And he told them ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’
When we think of Jesus, and when we see images of him in stained glass windows we often think of a man of gentleness, love and patience. We do not typically think of him as an angry man turning over tables and driving people out of holy places with a makeshift whip. Yet, this is what Jesus is recorded of doing. Jesus always resists being contained within simple mental images.
At this stage in John’s gospel, Jesus is consumed with zeal for his father’s house. In the Old Testament, this house would have referred to the Temple; the meeting place between human beings and the presence of God.
In the time of Jesus, Jesus’ body was the temple, he was the word become flesh. Jesus himself was (and still is) the meeting place between the human and the divine, within him the two natures are together entwined.
But today, the body of Christ is not just restricted to Jesus’ flesh. The body of Christ is his Church here on earth. You and I are members of the body of Christ. (1 Cor 12.27)
Indwelt by the Spirit individually, and especially when we assemble together, we are the place of meeting between God and human beings. Therefore we are the new temple. As the First Letter of Peter puts it, we are living stones of the new temple (1 Peter 2:5)
Therefore, Jesus’ words ‘do not make my Father’s house a house of trade’ have implications for us here and now.
When we assemble together, what do we focus on? What do we talk about? Recently I have heard a lot about the pandemic, church politics, the government, church buildings, church money, or indeed anything else…
Now, I need to set a limit on what I just said. This does not mean that those things are not important – they are – and so were the practical affairs of the temple at the time of Jesus. There was nothing wrong with selling oxen, sheep and pigeons: people often travelled far and wide to make it to the Temple in Jerusalem to observe Passover. It wouldn’t be practical to drive their sheep, oxen or pigeons across such a distance on foot. It was much better to bring money instead and buy what was needed for sacrifice when they got there. Similarly, the money changers offered a helpful service, giving people the opportunity to change all sorts foreign currency into the coinage that the temple accepted. Jesus’ complaint was not that these things were going on. Jesus’ complaint was that these things were going on in the Temple.
Instead of the sacred meeting place of God being shrouded in solemn and serious acts of worship, the Temple courtyard had become a market of lowing cattle, bleating sheep, bellowing market traders and clattering coins. In such an atmosphere one wouldn’t be able to hear themselves think, let alone pray. This commerce was important, but within the Temple, worship is more important.
What can we learn from Jesus’ words today? Nowadays we don’t have a literal bricks-and-mortar temple to experience the meeting place between God and human beings. Thanks to the Holy Spirit we find God dwelling in our hearts and therefore the ‘temple’ is wherever the people of God are gathered. Indeed the word ‘church’ traces its meaning to the word ‘assembly’ – the church is wherever God’s people assemble.
The building the church gathers in is important, and how we manage our resources in the years to come are important. But when we assemble together, we must not let the matters of business and commerce displace our worship. When we meet together we need to come back to the spring of our faith and drink again of that life-giving water we have received from Christ.
That does not mean that we need to be grave-faced and silent in prayer before and after our services and when we meet at other times. It means we need to be more intentional with our fellow members who are indwelt by presence of God.
Jesus’ command for us was challenging but simple. He challenged us to love. When we meet together, let us practise that love. When we leave church, let us ask ourselves: ‘how can we encourage, pray for, add to our numbers and build each other up as living stones in the new Temple of God?’
Perhaps if we do that enough we might discover that our meetings are hallowed ground where the very Sustainer of the Universe stands among us.