The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place the cleansing of the Temple shortly before our Lord’s Passion, leading to the impression that Jesus’ temper tantrum in the Temple provoked his immediate arrest. John’s Gospel (John 2:13-22) presents the same story at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. John’s Gospel is filled with signs and wonders, filled with puzzling/metaphorical language. This makes us curious: who is this Jesus? And what is his mission?
It was the Passover. From the time of Moses, Jews from far and wide come to Jerusalem still today to recall the deliverance of God’s people from slavery in Egypt and to bring their offerings to God in thanksgiving. The Temple was the meeting place between the God of Israel and God’s people.
However, the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and to this day has never been rebuilt. All that remains is the Temple Mount/ Platform and the Western Wall. This Western/Wailing Wall continues to be a holy site for our Jewish sisters and brothers. Thousands continue to pray there every day from all corners of the world.
Jesus too had made his way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. And there in the outer courts of the Temple amidst the crowds, the wheeling and dealing, and the noise of bleating animals being sold for sacrifice, Jesus took offence. Fashioned a whip of cords he blew his top: “Get out! Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” When the religious leaders questioned his violent actions, Jesus replied with fury in his eyes: “I dare you: destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19).
Did Jesus predict the fall of the physical Temple, a disaster that took place in 70 AD? Not exactly. Jesus was challenging the authorities – and us – to replace Temple worship with believing in him. Jesus was telling them that he is the new Temple – that he would die and be resurrected in three days. Jesus himself becomes the new “holy place.” “The Word became flesh, and lived among us,” John writes. In the incarnation, with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s dwelling place is no longer in bricks and mortar, but with human beings, as a human being.
Only after that first Easter, only after Jesus was raised from the dead the disciples remembered, understood and believed what Jesus said in the heat of this confrontation in the Temple. Now as today’s followers of Jesus, we worship God in spirit and in truth through his Son our Lord who is God’s Temple, built with living stones beyond destruction. Thus holy living is far more important than securing a holy physical site.
However, I discovered that we are not scot-free in this matter. Before leaving for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, I read Karen Armstrong’s book Jerusalem – One City, Three Faiths. It is a sobering account. I learnt that throughout its existence of several millennia Jerusalem, of all cities in the world, has seen the most blood spilled on its ancient stones, the most destruction and reconstruction of its temples, churches, homes, synagogues and mosques, and the worst persecutions, most notably inflicted by members of the three monotheistic religions that claim to preach peace and justice, compassion and mercy: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Most of this bloodshed and destruction was done for one major reason: conquest and possession of holy sites.
I’m ashamed to say that we Christians are not exempt. We have done our share in securing our own version of a physical temple – holy sites to honour our Lord. Now, don’t get me wrong. It was truly an intense and inspiring spiritual experience to find ourselves so close to original sites where our Lord walked and talked and taught, where our Lord Jesus was born, suffered and died, and rose again. It was truly inspiring to smell and taste, to feel and literally touch the origins of our faith. Going on this type of pilgrimage has value and meaning. The experience truly has the power to grow our faith and discipleship in new ways. But holy sites are not to be ends in themselves; they are intended as means to God, means to deepen our heart’s desire for and fidelity to our Lord. We visit these sites as pilgrims seeking to deepen our faith, not as religious tourists snapping pictures to brag about back home.
It is important to go the Holy Land in faith. It is equally important to go in the awareness that we have secured holy sites through war and bloodshed – often. Confronting that stark reality in Armstrong’s book instilled a good dose of humility and repentance before I boarded the plane to Tel Aviv …
The command to love our neighbour, to show mercy to strangers, widows and orphans, and to even love our enemy, all of that conveniently goes out the window every time we become fixated on anything but Jesus himself, whether it’s securing a holy site or securing the rightness of our own belief system, or considering ourselves superior to another in whatever way.
The people in that Temple courtyard who witnessed Jesus having his temper tantrum insisted on wanting a sign. What sign can you give us, Jesus? Show us a sign. … Do we look for signs? Does our faith rely on signs and physical/tangible stuff? Does our faith rely on a specific place or style of worship, a specific church structure or a specific physical place? Or does our faith rely on Jesus alone? Are we prone to making an idol of worshiping in a certain manner or in a particular church? Sadly, there is plenty of evidence throughout history that we have been just as guilty of this as those skeptics in the Temple who were shocked and annoyed at Jesus’ blow-up. Indeed, we are still not scot-free in this matter.
One person who successfully avoided the idolatry of buildings and structures was Rev. Billy Graham who died recently at the age of 99. Billy Graham, a Baptist pastor from humble rural beginnings , believed with all his heart that the gospel was the touchstone of Christian unity and the most effective outreach to the lost. In city after city, long before ecumenism was a household word, Graham worked closely with a broad coalition of churches, pastors, bishops and lay leaders. He never founded his own church, but he worked with any willing Christian believer, leader and church to proclaim the Good News of Christ Jesus. The source of his strength was not a boastful self-confidence, or an ego-flattering following of his own, but rather a posture of humility, confession and prayer with a generous heart for Jesus. With Jesus as the main focus, Graham’s crusades* touched millions and became more than a flash in the pan. By keeping Jesus the focus of his heart and his ministry, Graham succeeded in being, like St. Paul, all things to all people.
Indeed, Jesus is the new Temple. As it was for the first disciples, as it was for Billy Graham, the Temple is now the symbol for the risen Christ. Our faith must rest in Jesus himself, so we too can learn to transcend any institution, any church, any one congregation, any ecclesial structure. Worthy of our trust and faith, Jesus grows us into a fullness of being that glorifies God. Temples and church buildings/structures at best are meant to help us increase that trust and faith. But Temples and church buildings/structures come and go. It is Jesus and his community of disciples who are the living Temple, ongoing witnesses to God’s Good News in a changing world and a changing church. If today’s skeptics demand a sign from us, can we echo Jesus in saying: destroy this church building, and we will rise up as a community of Jesus in three days. For as Paul’s letter to the Corinthians states (1 Cor. 1:18-25), Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, the power and wisdom of God.
May we live as people who rely entirely on Jesus to inspire and guide our moral integrity and our relationships. May his word – the Good News of God’s mercy and grace – keep us alive. May His love keep us bound in communion with one another and may his merciful power protect us from idolatry of physical places and human structures. For He is our Temple. Amen.
* Ironic term in this context, for the Crusades were some of the bloodiest conquests of the Holy City.
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