'If You Love God, Burn the Church!' (John 2:13-25)

The Jesus of this text is not the one most of us know. We know "gentle Jesus, meek and mild." We know a hollow-eyed, sad-faced Jesus who walks around with his hands folded. If our Jesus does smile, it is because he tells cute stories, tousles the hair of little children, and makes sure everybody who came to hear him preach that day gets a sack lunch. We know a Jesus who is so otherworldly that nobody here can quite visualize herself or himself as a close friend and confidant to him.

The Jesus of today's text is this-worldly enough that he got mad when he saw things he knew were unholy and offensive to his Father. This Jesus had fire in his eyes and could create a commotion. This Jesus looked at the religious establishment and knew he could never make peace with it. This Jesus was so passionately determined to do the will of his Father that he did something that shocked everybody who witnessed it or heard about it in Jerusalem that spring day in A.D.27.

Recently I read a quotation from a cynic who said, "If you love God, burn the church!" I thought of today's text when I bumped into those words. And it is my conviction that this text forces us to face up to the unpleasant fact that it is easier for the church in this generation and in this place to take comfort in its nickels, numbers, and nails than to hear or to be a prophetic voice and presence in the world. Spiritual renewal is an ongoing, never-finished work, but the tendency of a church - whether we are using the term of a local congregation or an entire denomination - is to consolidate its gains, make peace with the status quo, and take care not to offend either its own or its neighbors.

I think it's time some of us got acquainted with the Jesus of Scripture who not only loved children and told charming stories but who also became enraged when he saw spirituality being reduced to trite religious rituals, human interpretations of and traditions around Scripture being used to hurt people, and religious leaders using their authority to intimidate people into boring external conformity.

Jesus at the Jerusalem Temple

The temple Jesus visited during his earthly ministry is called Herod's Temple in the texts on biblical history. It gives us one of the key chronological markers for our study of the Gospels and the life of Jesus. From Josephus, we know that Herod the Great began his temple-refurbishing project in an effort to win the loyalty of the Jews around 19 B.C. The comment at 2:20 about its having been under construction for 46 years when Jesus challenged what was happening there - a construction project that was finished only a few years before the Romans demolished the temple in A.D.70 - dates this first Passover of John's Gospel at A.D.27.

Yes, I know there is also an episode in which Jesus cleanses the temple in the Synoptic Gospels (cf. Matt. 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46) that takes place during the final Passover of his life. No, I don't think they are telling the same story that John tells here - with either John or the other three writers mistaken on the timing. Jesus apparently cleansed the temple in A.D.27 and caught the Jewish authorities completely off-guard with his anger and indignation. When he did the same thing in A.D.30, they were watching him closely and were prepared to take him on and deal with him.

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 changers 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 changers 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!" His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for your house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign can you show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he 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.

When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone (John 2:13-25).
Suppose we use the same rule of interpretation for this event that we used last week for the "sign" at Cana of Galilee - don't miss the obvious in looking for the deep and concealed. Although Jesus' defining "hour" (i.e., his death, burial, and resurrection) had not come, the first of many signs that announced the kingdom of God was displayed there. The water-into-wine miracle signified at least this much: God had come in the flesh to let us know that he is interested in us, to let us know that we can appeal to him for help in crisis times, and to demonstrate how the humdrum of human life is sanctified and transformed by his involvement with us in those events.

The people in charge of the temple's profitable business of providing animals who had passed inspection for sacrifice and who were running the business of currency exchange that allowed adult Jewish males to pay the annual half-shekel tax to the temple treasury demanded a "sign" from Jesus to prove that he had the right to make such a fuss as he had that day. "What sign can you show us for doing this?" they wanted to know (2:18). Jesus replied with an enigmatic prediction of his death and resurrection, and the disciples remembered what he had said here after the crucifixion (2:19-22).

Yet the events of that day constituted a sign in themselves. They were significant on a grand scale. Yes, as with the wedding at Cana, there may be layers of meaning to be found here. But what is the obvious lesson? To what fundamental spiritual insight did the events of that day point - as a sign always points to something other than itself? Although there is surely much more to the story, at its most fundamental level it signifies that God is terribly unhappy when we turn the forms of religion into ends rather than means, when we reduce the worship and service of God to something that looks like a business being managed by Harvard Business School rules, and when we let our buildings and rituals get in the way of experiencing his exciting presence with us.

