Sermons

And so it begins.  With the season of Lent, as our Gospel stories bring us closer to the cross and the crucifixion, particularly in the Gospel of John, “the Jews” are introduced as Jesus’ foil.  In today’s reading of the clearing of the Temple, “the Jews” are a character who question Jesus’ authority for doing what he does, and they question his brazen proclamation that he could rebuild in just three days what had been under construction for forty-six years.

We know this is a dangerous set up, Jesus vs. the Jews.  We know that it is dangerous because it has served as the scriptural basis for the persecution of the Jewish people throughout history.  

It is dangerous because it is simplistic.  It is too easy to paint the entire Jewish population in one broad stroke with one voice.  Think of when you read what the Christians are up to in today’s news. How often do “the Christians” in the news reflect your understanding of Christianity?

It is dangerous because it seems to paint a picture of Jesus as something other than a faithful Jew himself.  Jesus’ outburst in the temple was not the voice of an outsider condemning another group for misguided religious practice.

Jesus’ voice was a Jewish voice.  It was a voice of one of their own asking his sisters and brothers in the faith to question what they believed about what was required in order to have a relationship with the God who loves them.

Because the simplistic label of “the Jews” is so dangerous on all of these levels, we are usually careful with our usage of the term.  Over Palm Sunday and Holy Week, and whenever the phrase comes up, we are careful to examine what is meant in the context. We will often change the term to most faithfully represent what scholars understand to be the group to which “the Jews” refers.  

Rather than “the Jews”, you will hear “the Jewish authorities” when it is the religious leaders Jesus is speaking with.  You will hear “the crowd” to reflect the fact that those milling around town were not a homogenous group with a single religious identity.  

These changes aren’t perfect, but they are an attempt to acknowledge the power and danger of language and to acknowledge Christianity’s use and misuse of that language in the service of power, rather than the liberating message of the Gospel.

But this morning you heard “the Jews.”  “The Jews then said” John writes twice in this story.  I wish I could say it was an intentional choice borne out of a deep theological conversation amongst the staff at our liturgy planning meeting.  But it wasn’t. I just didn’t see it.

I looked over the bulletin and glanced at the Gospel reading.  I saw that it was the correct passage -- the familiar Jesus in the Temple story -- and I moved on.

And I think that’s a common practice for many of us when encountering old and well-worn passages from our sacred story.

It could have had harmful unintended consequences, as using scripture out of context often does.  Ultimately, I’m glad I missed it. I’m glad that this morning we heard a conversation between “the Jews” and Jesus.

Because when I read this Gospel story as a conversation between Jesus and his Jewish sisters and brothers, and not as an argument between Jesus and some out-of-touch religious authorities, the statements put in the voice of the Jewish community change in their meaning.  Suddenly they sounded less like challenges and more like pleas.

“What sign can you show us for doing this?”  Perhaps not a challenge to his authority but a desperate hope that Jesus’ radical message could be followed, if only he could show them a sign it was okay to trust him.

“This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”  Coming from the mouths of others in his faith community, I hear it as the amazement of a gathered crowd who know this Jesus is a rabbi of a different sort, and they want to know more.  

Suddenly I hear the Jews response to Jesus’ turning the tables in the Gospel through the wandering, wondering, yearning and hopeful voice of a faithful, God-seeking community of Jesus’ sisters and brothers in faith.  “Show us a sign, God,” they plea, “show us a way to love you.”

Jesus offers them a way to be in relationship with God that does not depend on the Temple, or the synagogue, or the church.

God isn’t there, Jesus shows them.  God isn’t a place, or even a practice.  God is here with you, all the time. God is with you, God is among you.  God is wherever you are. What a radical truth to hear, calling into question generations of belief and practice.

Of course they want to know more.  Of course they need assurance before walking this new path, leaving behind all that they knew.  

Of course they do.  Don’t we? Don’t we want to know how to trust this incredible promise God gives us?  Don’t we, in our lives, ask God for signs that we are on the right path, that things will be okay, that God is somewhere in the midst of our struggles?

Don’t we want to understand, when the temples of our lives seem to crumble to dust, how it is God will put the pieces back together, as God promises to do?

And I think that’s the real purpose of the Temple, of the synagogue, of the church.  We don’t come here to find God. This is not where God lives. Jesus makes that point clear with a whip of cords in one hand.

We come here, to this place, to be reminded that God lives among us, with us, in us.  We come here to be reminded that death never has the final word, that new life always awaits us if we choose it.  We come here to hear how it has been true in the stories we hear in scripture, and we come to see how it continues to be true in the lives of those who share this community with us.

We come here to be fed with word and song in bread and wine that we might live our lives with this incredible promise sealed on our hearts.

We come to this place asking ancient questions.  God, give us a sign. God, show us the way.

Help us to know that you are here with us, all the time.  

God is with you, God is among you.  God is wherever you are.

As it was in the beginning, is now.  And will be forever.

AMEN.

 

© 2018 The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello

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