Sacred space

John 2:13-22

We find ourselves now in what I’m referring to as our temporary church – the furniture screwed to the floor has gone, in order to facilitate a variety of uses, so that a wide range of activities can happen in this space than previously. This is not the finished product – far from it – it’s a temporary arrangement to facilitate things happening elsewhere. It’s also a time of experiment – as you can see, we do not have to put the chairs in the same places every week, indeed we won’t when I’m leading worship, so that we can experience a variety of options.

Some of you will not be happy with how the church looks at the moment, to which I remind you that this is only temporary. Some of you will be afraid, or unsettled, or cross, to which I simply ask you to try to give it some time. Some of you will be feeling that we haven’t got it right today, or that something more needs to be done even in our temporary state, to which I simply ask you to bear with us as this is a work in progress. As far as we know, people have never been able to worship in this kind of way in this building until know. To some of you that might seem a very strange thing, but I have led worship in all kinds of places: on village greens, cricket pitches, in marquees, and once sitting in a sink because there was literally no other space in the tiny room. God is still present. We can still encounter God.

Church buildings doubling up for all sorts of community and social activities is nothing new or unusual, yet some are still wary of this, quoting today’s reading. I wonder, just why did Jesus get so worked up about people doing their business in the Temple? And he certainly did get worked up, enough to cause a chaotic scene which has found its way into all four Gospels. It’s out of character to read of Jesus making a whip and using force to upturn tables and drive people out of the Temple. There’s something here which we have to take very seriously indeed.

You don’t actually have to have a building totally set apart for the worship of God. It’s possible to have dual use without compromising either the sacred or the secular, but it’s important that neither becomes a denial of the other, and that seems to have been the problem in Jerusalem. The worshippers were there to demonstrate their love of God with all their being, but they were also there to affirm their love of their neighbours, and what was going on in the Temple was the exploitation of neighbours.

Some of the worshippers needed animals for sacrifice, and there were traders ready to meet their need: at a price. You can always charge the last-minute shoppers more and get away with it. Other worshippers needed to change Roman money for Jewish money and again there were traders ready to help: at an inflated exchange rate. In other words, the Temple was being used by some to take advantage of others. That was what angered Jesus.

The situation was actually rather worse in the sense that the two activities, worship and trading were going on at the same time. There was no effort to separate the one from the other. The situation was intolerable.

It has become clear that Jesus was angry, both at the use of the Temple in a way that confused God’s glory with human business, but also at the profiteering that was going on in the Temple. It needed a strong response.

The story is developed at two levels. At a practical level the disciples were worried about what would happen to Jesus, and they recalled Psalm 69 as a kind of warning: Zeal for your house will consume me.

You don’t cause that level of disturbance without being punished. And equally at a practical level, some of the powers-that-be asked Jesus on what authority he took this action. They were hoping for an opportunity to show Jesus up as an insurgent, a challenger to the legitimate authorities.

Yet the writer of John’s Gospel doesn’t tell stories for their own sake. There is a sub-text here. In particular, the stories in the early part of the Gospel are all seen as signs of who Jesus was and what he had come to do. This story points to Jesus as one who has an authority higher than that of any other person, a God-given authority, indeed the authority of God in person. Yet this Jesus is going to be destroyed, just as he has destroyed the booths of the money changers, but it will be within God’s power to raise him from death after three days. That is the sub-text, and it gives an eternal message over and above the account of an incident in the Temple. Jesus is Lord, and nothing anyone can do will destroy him and his message.

If the Gospel writer can tell a story with a sub-text, we can give it a similar sub-text for our time. We are now in the season of Lent, an opportunity for some serious self-examination. So let us imagine that Jesus, instead of going into the Jerusalem Temple, is coming into our lives to see what he finds there. How will he respond? Will he find that our worship, our devotion, our sense of the divine is in good shape? Will he find that our life style, our relationships, our priorities are those of a good disciple? Or will there be some things that he will see that he will want to drive out?

Those are very personal questions and the answers will vary from person to person, and the answers remain between each of us and God. But we can still connect our believing and our living. On the one hand, believing should be connected. Our worship, our prayer, our trying to encounter God, are not just something for Sundays or times apart: they do need to relate to the rest of life. Similarly, the way we behave day by day shouldn’t contradict what we do in our devotional life. Yet on the other hand, when both aspects of life occupy the same space (as happened in the Temple) it is easy for them to get confused and maybe for one to corrupt the other. A dual-purpose life is a good thing, providing both purposes are kept in good shape.

We follow a Lord who wants to drive out whatever is stopping us realising our potential as made in the image of God; who wants to drive out the pride and selfishness that spoils good relationships; who wants to lift unnecessary burdens and make good broken lives.

We come to church to encounter this living God, made known to us in Jesus, whose Spirit encourages and inspires us in trying to do that. Today we meet in what I can only describe as a “work in progress”. Earlier I mentioned a number negative or uncertain feelings that I’m sure that some of us have. But some of us will also be excited, hopeful, encouraged, willing to accept that we are on a journey as we explore what shared space means and how we make that work. None of us desires that the traders and money changers take over. I urge you all to bear with us as we experiment and find how best to make things work in this developing situation of our temporary church.

This story of Jesus cleansing the Temple is all about pointing us to fuller discipleship, of more ways to encounter the living God in newer and deeper ways. Let us try to do precisely that, and ask God to help us.

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