Breaking down the barriers

Lent 3 -2015
John 2:13-21
Marian Free

In the name of God, whom we access through Jesus – not through buildings or rituals. Amen.

John 2:13 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.

I wonder what, if anything, surprised you in today’s gospel? For myself, three things are immediately obvious. The first is that Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple occurs at the beginning of his ministry; the second is that Jesus compares the Temple precincts to a marketplace and not to a “den of thieves” and the third is the reference to Jesus’ body as a temple. These stand out because they are not found in the other accounts of the same event. If you were to put John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple side by side with the accounts found in the other three gospels you would notice other significant differences in the retelling. These include Jesus making a whip of cords, pouring out the coins of the money-changers, the disciples’ remembering the Psalm (“zeal for your house”) and suggesting that if the Temple were destroyed, he Jesus, could raise it up in three days.

These distinctions are significant and important if we are to understand John’s gospel and the differences between John’s gospel and Matthew, Mark and Luke. Among other things, the Synoptic Gospels place the majority of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Jesus makes only one visit to Jerusalem and that is for less than a week – the week in which he dies. The author of John’s gospel suggests that there were three occasions on which Jesus visited Jerusalem and that his first visit – this one, occurred immediately after the wedding at Cana (which is in Galilee). Jesus performs the first of his signs – changing water into wine – and immediately makes the long trip to Jerusalem for the Passover.

According to John, Jesus goes to Jerusalem on several occasions during his ministry and he appears to spend a great deal of time there – more time there than in Galilee. The Synoptic gospels tell the story quite differently, Jesus visits only once and that just before his death. The differences in the accounts means that it is difficult to tell just how long Jesus’ public ministry was. Was it only one year as implied by the Synoptics, or was it three as implied in John’s account?

Of course each author retells the story in a different way according to the point they want to make. In the case of John’s gospel, one of the author’s intentions is to demonstrate that in his person, Jesus replaces the Temple, its festivals and its rituals. Through Jesus, in other words, John claims that believers have a direct access to God. There is no longer any need for an intermediary – whether that be the priests or the rituals associated with the Temple. In Jesus is all that a believer needs for healing, rest, and life-giving sustenance. This is most evident in what we know as the “I am” statements some of which occur specifically in the context of the Jewish festivals. When Jesus says: “I am the light of the world”, “I am the living water”, “I am the bread of life”, he is implying that in his person he represents the symbols of the cult. As the light of the world, Jesus makes Hanukkah redundant, as the bread of life he implies that he replaces the Passover festival and as the water of life, he becomes the primary symbol associated with the Feast of the Tabernacles.

All of this goes to explain why the author of John’s gospel places Jesus’ clearing of the Temple at the very beginning of Jesus ministry. It sets the scene for what is to come. In other words, John is using this event in Jesus’ life to introduce the idea that Jesus replaces the Temple and all that it represents. This theme is not unique to John, but is found, albeit in a very different way in the Book of Hebrews, which is much more explicit about Jesus’ replacement of the Temple, the priesthood and the sanctuary as the primary means by which believers access or enter into relationship with God.

To us this all seems self-evident – it is a theme with which we have lived our whole lives. It is important to remember that John is writing in a completely different context – one in which the Temple had played a role for centuries and in which there were temples were central to the worship of the vast array of Greek and Roman gods. Worshipping a god without a Temple was almost inconceivable if for no other resaon than that there needed to be somewhere to offer sacrifices.

John is writing at the end of the first century. At the time Jerusalem (and therefore the Temple) had been destroyed – the focus of the Jewish cult no longer existed. Even had it survived, those who believed in Jesus would not have been welcome because they had not supported the Jews in the uprising against Rome If the Temple no longer existed, it would have raised the questions: Where and how might the cult be practiced if there is no longer a Temple, no longer a Holy of Holies? If there was no longer a Temple how and where would believers express their relationship with God? Without the Temple how could the people communicate with God.

John’s gospel provides the answer – all these things are possible in and through Jesus. The Temple is no longer necessary. Through Jesus believers have direct access to God. They do not need cult or ritual to express their relationship with or to communicate with God. Everything that the Temple cult had provided – reconciliation with God, purity rituals, opportunities to give thanks to God and so on – is now to be found in and expressed through the person of Jesus. This is the point that John is making in his retelling of the “cleansing of the Temple”. Jesus claims that should the Temple itself be destroyed, he could raise it up – not in the 46 years it had taken Herod to bring it to its current state, but in just three days. This is an extraordinary claim. It would be impossible to rebuild the bricks and mortar of the building, but as John explains for the benefits of his readers, Jesus is not referring to the physical Temple, but to himself. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus will become the means of communication with God. All that the Temple has been, all the functions that the Temple has served, will be available through faith in Jesus. If there is a need for a Temple, Jesus is that Temple.

It is important to understand that the Church is not a substitute for the Temple, that the clergy are not intermediaries between the faithful and God, that our rites and rituals might express our faith but they do not stand between God and us. Thanks to Jesus, the relationship between each individual and God is direct and immediate. Those who believe in Jesus don’t need someone else to pray for on their behalf, to ask forgiveness on their behalf or to offer sacrifices on their behalf. No one needs another person to act as God’s interpreter because God is accessible to each and every one of us.

God has broken all the barriers, between himself and humankind. Such barriers as there are of our own making and our own design.

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