Third Sunday in Lent

Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 07 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

This, in John’s gospel, is how Jesus first emerges into the public eye, and it is a startling appearance. In Mark’s gospel, he speaks in a local synagogue with a quality of particular authority, and heals a demoniac man with a word. In Luke’s gospel, again in a synagogue, he reads Isaiah’s prophecies of justice and liberation, and claims the moment as their fulfillment. In John, we are once again in a house of worship, but this time the great Temple of Jerusalem itself—and Jesus does not teach or heal, but makes himself a little knotted whip, sends a crowd of animals running and flying around the Temple forecourt, and turns over the moneychanging tables, pouring the coins out on the ground. As mission statements go, it is a dramatic, if cryptic, one.

All four gospels tell the story of what we often call the cleansing of the Temple—this story is part of that very small core deposit of narrative upon which all the canonical accounts agree. But the other three all place it near the end of Jesus’ ministry; in fact, it is the final straw which decisively launches the conspiracy of religious and political powers which will ultimately kill him. In John’s gospel, the action in the Temple happens at the very start, and its place as the final inciting incident is taken instead by the raising of Lazarus; this too is interesting, and I will come back to this later. But if we are to treat the Temple action as a defining statement, like the reading of Isaiah was in Luke, what does it actually say? What, exactly, was wrong with the traders in the Temple, so wrong that it could stand for all the wrong in which we are imprisoned?

Again, I think we learn something by comparing this account to the Synoptics. There, Jesus accuses the traders of making the Temple a “den of thieves,” a place where corruption and oppression take advantage of the piety of the poor, a valid enough criticism. In John, he condemns them for making it “a marketplace.” It is the transactional activity itself, even beyond any corruption involved in it, which is condemned. And I think that what this account points towards is the way that the Temple system had become a part of the constant human obsession with making everything into a measurable transaction, that constant human belief that we can buy anything if we want it enough; that we can, in fact, essentially purchase God. That God wants lots of presents, ideally dead and bloody presents, and that if we deliver enough of them, we will be able to buy God’s favour, to buy safety, to buy peace.

We do not now play this game with animal sacrifices—but still we play it. We play it by turning the Sinai commandments into a checklist which will tell us if we have won God Bingo, and, ideally, also let us identify those who have lost. We play it by imagining Jesus as a kind of dead and bloody present to God, which placates some kind of divine anger and buys us forgiveness. We play it every time we treat our relationship with God as a transaction, in which we give devotion or good behaviour or charity, in order to get back answered prayers, safety, salvation, love.

What does Jesus put in place of this, then? A body. A weak human body. His own body, which, as the narrative insistently reminds us, will in not too much more time be a broken body, a body tortured and killed and discarded by power. Not a grim present to God, but God’s own self, fully entering our world as a single defenceless person, offering everything. A body we know in the sharing of bread that is broken. A body which is every body, any body, any human body exposed to violence or abuse or hunger or cold, to fear and disquiet, to the longing for something better. And this is what it comes back to with the raising of Lazarus. Jesus’ final action which seals his fate is both a reality-shaking miracle, and an action taken on behalf of one frail human person, and one small family—a non-traditional family, by the way, because three unmarried adult siblings living together was a very strange arrangement—whom Jesus loves. It is the defeat of the whole cosmic principle of death, carried out in a small and personal place, an act of individual affection, of particular little people in their little world, a particular body rising from the prison of the grave.

This is the foolishness of God, the foolishness of the cross, which exposes all of our wisdom as empty. The foolishness of saying that one bleeding body, one vulnerable person, one small grieving family, is more important than the Temple itself, is the centre around which reality turns. This is the foolishness which tears away accommodation, stability, reason and compromise, and demands the vision of a wholly different life. And that those most able to recognize the signs of this life are mostly the world’s losers, the outsiders, the poor and the sick and the lost.

But we are all broken, of course we are, even if we try to deny it. Those of us who are not broken by oppression and violence are damaged by our participation in the systems of suffering. We are broken by our dreams and our desires, and their collision with the hard edges of the world. We are each one of us a suffering body, subject to sickness and grief and loss, getting through the days as we can, lying awake in the night afraid of things we can’t even name. None of us are safe. And it is just this which saves us.

For we are here to meet the God of the broken, glorified, risen body. The God before whom all pretense and accommodation falls down. The God whose being is the one complete unconditional gift, the gift which cannot be earned or purchased with our anxious little goodness, but only accepted as the source of all that we are, the source who, as our psalm today tell us, charges reality with beauty and sweetness like honey, the underlying love which flashes out like shining from shook foil.

To be a church which lives in this, which puts that body at the centre, is not easy, and over and over again Christians fall back into thinking of God as a commercial agent with whom we bargain. I believe this is a parish which really does try to be the church of the crucified and risen body, and because of this, you know very well how hard it is. This world is not safe, and its brokenness is very great. We are weak and confused. And every moment of openness brings risk, the knowledge that defenceless space will be entered and exploited sometimes, that the greed and violence which infect the whole world do not stop on the doorstep. And yet you keep on, and it is a remarkable thing to do.

We worship still, not because God demands it, but because it trains us in our loyalty, in our recognition of the body; and because, now and then, past all the struggle, we see that astonishing well of inexhaustible beauty and love, and we can do nothing but fall to our knees. And we turn to the body, again and again, however we can. In the sharing of food and time and care. In the turning of the earth and the tending of gardens. And, sometimes, in turning over some tables ourselves—the counting tables of a government which is targetting the most vulnerable among us, of policies which drive poverty and inequality and violence, which are devastating our planet and endangering our future; the counting tables of a church, sometimes, which seeks its own comfort and safety, and does not want to risk too much.

But in that risk is our true life. For the body which stands at the centre is not only the body broken, but the body risen, the body in which all our individual bodies are embraced, and welcomed into the redemption of all things. We take in our hands the body which is bread, which is the sweetness of honey, we take in our selves the life of God, and we go forward into the world in that knowledge, to be, as we are and as we can, the representatives of love.