Exactly a month ago, two young parents went on a journey. It took them five days walking to get from their home town to Jerusalem. It would been made made more difficult because they had with them their new-born baby. It was quite likely to have been the first time these two had been to the great city. I can imagine their exhaustion being overcome with wonder as they climbed the hill towards the city – ‘We will go up to the house of the Lord’; as they entered the city walls – ‘Lift up your heads O ye gates’ and as they wandered, open mouthed through the streets of the city.” Like Dick Whittington arriving in London.
When they’d finished sight-seeing, they’d have made their way to the Temple itself. That’s why they’d come – to have Mary purified after the unclean business of having a baby, and to offer the firstborn child to God for blessing, by sacrificing an animal, in accordance with Jewish family tradition,
I don’t imagine they could have afforded a calf or a sheep, so they’d probably decided to make do with a less-expensive pigeon. They weren’t allowed to use ordinary money to buy their pigeon, so there in the courtyard in front of the Temple, they’d queue up at one of the stalls where their money would be changed (with appropriate interest charged) into the special Temple coinage, which they’d then use at another stall to buy their pigeon. (A bit like the Victorian railway and canal owners who paid their navvies in tokens that could only be used in the owners’ shops and bars.) People didn’t have to slaughter their own animals; there were priests to do that. So Mary and Joseph would take their bird to a blood-splattered leather-aproned butcher who would kill it for them.
The Temple courtyard has been described as being like an abattoir, running in the blood and guts of creatures great and small. The smell of dead meat overpowering. When the parents had completed all these transactions – highly lucrative to the Temple authorities – and handed over their ex-pigeon, they could enter the Temple itself; where they would meet Simeon and Anna.
The Temple was at the very heart (if you’ll excuse the anatomical metaphor) of Hebrew identity. It was where Solomon’s glittering Temple had once stood, in royal David’s own city; where the prophets had repeatedly been ignored, abused or murdered. A place of pilgrimage, ‘Salem’ – the city of Peace. The holiest of holy places. It was the embodiment of the entire Jewish religious tradition –the Ten Commandments, the Law, the way of worship, the way of life of the People of God.
And when Jesus comes back to Jerusalem thirty years later, the first thing he does is to enter the Temple precincts and dramatically and violently sweep it all away – the commerce, the trading, the bloody practices, and with them the rules, the regulations, the traditions, the corrupted authority of a self-serving hierarchy. In Marks’ version of the story, Jesus parks himself in the Temple precincts for several days, drawing crowds, teaching people, blocking access, literally bringing Temple business to a standstill.
And that, of course, is why John’s Gospel decides this story belongs right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – not, as in the other three Gospels, later as part of the Passion narrative.
Just like the story that precedes it, the miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, John’s Gospel wastes no time in declaring that something radical and new is happening once Jesus appears on the scene. His ‘new covenant’ is as different from the old as wine is from water. He fulfils the Law and the prophets not by meticulous obedience, not by observing them religiously, but by filling them with Spirit, making access to the Father’s love fresh, overflowing and available to all.
Jesus teaches about a new way to God, and at its heart a new temple, a new centre of worship, a new point of access to the Holy. ‘He was speaking of the temple of his body, not made with hands.’ With tragic irony, it’s the mention of building a new temple that gets distorted and used as the charge that leads to his death, but in a sense that’s what happened. The old tradition had served its purpose and had to make way for something quite new
Not everyone got it wrong. St Paul works his theological magic with the realisation that we are now the body of Christ, we are now called to be the embodiment of this new way to God. We are to be a temple made of living stones, a community which embodies as well as proclaims the good news of God’s love. A community in which Christ is the keystone, supporting all the weight, balancing all the conflicting forces, holding everything together. But because of the apparent outrageous absurdity of this gospel of grace, the keystone is also a stumbling block which some will find impassable.
So what’s all that got to do with us? And why are we given these readings in the middle of Lent?
Well, if we are a living temple, and Jesus walked into our precincts this morning, would he find a dwelling place prepared for himself, a place of prayer, of peace, of love, in which he might be well-pleased? Or would he find us going through the motions of Anglican ecclesiastical tradition just as mindlessly and as soullessly now as then? People doing their jobs, turning up, filling the rotas, making the routines run smoothly whilst half the time having forgotten why. Would he walk through our lives as churches saying ‘we don’t need that’; ‘and that can go’; kicking over our preferences and cherished bits and pieces, which we might love dearly but are stumbling blocks for others and which may even be keeping God out.
Whatever acts of self-discipline we may have undertaken individually for Lent – no chocolate, only one cigar before breakfast, no biting your fingernails, more smiling at your spouse, saying your prayers properly – surely there is an equivalent and equally important discipline of cleansing our life as a community. A vacancy between incumbents is a strange time. Not, as archdeacons are quick to point out, a time for radical change, but vacancies can, I think, be more than slavishly keeping things going until the next willing victim turns up. Even while we’re going through the motions, we might be asking questions about the purpose and value, the impact and the effectiveness of what we do and the way we are. So that when a new incumbent arrives – and hopefully before too long! – he or she will find not a well-oiled, smoothly-running but soul-less machine, but a community of people unencumbered by all manner of impedimenta, and ready to explore the new thing that God is doing in this place.
I don’t want to make your new incumbent sound messianic. And in any case, it’s not a question of him or her setting the agenda. I always wince at a new incumbent’s Induction service when a bishop says ‘A new chapter begins in the life of this parish today’. No it doesn’t. The life of the community goes on; the Body of Christ may have an extra bit added on, but it’s you, the people of God, whose calling it is to live out the Gospel we proclaim. That vocation has been lived out here in a variety of ways for generations and God is constantly renewing and equipping us for today and tomorrow. But that means opening the doors and letting Christ in to cleanse us, to remind us of our calling, to make new all that has got old and tired and to teach us how to be God’s Easter people once again.