Still grieving the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed in 70AD by the Romans, they knew what a beautiful building for worship could offer. But, followers of The Way, as the early Christian movement was often called, they were growing so quickly, that meeting in people’s homes continued to meet their needs quite well.
If you could travel back in time to John’s community and take a digital photo, all you’d see is the people, believers who also understood themselves as evangelists, ready at any time to share a word about why they were the church. They didn’t know anything else, except that, the church is the people.
Jesus’ action in the Temple was, clear as mud to the disciples when he drove all the animals and merchants out, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers. But, one thing we can say now, the term “cleansing of the temple” is not totally accurate, especially if we realize that, moneychangers were only providing a service that was needed then, to change Roman coins with the image of the emperor, into Jewish coins, so as not to break the commandment about “making false idols.” And the merchants, as long as they weren’t cheating anyone, were welcomed by pilgrims coming long distances, to buy animals for the ritual sacrifices in the Temple. It would be perplexing if Jesus was simply protesting these ordinary services.
When Jesus arrives during preparations for the Passover, the rivers of blood, of course, would have been flowing. Many animals, especially lambs, would be slaughtered for the feast, and there was a built-in drainage system that let the blood flow from the priests’ blades, down into pools in the ground outside the Temple. But by the time John wrote his gospel, all these traditions had been lost, of course. The Temple itself had been razed, a generation earlier, “not a stone left on stone.” So, this is why “his disciples remembered that Jesus” had said, “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” They realized “after he was raised from the dead,” that “he was speaking of the temple of his body.”
Jesus’ anger from that day, no doubt stuck in their minds. But it wasn’t anger over traditions at Passover. Jesus celebrated Passover every year of his life. At this Passover, he gives us a foreshadowing of how at the Passover of his Last Supper, he will transform the symbol of the Cup and the blood poured out, to revitalize God’s word as a Eucharisitic Meal for us – and how he will transform the symbol of Temple, and where God is located. His anger was for the whole system, about to fall. It was a belief that the world was about to turn, which was the story that John was telling to his parishioners. They, were the temple of his body now. Jesus was angry, not at the animals or the moneychangers in the Temple, but at a false system of “trade” that was blinding people from seeing how the world was turning, in and through Jesus. Jesus is angry when we don’t care for the poor, for example, incredulous that we don’t have a fire of justice burning in our hearts.
So, the Temple wasn’t bad in itself, but it could be a temptation to turn inward. God would not let King David build a temple, and made the Israelites wait for his son Solomon. Could a structure – even on built so lovingly – contain God? Even then the prophets warned against it, and the beauty of the Temple remained a constant double edged sword: a gift to the people and symbol of the majesty of God, but also an idol of the people, an excuse to turn from the faithfulness of the covenant God made with them. God had chosen them, had set them apart. But, to be a light to the nations. And that covenant, when used as a cudgel, or to be exclusionary, dimmed the light, and the message of God to the world, grew faint.
We have the same double-edged sword today. And so we must continually ask, are our buildings a beacon for our mission in the world? Is this building furthering our vision? Does the message of the gospel good-news reach others through us? Is this Gathering area a public space where the stranger and new comer are as welcome as our closest friends, that all may be fed by God’s Word and Meal, in order that believers may be Sent out to bear God’s grace and mercy?
The world is already turning, whether we are ready or not. I don’t know if you’re aware that there are at least two new church starts in our neighborhood in the past few months? One, Urban Village Church, an Episcopally funded Emergent congregation, is renting space at the Bethany Methodist facility on Ashland Ave. And the other, the Christian Community Church, which began in Naperville and has opened nearly a dozen satellites in greater Chicagoland, has opened its newest, here in Edgewater. It’s easy to see in these communities how the mission and people are front and center. They begin as gatherings of people in homes, and virtually, online, and they expand to buildings only when more space is needed, and even then, usually just renting or leasing in order to leave room as they expand. One of the last things they think about is a building.
I love our church building, especially this beautiful worship space. But it can never take priority over vision and mission. We don’t exist for ourselves. Christianity is not a club, but a public gathering – to proclaim Christ crucified. God is not just here in this place, but everywhere in the world. If you were asked to take a picture of your church, you would probably photograph this beautiful sanctuary, or the brick fortress façade outside. But our picture is missing something if we don’t include the people.
In fact what if you took a picture of yourself where God is with you, at work, or at home, or volunteering somewhere? Yesterday I took some pictures at the All American Nursing Home, of some of the people Trudy, Lynette and I have been visiting. Though they were shy, when I showed them the result, their faces lit up! And then later as I looked at the pictures on our Unity website it hit me, that they’re mostly about church events, here. They’re all quite good, but where are the pictures of you, living your faith all the other days of the week, in all the other settings to which God calls you, where you make a difference as a person of faith, or, struggle against systems that don’t know the realm and kingdom of God, and that need to know of the fire of Jesus’ justice, to wipe away all tears, and to know that the world is about to change? So, I want to invite you to do that. Send me some pictures from work or home, out with friends or volunteering. Places and people you want to share, because you know God is there, or needs to be there – and send them to me, and if you give me permission, I’ll put them on our website – because, God is alive in you, the Body of Christ, in the world, every day! So, get out your camera-phones or your Kodak Brownies! You don’t have to travel in time to do this! God is with us now, and not just in our church building, but wherever we are in the world. The temple of Christ’s body lives in us and through us – for, “the dawn is near, and the world is about to turn.”