We've Messed Up a Good Thing

Do you ever get the feeling that we've missed the point of what God started out to do with the church? Maybe we should get off the backs of the priests and Levites or money changers and animal keepers at the temple two millennia ago and look at ourselves. Let's not feel self-righteous in criticizing Judaism but engage instead in a bit of introspection with Christianity. Do you really think we have captured the essence of what Jesus shed his blood to make possible in what we call Christendom? Do you really think we have it figured out so well in our little fellowship that our mission now is to sit in judgment on other denominations? Is anybody arrogant enough to think that this congregation of pitiful sinners ought to be the measure for other local churches? Oh, please!

Humility should be the easiest and most natural of the Christian virtues for those of us who ever pause to reflect on how far we are from the experience of Christ one witnesses in the Gospels. In fact, humility seems to be the last, hardest, and rarest of virtues for us.

If we had gotten the message of what was "signed" for us that day at the temple, we never would have thought church buildings or what happens between 10 a.m. and noon on Sunday is the essence of our faith and sacred - while the rest of our lives is secular. If we'd gotten his point from those events, we'd never have come up with the idea that the money we put in the collection plate is God's - and the rest is ours for selfish purposes. If we had glimpsed even faintly what he was showing us that day, we would never have fragmented the body of Christ over head coverings, musical instruments, interpretations of the millennium, how to provide residential care for orphans, and a dozen other matters that come to mind all too quickly out of our history.

Christians have somehow come to be observers and consumers of religion rather than sold-out and surrendered imitators of Jesus of Nazareth. Churches have so reduced faith to times and places, ceremonies and traditions that the mere alteration of those events and practices produces panic. Those people have been led to believe that their church habits are equivalent to Christian faith.

Altering the church from an organism (i.e., the body of Christ that seeks the kingdom of God) into an institution (i.e., an organization that functions by the carnal rules of thi world) has had such unfortunate outcomes as these:

* Being a Christian was distorted from Spirit-regenerated and Spirit-empowered lifestyle to simple church membership.
* Fellowship was perverted from loving involvement with a community of believers into group membership (i.e., she is a part of our fellowship) or church potlucks (i.e., "We'll be hosting a fellowship next Thursday at 6 p.m.").
* Worship ceased being an encounter with God and became morning and/or evening church assemblies.
* Evangelism stopped being a passionate connection with and loving confrontation of the world with the gospel to inviting people to hear a visitor preach for the weekend or giving them a 16-page pamphlet.
* The Lord's Supper was somehow robbed of its identity as an interactive meal and turned into a funereal ceremony to be observed in silence.
* Discipleship ceased being self-denial, struggle, and growth and became training seminars every other year.
* Leadership was modified from Spirit-empowered passion and gifts that served people to titles and offices.
* Bible study degenerated from challenging and life-transforming obedience to listening sessions.
* The hallmarks of Christianity went from righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom.14:17) to meanness, guilt, and fear.
Do you think it was only Judaism that degenerated over time into customs, practices, and outcomes far removed from God's original purpose? Has the same thing not happened in our own Christian history?

If Jesus Showed Up Today . . .

So what do you think would happen if Jesus showed up in 2lst-century Rome, London, New York, or Nashville? Which church would he join? Or would his eyes flash with anger? Might he just disavow all of us? Would he drive some of us preachers out of our pulpits? Or would he be pleased with how attentive we are to one another and how well we take care of each other? Would he be impressed by our passion for representing him faithfully to the world both in terms of compassion and holiness?

We need a prophetic presence and voice in our midst. But I wonder if we would tolerate him any better now than we did originally. We just might kill him again!


I have been in Jerusalem only once. And I confess that it was wonderful to visit the temple mount and to know I was looking at some of the very foundation stones of that compound Jesus and Paul would have seen. I strained to hear the anguished pleas of my Lord in Gethsemane. And I was overwhelmed with emotion as I traced the steps of the Son of Man from Pilate's Judgment Hall along the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha.

At each of the critical sites, however, there was a distracting and sometimes even disgusting problem. Each one of them had a church or shrine built over it that obscured what I had come to see. Then it dawned on me: Churches are bad about getting in the way of people trying to see Jesus. We too often obscure rather than illuminate his presence by our divisions, our hypocrisies, and our sinfulness.

What Jesus did in cleansing the temple was crucial background to what he would later tell a woman in John 4. Jerusalem or Gerazim, Rome or London, Nairobi or Nashville - the site for worship is irrelevant. Since Jesus has been raised from the dead, the only issue of critical relevance is no longer where but whom to worship. Every knee must bow and every tongue must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. All who worship him in spirit and in truth will receive his Father's blessing.

Let's hope we won't have to "burn the church" to prove our love for God. But we will have to stay about the matter of its perpetual reform. We will have to be vigilant about living relational rather than institutional faith. And we must be very careful not to cut ourselves off from the one whose name we wear by so recasting him in our fallen image that we cannot be transformed into his glorious likeness.

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