This week Jesus goes into the temple and turns over the tables driving out the money changers and telling the dove sellers to ‘take these things out of here.’ It is familiar to us yet for those present on that day it would have been shocking. Going to the temple, changing their money and buying doves for sacrifice was how faithful Jews practiced their religion. It seems very unfair of Jesus to do this but look at where this reading is. It is right at the beginning of John’s gospel and follows hard on the wedding at Cana. John is crafting a story that points again and again to who Jesus is. When he is asked by the crowd for a sign for why he is doing these things Jesus says that if the temple is destroyed he will raise it up in three days. He is not talking about bricks and mortar but about his body. In this reading John is pointing to Jesus as the means of salvation and not temple practices. This is something that doesn’t make sense to the disciples at the time but later they remember and suddenly the resurrection starts to make sense.
How does it make sense to us?
One commentary I read this week said of today’s gospel ‘when people focus too much on a physical location they miss out on God’s glory around them.’ The people in the temple on that day two thousand years ago missed God’s glory in the person of Jesus because they were focused on their spiritual practices that were focused on things; a building, money, sacrificial animals. They saw what they expected to see, what their history and prayer practices told them they would see and they missed God’s glory.
Like many other churches, at St Mark’s we are planning to get back into church for services. We don’t have a date yet but it is likely to be before Easter. In all the planning and risk assessments which have to be done a concern is that in the rush to get back to doing what we did might we be in danger of missing God’s glory and God’s call in the new situation we find ourselves in?
Recently I recommended a book ‘Sacred Pathways’ by Gary Thomas to someone who is new to ministry. Then, as you do, I reread parts myself. It helped me, when I was in a very traditional church, understand why some people were so attached to things that did not bother me. Thomas describes nine different ways that people typically walk their spiritual journey. I remember when I was at an ecumenical service where the priest wore shorts and a t-shirt to preside. I was struck by the sensitive way he presided yet many of the people with me could not get past the fact he was not wearing a clerical collar and vestments. This wasn’t because they were old fashioned, but because symbolic dress was important to them and for it not to be present got in the way of their prayer.
Gary Thomas cites the importance of ritual or liturgical pattern and of symbol and image for traditionalists. This might include written prayers, liturgy, the flow of the liturgical calendar, how many candles are on the altar and liturgical colour. These are all the scaffolding of a spiritual life. When we get back into church at St Mark’s the scaffolding will mostly still be there – the services will be a bit shorter but they are familiar, the altar will have the right liturgical colour and the music that is played on CD will be the right hymns for the season. They are there for a reason Evelyn Underhill calls ritual and symbol ‘signs of the supra-sensible action’ which Thomas says are ‘the ways that we use the physical world to express non-physical (spiritual) truths.’ (p83) God is so big that we need a way to manage our encounter and for this semi traditionalist that is what all the symbol and ritual does.
What our reading from the gospel today reminds us of however is that we need to be aware that the scaffolding is not the structure and that if we focus too much on the physical we are in danger of missing God’s glory. I always feel that priests, church wardens and treasurers need a free pass on this as we are so involved in the structure of the church and it not falling down but perhaps we need to listen harder!
As a traditional church with people that are more than likely to prefer a traditionalist way of praying we need to be aware that we are approaching a new season. What do we keep the same? What do we adapt?
There will be a new normal in the months to come we need to be aware of the temptations of our type of church. It is easy to serve God without knowing God. It is easy to get so caught up in holiness we forget to reach out and minister to others. We can judge those who don’t use the same ritual as us whether that is BCP or the correct number of worship songs. Thomas concludes his section on traditionalists with this ‘No symbol or ritual has absolute value of itself. A symbol represents a hidden reality. It is there to evoke the mysterious.’
With today’s reading in mind, with the image of Jesus in the temple what is there in our life or in our church practice that is in danger of becoming that physical object that gets in the way of seeing God’s glory around us? What needs to change? What can stay the same?
‘Sacred Pathways; Discover Your Soul’s Path to God’ Gary Thomas published by Zondervan Revised Edition 2010.
Gospel Reading John 2.13-22
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ The Jews then said to him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ They then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.