11 March 2012
10.30 Parish Communion, Woodchurch
Father, may these my spoken words be faithful to your written word and lead us to the living word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
These words come from a Charles Wesley hymn and, I believe, that they have penetrated deep into the Christian consciousness – Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.
When I hear those words they immediately evoke images of late Victorian or early 20th century paintings of a soft focus white-skinned blue-eyed Jesus, in a lush green landscape perhaps surrounded by lambs and doe-eyed children who are marvelling at his meekness and mildness.
Now we know from the gospels that Jesus loved children and, of course, that he preached a message of radical peacemaking, so there is a element of truth in the picture this evokes, although, from a purely aesthetic point of view, I suspect that Jesus looked more like a middle-eastern, Jewish, working class artisan than an English or American forerunner of the hippies.
But this week’s gospel reminds us that there was much more to Jesus than that and it is therefore a very useful antidote to the meek and mild image.
Jesus made a whip out of cords and he drove the merchants from the temple area, as one would drive cattle – he whipped them, he overturned their tables and he shouted at them – Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market! Jesus was consumed with zeal to cleanse the temple, his Father’s house. This man, furious with righteous indignation, driving the traders from the temple with a whip must be about as far as possible as it is to get from meek and mild.
And, in a sense, we should not be surprised by this. After all we know that in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke it was this incident in the temple, this violent, troublemaking, revolutionary, reforming, anti-establishment incident that first provoked the chief priests to start looking for ways to arrest Jesus. It was this incident that really got the attention of the religious and social establishment.
Interestingly, but as a bit of an aside, I should say that John puts this incident in the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than at the end, unlike the three Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. From a purely chronological perspective I suspect that the synoptics are correct, not least as it makes a huge amount of logical sense for it to precede his arrest rather than go unpunished as it seems to in John. However, this does not mean that John simply got the chronology wrong – I suspect that by placing this shocking clash at the beginning of the story John is making an important theological point – he is setting out the agenda of what is to come – he is saying that when God became human in the person of Jesus we should expect to be shocked, the status quo has come to an end, tables are going to be overturned, the old order is corrupt and needs to be identified as such.
So what does this all mean for us?
Well, I believe that it is important on both a practical and a spiritual level.
Practically it reminds us that the church should not remain meek and mild in the face of evil, corruption or injustice. The money changers and animal sellers in the temple were actually part of an monopoly which had the effect of making the temple authorities rich at the expense of the poor. The worship at the temple in Jerusalem consisted of an elaborate system of animal sacrifices. However worshippers could not just bring any old animals along to sacrifice, the animals destined for sacrifice had to be bought from the temple authorities. As you can imagine the animals for sale in the temple precinct were rather more expensive than those on sale in the local market. But that was not all. You couldn’t use ordinary currency within the temple but, rather, you had to change your Roman currency for temple coinage. No doubt the worshippers lost out both when they changed their money and when they purchased the sacrificial animals. So the very place that existed to worship Yahweh who had rescued his people when they were oppressed slaves in a foreign land had itself become a place where the poor were being oppressed by an unjust system. No wonder that God, in the person of Jesus, was angry!
But before you rush out to start tackling injustice there is also a Lenten aspect to today’s gospel reading which makes for an interesting ‘spiritual’ exercise. Whilst all worship for the Jewish community took place in the Jerusalem Temple Jesus said:
“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.”
And St Paul told us in 1 Corinthians 6:19
“19Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;”
So because each of us is home to God the Holy Spirit we are each of us a temple of God. Perhaps when you have a quiet moment, think about this – if you are a temple of God then to what extent are you a house of prayer and to what extent are you a market place or even a den of robbers?
But don’t despair because for most of us, most of the time, we are the latter rather than the former – and of course that is exactly why we need Jesus as much now as the world did then – not just to be meek and mild, although there is a time and a place for that, but sometimes to identify where we have fallen short of our calling, to overturn the money-changers’ tables and to drive out that which diminishes us from what we were made to be.