Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent
7th Mar 2021
The Third Sunday of Lent Year B
The Cleansing of the Temple
“Zeal for your house will consume me” John 2.20
It’s very shocking to find someone we don’t expect suddenly express a great deal of anger. We can only imagine why Jesus became so angry that he overturned the tables of the money changers and drove everyone out of the Temple. He was literally consumed with anger. This is not the Jesus we are accustomed to, the one who appears to be so serene and self-controlled. Could this be Jesus losing it?
Jesus comes to disturb and to establish a new order. The destruction of the Jewish Temple is an historical fact. It happened in AD70. We know that John wrote this gospel in around AD100 - some thirty years after the Romans totally destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. They had raised it to the ground and drove out all its inhabitants. The Temple, which once lay at the heart of Jewish worship and culture, was suddenly no more. Jerusalem lay in waste and ruin. The Temple itself was actually worshipped as a sign of the inviolability of the Jewish religion and the guarantor of its future existence. The destruction of the Temple tore this kind of faith apart. Why then, does John mention this non-existent temple thirty years after its destruction? Could it be that John sees the destruction of the temple as a way of purifying Judaism? This might be going too far, but he seems critical of temple worship for its own sake and particularly its commercial aspects. Its destruction was followed by the so called diaspora, the scattering of the Jewish people across the known world. For the Jewish people there was no longer a religious centre, a place lying at the geographical and spiritual heart of their existence. They were destined to be wanderers, which was their lot until the founding of the State of Israel in 1947.
John’s message goes deeper than this, however. We have a clue in St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, written before John’s Gospel and making a reference to the human body as a temple for the Holy Spirit:
Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
1 Corinthians 3.16
These words were written by St Paul twenty years before the destruction of the Temple in around AD50. Paul uses the temple image to speak about the state of the human soul. The message couldn’t be more direct as the idea of Temple is taken to signify that which bears within it the true spirit of God and then Paul goes on to say to his listener ‘you are that temple’. It is in this way that
Jesus’ own prediction of the temple which is his body, will be destroyed only to be raised up in three days. He comes not to abolish existing Jewish understandings but to bring them to fulfilment in His person. By predicting his death and resurrection he is establishing a new centre of gravity. The Temple is now become the inviolable human soul.
So then, we have the idea of the Temple of Jerusalem, the destroyed edifice, being superseded in Christ in the idea of the ‘temple of the body’. It is the body of Jesus which, when sacrificed in the Cross, will be God’s way of drawing us into a new relationship with Him.
“When I am lifted up I will draw everyone to myself”. John 12.32.
It has been natural for Christian writers to draw a natural and creative relationship between the body and the soul. Last week’s collect for Lent 2 expresses it best:
Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended against all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Pope Francis’ visit this week to Iraq ended up in the city of Ur, which is Abraham’s birth place. The significance of Abraham, the Father of the three religions Christian, Jewish and Muslim was profound. The Pope reminded religious leaders, that all of us are a part of one world family and that before acts of violence out of religious and ethnic difference, the abiding sense of our common humanity should prevail and should encourage us all to unite. I think in his words was also an echo of the need to ‘cleanse the temple’ of human intolerance and violence wherever it may be found. And of course in our own institutions and churches there needs to be a similar cleansing. This is already being carried forward in our safeguarding on behalf of vulnerable children and adults. But the strong message is that communities of faith, institutions which are not honestly and courageously self-critical cannot embrace a mission which is expressly communicated to the most marginalised and the most vulnerable. In Cleansing the Temple, in righteous anger and physical defiance, Jesus exemplifies the Christian conscience, which examines its own prejudices and shortcomings and is ready to act in a new way for the cleansing of the temple which is for the refreshment of the whole.
It was as though we may all say, with Jesus
“Zeal for your house has consumed us”.