What does it mean to be Church? This is a critical question when the very things we associate with being ‘church’ has been uprooted. As a Church community we meet for the first time since Christmas, while last year we closed Metro for worship for six months. Are we church if we do not meet in community? Are we worshippers if we do not worship together? Closing the church building developed into an identity crisis for some of us as we neglected the tasks which have imprinted themselves into our spirit through years of ritual. Last week’s text focused on being a disciple of Jesus; intentionally and knowingly picking up our cross and following, aware of the cost of discipleship.
This week the text focuses on being the church of Jesus.
In this season of Lent we look critically at ourselves as individuals and a a collective.
Read John 2:13-25.
Jesus is angry.
He is in the temple, he looks around, and he is angry.
He is so angry that he takes cords, and he premeditatedly knots the cords to create a whip. This was not an anger which resulted in a fit of blinding rage- uncontrolled and irrational; this is a prophetic anger. Jesus drives the merchants, sheep and oxen out of the temple. He scatters the coins of the money changers and overturns the tables. He tells the pigeon traders to leave, and “Do not make my father’s house a house of trade.”
The purpose and function of the Temple had been forgotten. It was no longer about worship, but about a market: place where people conveniently go to get what they need, picking ‘this and that’ off the shelf.
In the synoptic gospels this event is associated with the end of Jesus’s ministry, in John’s gospel it is at the beginning. More important than the timing is that all four gospel writers link Jesus to the prophets Isaiah and Jeramiah. The connection is more obvious in the synoptics, but even in John’s gospel Jesus’ actions are in line with the prophets of old: demanding the integrity of Holiness in the temple; raising the standard of worship, and warning against substituting ritual for devotion.
Jesus’ anger makes me feel uneasy.
Uneasy because I can imagine the generations of people in this magnificent building worshipping in a way they believed to be God fearing. Sacrificial animals had to be blemish free; remember in Leviticus and the many parameter specifically laid out? Selling animals and doves provided a service. Likewise, acceptable coinage for the Temple tax was a half Sheckel which did not have an image on the coin, unlike the Roman denarius which had the image of Caesar engraved on it. Money changers would have seemed a natural way to serve the needs of the worshipping majority who would have received a denarius for a day’s wage. Was it wrong for the temple to benefit from a profit for this service? Profit is natural in a money driven society. The placement of the temple market was in the outer courts where the gentile believers were. That seemed a likely place because the inner courts were where the chosen people were, and so were more Holy.
Generations of believers conducting their worship in the temple the way their fathers had done, and their fathers before them.
How different is it for the church?
Martin Luther would tell you not different at all.
In 1517 he nailed his critique of the Catholic church to the door of the church denouncing the sale of indulgences and the right of Papal authority. He vocally exposed the outright debauched behaviour of the papacy and the hierarchy of the church. His prophetic voice rings through the past 500 years as the church split between Protestant and Catholic.
The sound of the nail pounding in the church door resonates with the biblical tables being turned and the cattle and sheep being driven out. The uproar of change is not quiet or smooth because we, like the Jews in John’s gospel, are content with the status quo of worship. Oh how the uproar of change needs to come and descend in this place. We pray Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Even though we know You will bring Your Holy Havoc, making discordant noises of rectifying our errant ways and bring in the church in line with worshipping in Spirit and Truth.
My question to us today is simple to ask, and more difficult to answer:
What would Jesus’ reaction be if he arrived at the doors of our church and looked around?
What ‘Holy Discontent’ would resonate through the ages, correcting centuries of misguided worship? What discordant conflict can we expect to challenge our tranquil worshipping existence in this part of God’s kingdom? How can we learn in this Lenten period, our own part in the destruction of the temple?
Covid19 has been horrible, make no mistake. The deadly virus has taken our loved ones and destroyed families. It has brought fear to a global community, and has isolated us, one from another. Despite all this we do not despair because "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” Romans 8:28. As we return from a second wave of lockdown church will never be the same, nor should it be. Our experience as a community united in struggle is the opportunity to ‘clear the slate’ and re-write our destiny as a people of God. We can prophetically stand united against the devastation of the past year, proclaiming Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Lessons of Covid are prophetic in nature and can be the beginning of powerful change, if we allow the clanging sounds of the tables turning and the cows bellowing to speak truth into our collective lives.
In the past year, Metro has widened the net of her community and has drawn her flock closer together. Those who have always been in the centre of compassion might not have noticed the difference, but for those who have always been silently in the margins, the unity of our Metro family during lockdown has been life-giving. Many, many people have expressed a gratitude for the spiritual, emotional and financial support they have received during Covid. In the difficulties, ministry has grown through sharing the narrative of hardship and despair. Friendship bonds have been forged where previously there had been no connection.
An educational divide has been identified, and learning materials close the gap in under-resourced areas of our community. Contact Groups are established to fill the deep desire to be connected to one another. Despite isolation, we continue & prophetically declare the power of the cross is the source of Metro’s eternal hope.
1Corinthians 1:18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
We cannot afford to wait for Jesus to return before we ask ourselves if we have forgotten the purpose of being church. The shadow of the cross fell on the gospel reading today when Jesus obliquely referred to His body as the temple rising from destruction after three days. The power of the cross is the last word over death and destruction, and we, the church as the Body of Jesus, live in the resurrected power of God. We have an opportunity now, with a clean slate and a desire to reconnect and worship in Spirit and Truth.
John Wesley looked back on the legacy of Methodism and the Scriptural Holiness revival he and his brother Charles started as young men, and he had these thoughts:
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.
Have we forgotten our purpose as church? Have we allowed the church to disintegrate into a mere shell of what it is supposed to be rather than representing the Power of the Gospel message, a place to worship and adore our Triune God of Father Son and Holy Spirit?
The homework for this Sunday is to look upon our church with the eyes of Jesus and ask ourselves:
“What tables need to be turned and what needs to be driven out?”
“Do we continue to fulfil the purpose of the gospel?” and
“Do we live in the power of the message of the cross?”
It is Lent. It is a time when disciples are acutely aware of misguided actions, sinful thoughts and devilish deeds. It is a time when we recognise the inadequacies of our worship, and a time when we can identify unholy and inequitable practices. It is a time when we can faithfully hand over the failings of our dusty lives, in order to live scriptural holiness with the power of God.
When you have the mind of Christ, allow the spirit to move in ways which bring change and transformation, both for you and for everyone. On the 28 March we will Covenant with God and with each other to be ‘church’ in the real sense of the word right here, right now.
After the covenant service, we will then meet with the same spirit of collective reform, and meet as leaders and community to carve the path for the future of Metro. We will look at the tables and the cattle we have allowed to collect in the dusty corners of our worship, and we will share our collective wisdom. For the Glory of God.
May God grant us eyes to see and ears to hear the glory of God.
May God grant us the courage to say Come, Lord Jesus, Come. And
May God grant us the Power to live in the message of the cross.
Amen and Amen.