March 11, 2012 Gospel: John 2:13-22 Psalm 19
1st Reading: Exodus 20:1-17 2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
In our Lenten theme of returning, today is the day about returning to religion. This is different from returning to faith or returning to God. Religion has more to do with the structures in which we practice our faith. It has been set up before us by others trying to make sense of their faith and trying to express it. Right now it is popular to be “spiritual, but not religious.” I think most people are in touch with a spirituality—a higher power or God in creation. Religion often gets associated with something bad. It is the buildings and liturgies and power structures that we’re referring to when we speak of religion. Those things alone aren’t good or bad, on their own. It is how we use them that determines the good or bad. Institutions often have their own survival as a self interest which could interfere with the gospel which asks us to die. But we each decide for ourselves which religion we associate with if any and how much straying from Jesus’ intention we are willing to tolerate, because that is also part of being the church.
I want to suggest returning to religion for a couple of different reasons. We need to return to it constantly to evaluate it. We return to it sometimes to reclaim it and to recommit ourselves. We return to it to shape it in more helpful ways. We return to it to express our faith.
In the Gospel lesson for today Jesus returns to the temple, and he’s not too happy about what he finds. I don’t know what Jesus expected to find when he returned. Certainly he must have known what went on there. People are expected to make sacrifices to God. Maybe you didn’t have a lamb or a bird to sacrifice. You’d need to buy one. If you had Roman money it would have Caesar’s head on it and would say that Caesar is God. You couldn’t very well bring that to God’s temple, so you’d need to exchange it. This outer ring of the temple complex would have been a busy place, full of animals, maybe full of shouting and clinking. Maybe it sounded something like the New York stock exchange.
In the other Gospels, Jesus’ actions at the temple are the last straw that finally leads the authorities to arrest Jesus and take him away to be executed. In John’s Gospel, it happens right off the bat. It happens this way because Jesus is taking the place of the temple as the location of God in the world. In the past, if you wanted to be in God’s presence, with a few exceptions, you’d want to be in the temple. That was simply the connection place between the heavens and the earth. By the time John writes this Gospel, the temple has been destroyed, so he wants to make clear from the beginning of the story that the temple isn’t where it’s at anymore. Instead, he locates God in the temple of Jesus’ body.
Jesus goes to the temple. He sees that the temple isn’t “all that” anymore. For John’s readers, that might have been reassuring. Jesus is critical of what he sees. What started out as a very helpful and necessary marketplace has gotten out of hand. People have lost track of the reason for the temple, and that is God. Instead, they go to make a profit or take advantage of people. Or they go to show off that they can afford an expensive sacrifice and look down their noses at others. Or they go to show off their beautiful clothes or jewelry and look down at others. Everyone has forgotten that God is the reason for the temple. Jesus returns to set all that straight.
We might not “return” to religion if we never went away from it. But some of us have switched denominations in our search for something more true to the spirit of Jesus. In the switching there might be some healthy criticism of both the denomination you come from and the one you are joining. There is going to be no perfect religion. Religion is an imperfect expression of faith. It is going to have its flaws. Some we live with and others we can’t. We decide where to draw the line.
I have my beefs with Lutheranism, although I’m pretty proud to be a Lutheran on the whole. But I can’t let my association with Lutheranism keep me from criticizing it and hopefully making it better. I decided a long time ago that I could better reform it from within than from outside. Since we are a denomination of reform, we at least pay lip service to evaluation and reform and keeping our religion relevant and fresh. I suppose that is one of my criticisms is that we move so slowly, that reform is slow and difficult. I wish more people who had criticisms would stay and try to make it better because I see people who disagree getting discouraged and going elsewhere or getting fed up with religion in general and not worshiping anywhere.
But we criticize our religion because we love it. If we didn’t love it, we wouldn’t care enough to try to reform it. And we criticize it because we love God even more than we love religion. Where religion is not reflecting the love of God, it has to go. But unfortunately that hasn’t been the case. Christianity has loved other things than God. It has loved status and wealth. It’s pastors and priests have loved privilege. Its ladies groups have loved gossip. These idols of the church have given us a bad name. When people hear about Christians, they think of child molesters and those who try to protect them. They think of hypocrites and people who spew hate. We haven’t been very successful in returning to religion and making it the loving place that it was intended to be where we could connect with God and each other and be empowered to serve our neighbor in need.
Jesus returns to the temple to reclaim his religion. Even though what he sees there makes him mad, he remembers what his religion has meant to him throughout his life and he reclaims it. It looks a little different than it did before. Rather than his religion being a bunch of outward acts, like making sacrifices, going to prayers, practicing Sabbath, etc., he realizes that it is within him. God is not about outward acts, but is within each of us. God is not far away. God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is in every leaf, every drop of rain, every hello or goodbye, in every stranger and friend, not just in a temple or a church building. So Jesus recommits himself to his religion in a new way and now in this Gospel he is going to take that message of love out and share it with people he meets, by respecting them and sharing and caring and loving. He isn’t going to stop keeping the Sabbath. But he will observe with a renewed understanding of what it means and what it is for, rather than it being an empty ritual. By returning to his religion and reclaiming it, it is renewed for him and for all of us.
Martin Luther also returned to his religion, when it wasn’t working for him. He was a monk, so he hadn’t exactly strayed from his religion. But he returned to God’s word and tried to understand from reading the Bible why his religion wasn’t working for him. He found inconsistencies between his religion and what the Bible said and so he criticized his religion and found a deeper sense of faith. When he tried to take what he had learned and reform his religion, that was unwelcome so here were are!
Jesus gives us permission in the Gospel to return to our religious roots and take a long, hard look. We can look at it through the eyes of a stranger or outsider. We can look at it to see if it makes sense if we hadn’t always done it that way. We can look at it to see if it matches the God of love that we know and if now to see how we can better reflect that.