By the time John’s gospel is written down, the Temple in Jerusalem has been completely destroyed by the Romans. It lies in ruins. It is gone. There is not one stone left upon another. The outer courts, the inner sanctuary, the altar on which sacrifices are offered to God—they are all gone. To say that this creates a crisis for the Jewish people is an understatement. The Temple is for them the place in which God dwells in fullness. They don’t believe this is the only place that God is present. They know that God is great and cannot be contained in a single building, or one particular place. But they believe that the Temple is God’s dwelling place par excellence—the one place in which God promises always to be present. In Jewish tradition, the Temple is described as the navel, the center, the belly button of the universe. It is the place where heaven and earth and the underworld meet. The place where the most high God faithfully meets and communes with God’s people. And by the time John’s gospel is written down, the Temple is gone. This beautiful meeting place is a pile of rubble.
I sometimes think about what would happen if this building were destroyed. What would it be like for us to watch this place go up in flames? What would we do? Where would we go? Where would we gather? What would it mean for our larger community if this building were gone?
By the time John’s gospel is written down, the Temple is gone. The story of Jesus wrecking the place up, taking a whip, running the cows, the sheep, the doves, the buyers, the sellers, the money changers out of the outer courts, and turning over the tables, is told against this backdrop. This story is remembered and told in answer to the questions, “what do you do, where do you go, where do you gather, where do you meet God, how do you meet God when the sacred meeting place is gone, when the altar for making your sacrifices is torn down?” Jesus throws the whole system of making sacrifices to God—in order to get right with God and find communion with God—he throws this whole business into complete disarray. With his life, with this particular action, Jesus is turning the tables, and flipping the understanding of who God is, what God is like, and where God is to be found.
Like so many of the ancient prophets in Israel, Jesus is angry because the religious leaders have turned the Jewish faith into a commodity, and the people have bought it. Securing one’s relationship with God becomes something that can be bought and sold. Communion with God depends on an exchange of goods. In the Temple scenario, the more money you have the better the right kind of sacrifices you can make, and, the greater your assurance that God loves you and you have God’s favor. The practice of making sacrifices was never meant to make connection with God a commodity. God is in covenant with Israel and promises to be with them always and forever. God’s love for them is free. It is gift. It is assured.
But we human beings are susceptible to turning all kinds of things into commodities. We live by systems of exchange. You give to get. You pay to have. During the Reformation period, the church sold something called indulgences. People paid good money for little pieces of paper assuring that when they died, they’d go to heaven. And the more little pieces of paper you could buy, the greater your assurance. Today, preachers of the prosperity gospel promise that if you send more and more money to support their ministries, God will send more and more blessing on you and you will deepen your assurance of eternal life and happiness. And it isn’t just about monetary exchanges to secure God’s favor. We are also susceptible to thinking that if we do the right things, think the right things, say the right things, and work hard enough, show up for worship pretty regularly and do our best to tithe, God will be more inclined to love us and make our lives go well.
Our society is based on these patterns of exchange. To get something you have to give something. It is the way the world works. We are accustomed to these economies of exchange. I have had it happen that a person comes into the Church off the street. We talk, I share God’s promises, pray with them, bless them, and before they leave they ask, “How much do I owe you.” My answer is always the same, “you do not owe anything.”
It doesn’t work that way. We don’t have to buy God off so that God won’t be mad at us. It isn’t who God is. “God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only begotten Son to the world. We don’t pay for God’s love. We can’t buy it, or sell it, or earn it. It is pure gift. By nature and eternally God is freely self-giving. God is always present and offering us to share a life in communion. And whenever religious institutions do anything or say anything to suggest that relationship with God is other than pure gift, then they are not talking about God.
The first century Temple leaders had turned God’s love into a commodity to be bought and sold, and in process they had sold out God’s people. That’s why Jesus loses it and wrecks the place up. When the Temple leaders ask Jesus for a sign to justify his destructive outburst, Jesus says, “Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up.” The folks in charge of the Temple are understandably confused. But John knows how Jesus’ story turns out, so he tells us, “Jesus was speaking of the sanctuary of his body.”
Jesus is saying his body is the location of God. In Jesus the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. He is God’s sanctuary without walls. Jesus is God’s wide open, completely accessible sanctuary for every body. In the person and body of Jesus, God’s self made flesh, we see who God is and has always been, and will always be. The one whose giving knows no ending. The one who in love sacrifices his own life. The one whose life cannot be destroyed. The one whose love and presence cannot be contained in any sacred space, but are in every place.
The season of Lent is all about God’s body language in Jesus. Jesus’ body kneeling to wash disciples’ feet, his body at the table offering bread and wine, his body betrayed by the kiss of a friend, his body beaten, his body on the cross, his body laid in a tomb, his body alive again and speaking love. If this sanctuary were destroyed, we would just need to have a Table. Not an altar for making sacrifices. God has turned the tables in Jesus, the Son. We just need a Table where we can sit together, and eat and drink, and share this feast of God’s own self-sacrificing love. Just a Table where we share full communion with God through the Spirit, and remember that we are loved with perfect love, and we are God’s dwelling place, and our bodies are the sanctuary of God’s perfect love. God just keeps turning the tables. For Love’s sake.