Today’s scripture readings:
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
In her book, An Altar in the World, Episcopal priest and self-described “spiritual contrarian” Barbara Brown Taylor writes about finding God wherever she is. She insists that “the treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company.” “Wherever you are,” she says, “you live in the world, which is just waiting for you to notice the holiness in it.” She goes on: “Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” Barbara Brown Taylor is certain that God isn’t confined to any four walls and a roof but that each one of us has access to God wherever we are, if only we open our minds and hearts—and our eyes and ears—to the possibility.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s ideas about each of us having access to God wherever we are came to mind this week because in this Gospel lesson we just read, I think John is trying to make exactly the same point.
We often refer to this scene as the “cleansing of the temple.” Jesus shows up at the temple in Jerusalem, drives out all of the animals, and overturns the tables of the moneychangers. It probably helps to set this scene in its context. John tells us that the Jewish people are beginning their Passover celebration, and since Passover in those days was a pilgrimage feast, that meant that common people from all across the Jewish homeland would have been descending on Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday—many of whom would have traveled a great distance to be there. Because it was such a long journey, most of them would not have brought animals along with them to sacrifice at the temple. If they were going to participate in temple worship with all the others who had come to celebrate Passover, they would have to buy animals for the temple sacrifice there in Jerusalem. And because the Jewish people had laws forbidding the use of coins bearing graven images, they wouldn’t be able to use the standard Roman coinage minted with Caesar’s face. They would first need to exchange their Roman coins for the Jewish coins that were acceptable for use in Jerusalem. So when these Jewish pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem and made their way to the temple for worship, there were vendors conveniently located right on the premises who could help them change their currency and sell them the animals they needed to participate in the sacrificial rituals.
When the other three gospels tell this story of the “cleansing of the temple,” as Jesus overturns the tables and drives everyone out, he accuses them of turning God’s house into “a den of thieves.” In the other Gospels, when Jesus shows up at the temple and drives everyone out, what he seems to be critiquing is economic injustice. Spiritual pilgrims, most of whom were lower-class, common people, showed up at the temple and then were forced to pay whatever fees the moneychangers demanded and had to pay whatever was required for the sacrificial animals that would allow them to participate in the rituals. Temple worship, in other words, had become this twisted exchange that transferred wealth from the already poor to those who controlled the temple economy. In the other three gospels, what Jesus critiques in the temple is an economic system that is completely at odds with the spirit of the Jewish law.
But it’s a little different in John’s gospel. John doesn’t say anything about the temple becoming a “den of thieves.” In John’s gospel, Jesus is upset that the temple has become a “marketplace” at all. In John’s gospel, Jesus critiques a spiritual system that depends on showing up at this temple to make sacrificial offerings. It’s not just the racketeering taking place on the temple grounds that bothers Jesus; it’s the entire system of temple spirituality that he means to condemn. Jesus tells the people that there’s no need to show up at this temple and offer sacrifices to God; Jesus says he is the temple. His body is the temple. What he is saying is radical in the context of ancient Judaism. He is saying that God doesn’t need the people’s sacrifices. God doesn’t even dwell in the temple; God dwells in him. God is where Jesus is. God is among the people. Keep in mind that just one chapter earlier, in the very beginning of John’s gospel, we read that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Now, one chapter later, Jesus shows up in Jerusalem and asks, essentially, “Why are you looking for God in the temple? I am right here!” In and through Jesus, we have direct access to God. There’s no need to go looking for God in a building. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, there are altars in the world all over the place.
Which is a nice idea when we haven’t spent a year living through a pandemic, kept away from the building where we’re accustomed to gathering each week with our community. The idea that we don’t need to go looking for God in a building is a nice one to ponder when we haven’t been told we must stay away and that we can’t be together with the church friends we love. I understand that God is with us and the church is where we are. But, truth be told, almost one full year after moving our worship services online, I feel more certain than ever about the value of being together in this room, singing together, feasting together, praying together. Maybe what this pandemic has taught us is that we really do still need the building.
But this gospel lesson persuades me that it’s probably worth asking, what is the purpose of a coming together in one place when we know God can be found everywhere?
There’s a great scene at the end of the third book of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The two children Edmund and Lucy have been transported yet again to Narnia and in the final scene they meet once more with the great lion (and Christ-figure) Aslan. “Please, Aslan,” says Lucy. “Before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again?” Aslan replies that they will never come back to Narnia, that they must return to their own world. Lucy sobs. “How can we live, never meeting you?” she asks. Aslan replies that they will meet him, that he is in their world, too. But, he says, “There I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
I wonder if that’s how it is with the church. It’s not that we don’t experience God where we are. It’s that, here, as we worship, we come to know God just a little more so that we may recognize God more clearly out in the world. Here our eyes are trained to see glimmers of grace in our homes and in our workplaces that we might otherwise miss. Here we practice asking for and receiving forgiveness so we can better embody God’s mercy in our everyday lives. Here we gather around Christ’s table where all are invited to the feast, and we envision a world where there is an abundance for everyone. Here we are transformed by music and art that speaks to our spirits in ways words cannot. In this place we hear a different story about our neighbors and about ourselves than the story the world would have us believe, and that alternative story shapes us and forms us into people who engage differently with our neighbors and are kinder to ourselves. Some of those things we can approximate in our online worship services, but one of the things I’ve learned this past year is that there is something special that happens when we gather here in this room—that can only happen when we gather here. I long to return to this place and to worship with you in real life—to share the same space and even breathe the same air when it becomes safe for us to do so again.
Barbara Brown Taylor is right: We are surrounded by the divine. Christ is in our midst in all times and places. There are altars all over the place if only our eyes might be trained to see them. God is not confined to any one building. And yet, places like this serve a purpose. It will be good, someday soon, to be back.
Mihee Kim-Kort, “March 4, Lent 3B (John 2:13-22),” in the Christian Century, February 1, 2018, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/march-4-lent-3b-john-213-22.
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in The Complete Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).
David J. Lose, “Lent 3B: Igniting Centrifugal Force,” on …In the Meantime, March 2, 2015, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/03/lent-3-b-igniting-centrifugal-force/.
Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).
The featured image for this post is from JESUS MAFA, “Jesus drives out the merchants,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48271 [retrieved March 7, 2021]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).