Lenten Meditation: February 26
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 marketplace!” 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.” The Jews 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.
This is one of the few stories that all four gospel writers tell, although Matthew, Mark, and Luke place the story after Palm Sunday during the last week of Jesus’ life. For John, its front and center. John is establishing early that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, so much so that there is no need for a temple or the commerce within it. This is further emphasized in chapter 4 when Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at the well who asks him whether worship is on her mountain or his temple. Jesus says neither, for worship is in spirit and the truth.
David wanted to build a temple but God said no, so that privilege fell to his son, Solomon. He enslaved his people to do it, so things didn’t start well there. In 587, Nebuchadnezzar led his army into Jerusalem and the temple was destroyed and the rulers hauled in chains to Babylon.
When Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, the people returned and built the second temple. This one lasted until 70 AD at which time the Romans tore it down in response to the Jewish revolt. By the time John wrote his gospel there was no temple at all.
There was no temple but, in the time of John’s writing, there was a community of believers he has in mind. Love one another, John says. Feed my sheep. This is how they will know you are my disciples, in that you love one another.
We Presbyterians love our buildings. So do Methodists and Episcopalians. Some are quite beautiful. One of my favorite structures in the world is the chapel at King’s College in Cambridge, England. Unlike the temples of the Bible, our buildings are not under siege. They most often outlast the congregations that are inside. John asks us to think about that.
Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. Note that Jesus doesn’t say he will rebuild it. He says he will raise it up, because he was talking about the temple of his body. Is that temple enough for us? So many of our congregations are small in number and great in faith. But so often that faith is a actualized in the heroic ways we seek to maintain our buildings. What limited resources we have are diverted to the physical structure rather than the spirit and truth that Jesus talks about.
Now I love our building at Trinity. I feel good whenever I am inside it. But I also know that all of that lovely space needs to be tended to, repaired, and nurtured. At Trinity we are lucky to have skilled and dedicated people who can see to that. But we have to ask, what might our ministry look like if we worshiped as John’s disciples did, in Spirit and truth, but also simply and cost effectively? The earliest Christian communities did not have buildings apart from the homes in which they met.
Many churches see the end of their buildings as the end of their ministry. Jesus saw it as the beginning. Something to think about.