being — but what is significant is they are no longer like me, no longer a person in the way that I know myself to be a person.
The aim of sacrifice is basically what we might term in our thought world economic; that is, I exchange the sacrifice for some desired good or benefit — as it were, I pay for what I am wanting or know I need — with the currency of the sacrifice.
If we stick for a moment with religion, sacrifice is a gift or offering given to the divinity in order to obtain what I need — salvation, the removal of guilt, a favour like good weather or success in an enterprise…
But, if Girard is right — and I am convinced that he is — this pattern of behaviour, of exchange, is not confined to religion. Rather, religion is one way we ritualise what is a basic human — and human society — pattern; that of exchange and sacrifice.
We can see it in small ways — there’s the way we function economically of course: if I want something, I need to buy it or barter for it or some such. But it is much more fundamental than that.
We need to make the world work, we need to find ways of living together without, preferably, killing each other randomly — and without destroying our communities. Girard’s argument is that we externalise the pressures and demands through sacrifice.
I think there is a very concrete example of this in the announcement this week: “The government will consult on extending the new criminal offence of ‘wilful neglect’ of patients to children’s social care, education and elected members as part of its response to damning reports by Alexis Jay, Ann Coffey, Louise Casey and others, which found systematic institutional failings and cultures of denial and blame in Rotherham and elsewhere.”
Now, clearly child neglect, abuse and poor care is to be challenged and questioned and tackled at every level and in as many creative and effective ways as we can.
But is that what is happening here? Or is this even in part, a need to make us, as a community, feel better in the face of the horrors that are emerging as survivors tell their stories through from those who were abused by Harris and Savile — and priests and ministers — through to the most recent cases we are beginning to hear about of young girls being groomed and abused in some of the stories that are emerging. In all of this, we hear demands for justice and reparation; for safety and protection. Demands that are imperative, that need to be met if we are to survive as a society. So we devise a method whereby the power and demand for these needs can be met.
Which is what sacrifice is. In this case, I suggest, sacrificing the teachers and social workers — because they will get the blame, they will carry the guilt when it goes wrong — and the rest of us will be protected. And this is the power of sacrifice; the discomfort with which we will otherwise have to deal is transferred onto that over which we have — or take — power.
Let’s have another example; do you remember the awful story a couple of years ago of the young woman raped in the bus and then killed in Delhi? Here’s what one of those convicted of her rape said just the other day in an interview from jail:
Mukesh Singh said that women who went out at night had only themselves to blame if they attracted the attention of gangs of male molesters. “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” he said.
Victim blaming is an effective and insidious form of sacrifice. The demands of social cohesion, safety, protection are met not by challenging those who abuse, who are strong and therefore over whom it is difficult to gain the power needed to make the sacrifice, but over the ones who are weaker — the victims: if she didn’t put herself in danger, she would have been safe. The as it were God of safety or social stability is placated by sacrificing the women to a life of staying home, keeping hidden, being controlled — the woman needs to be covered up because the man’s desire is uncontrollable. Who is being sacrificed here?
What about closer to home? What about the internal sacrificing that we make in order to appease the internal gods, the voices that tell us who we are and what we should be. There’s the relatively easy to identify ones: the god of self-realisation: I have the right and indeed duty to be whatever it is I can be, am deep within — and I will sacrifice you, others around me, even bits of myself to this demand, a very loud one in our society.
Or the god of strength who demands that we drive ourselves hard rather than accept help or let ourselves be weak or even admit that we have limits. So we sacrifice ourselves — or at least bits of ourselves.
Then there’s the god of perfection who demands that everything we do or are never has any flaws, so that we sacrifice joy in what we do for anxiety. And the god of popularity for whom I will sacrifice bits of me in order to be what or who I think you or the wider society ask me to be, so that I can feel safe and ok — so that bits of me go missing, are destroyed or are shut down.
And we could go on, because we live in a society of multiple divinities demanding sacrifices in order to make us ok — and we have many, many of them within us, internalised from numerous sources.
And there, that day in the temple, Jesus shuts down the sacrificial system. He demolishes the pattern of exchange that we have power over, power to destroy in order to obtain what we think we need.
And instead, he offers us himself.
Because this is the truth that he is: that God loves us enough to give us God’s own self.
Not to ask us for anything.
God loves us enough to give, not to take.
Sacrifice is not what God is about, according to Jesus. God loves us.
It’s kind of trite isn’t it? God loves you.
But it’s a mind altering, life reconfiguring, world changing truth.
God loves you.
See, if this is true — if this is true in the radical, absolute way I am claiming, then we have nothing to offer, nothing to bring, no claim on God. We cannot offer anything and then, by right, get anything back — no blessing, no security, no salvation, whatever we mean by that. Because God simply is not interested in this mechanism of sacrifice; it’s not how God works and so it is not how we can approach God.
All the patterns we have to make ourselves safe, to keep power, to make the world work are irrelevant here.
All there is is the possibility of entrusting ourselves to a God who loves us utterly and without reservation — trusting that is enough for all we need, for all we are.
A God who doesn’t need anything from us, who doesn’t require us to turn over bits of ourselves in order to be ok, also doesn’t create or sustain a world in which that mechanism works. And so, to the extent that we give ourselves in trust to that love, so we can live without that mechanism in the world. We can stop sacrificing, we can stop the pressure to take power over another in order to offer them up to make ourselves ok, we can challenge systems that operate that way because we know that we don’t need them, nobody needs them: this is not how it has to be.
God loves you. God demands nothing in the way of sacrifice and destructive offerings. That is not how it works. The temple has been destroyed and built up again in the one who was raised up in three days: in that presence is life and love, is all we need, indeed, is all there is.
After the resurrection, the disciples “got it” — do we? Do you?