Rev. Adrianne Meier
March 7, 2021, Third Sunday in Lent
St. Thomas Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
To do: Wake Up, Liberate
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John 2:13-22 NRSV, emended
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 exchangers 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 exchangers 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!” Jesus’ disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Those gathered at the Temple said to Jesus, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” He answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. The people then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But Jesus 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.
For the last several Christmases—last Christmas, of course was an exception—Matt and I and some members of the congregation I served would gather at a local brewery for Carols and Beer. The first year I wrote a parody to the song, “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love.” The exact words of the parody have been lost to time, though, I’m not sure it is much of a loss, but it did end with the refrain “They’ll know we are Christians by our tips.” Having waited tables through seminary, I can assure you that many probably otherwise generous people often forget that the wage of those who serve them is only made livable by generous tips. Some churches provide evangelism materials specifically to leave for restaurant servers, though I don’t think the makers of these materials assume they will be left in lieu of tips. I bring it up as a reminder that, across the board, Christians do not agree on what it means to be faithful. This is not new to our time, it was something that Jesus encountered among faithful and devout Jews of his time. When Jesus visits the temple, he provides the disciples with a lens for deciding whether or not something is faithful: his own death and resurrection.
John’s gospel does not speak highly of the Jews. Some translators argue that John doesn’t actually say “the Jews,” but rather “the Judeans.” Though, no one really, entirely knows what he’s talking about. Which is kind of a theme for John: Jesus talks today about the Temple, but means his body; with Nicodemus about being born again, but doesn’t mean from a mother’s womb; with the Samaritan woman at the well about running water, but he means living water; and the list goes on and on.
When we read John’s gospel is it imperative that we remember that he is writing after the fall of the Temple. When the Temple was first built, it was central to Jewish worship and understanding. After exile, and certainly after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD, Jews had to determine what it meant to be Jewish if there isn’t a Temple. Christianity is one of the options. John is writing to offer it as an option, and often he does so by attacking other options. When we read John’s gospel, we have to remember that it really doesn’t tell us anything about what it means to be Jewish, nor does it tell us who is to blame for the death of Jesus. It presents a caricature in order to make an argument for Christianity and for Jesus. And it reminds us that there wasn’t an agreement on what it means to be a faithful follower of God even in Jesus’s time. Some people sacrificed at the Temple. Some people debated in synagogues. And some people followed itinerant preachers.
So it is now among us. We live in a time of moral certainty—we are sure we have both the right diagnosis and prescription for society’s ills. Conservative and Progressive Christians disagree vehemently on moral issues. Some claim that being pro-life is the only faithful stance. Others claim that we must be active and vocal on issues of social justice. Are we in the world, and not of the world? Should we retreat from the world? Drums in worship? Organ? Speaking in tongues? Seven minute sermons or ninety? What constitutes “politics in worship”? Who or what is to blame for climate change; is it even a thing? Who can marry? Who can divorce? Am I alone in yelling at the TV whenever someone makes a claim about what Christians do and believe, saying, “They don’t speak for me”? How do we wade through all this to determine what is right and faithful and true? What sign can be given?
It isn’t clear why Jesus overturns the money changers’ tables. There isn’t any indication that the prices were exploitive or unfair (which is what I always assumed, but it isn’t there in the text, at least not in John’s gospel). The bottom line is that the people needed a place to buy animals for sacrifice. So, Jesus could be weighing in a debate about not using animal sacrifice in worship anymore. Or he could be condemning the intertwining of faith and politics, as the forty-six year old temple was erected by Herod, whose Judaism was and continues to be hotly contested. But let’s zero-in on this interaction: when he is asked what proof he can offer for what he’s doing, he responds with a weird answer about destroying and restoring the temple, but, John tells us in an aside, he really means the temple of his body. How do we understand Jesus? How do we determine what is right? It is done by and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Digging into the Greek, Jesus says, lusate and egero – liberate and waken from death.
How do we determine what is right? We ask, does it set my neighbor free? Does it bring them from death to life? This isn’t the only lens we use or can use, but it is a start. It clearly lays some things aside. Christianity isn’t about accumulating wealth or power. It isn’t about assuring our place in society. This lens also serves to complicate issues, especially when person is pitted against person. Though, if death of Jesus is about release, about liberation, then it clear that we should take the side of the side of powerless over the powerful. But this lens also clearly instructs us: we cannot look away. When our neighbor is a slave to sin, is brought low by her choices or the choices of someone else, we have a responsibility to untangle these knots—to unbind her, as Jesus will say of the no-longer-dead Lazarus in a few weeks—to unbind her and let her go.
That is how Christians understand the world: always through the death and resurrection of Jesus, always this constant cycle of being set free and being set free to free others. And when I set you free, the liberator is really Christ, not me. And when you set me free, then I have been freed by Christ. How can you set your neighbor free, beloved? How can you proclaim that everyone deserves to be set free, this one, waking on death row today; this one, waking from a near-overdose; this one, waking in a world his disease tells him is real; this one, waking in a world that will not communicate with her; this one, whose child will never wake again; this one, who has been told her presence is suspicious; this one, who is fleeing to safety; this one, who has been removed from the land of her ancestors; this one, who is told he cannot love whom he loves; this one, who is told her body is wrong; this one, who cannot put down his phone; this one, who works too much; this one, who no longer speaks to his family; this one, who wants what he cannot or should not have. Set them free beloved: understand, walk with them, help them set up boundaries for respectful relationships, wake up to their pain, advocate for their needs, give them what they need most. I once read that Toni Morrison told her students, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” And on and on we go in an endless cycle of waking up, of becoming, of letting go, of setting free, of breaking every yoke and of rending every chain, of diminishing hardship, and maximizing love.