The Third Sunday in Lent
04 March 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Canon Simon Cowling
Exodus 20. 1-17; John 2. 13-22
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, it is said; so as someone committed to the truth I ought to apologise for beginning my sermon with a good story which is almost certainly not true.
In 1823 a seventeen year old pupil at Rugby School, William Webb Ellis, is supposed to have breached the rules of football as it was played at Rugby. During a game, instead of immediately kicking the ball when it came to him as was the accepted rule, he ran down the pitch continuing to hold the ball in order to secure a territorial advantage. Thus was born the game of rugby football. The consensus nearly two hundred years later is that this account is what anthropologists rather drily call an origin myth. But it’s still a good story; and assuming, for the purposes of this sermon at least, that it is true we could say that William Webb Ellis changed the rules of the game.
Today’s Gospel reading is set in the Jerusalem Temple. For centuries this building had been understood by the Jewish people to be the very dwelling place of God; the place, as has been said, ‘where human life and divine blessing met’. A contemporary description by the Jewish historian Josephus gives an indication of the Temple’s visual impact: Viewed from outside, the Sanctuary had everything that could amaze either mind or eyes. Overlaid all round with stout plates of gold, with the first rays of the sun it reflected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who tried to look at it were forced to turn away as if they had looked straight at the sun. The Jerusalem Temple, we might say, was a response in stone and precious metal to the first commandment given to Moses on Mount Sinai: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. If you will forgive the analogy, this first commandment and the ones that followed it were a little like the rules of a game – albeit a game of divinely cosmic significance. The Temple was the place where the Jewish people’s commitment to these rules could be most fully expressed through the complex system of animal sacrifice.
The Jewish sacrificial system seems alien to us now, but it is best thought of as a thankful response to God’s continuing love for, and faithfulness to, his people. The sacrifices of live animals were offered by the priests on behalf of God’s people. This could only happen in the Temple’s innermost sanctuary, which nobody but the priests were allowed to enter. Because it was difficult for those who had travelled great distances to bring animals with them, a kind of specialised marketplace in the Outer Court of the Temple had a ready supply of cattle, sheep, and doves for pilgrims to purchase; and because the use of the pagan Roman currency to purchase the animals would have polluted the sacrifice, the pilgrims were able to exchange pagan coins for the special Temple currency. It is this system that lies behind John’s comment in our Gospel reading that Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. What Jesus found in the Temple would simply not have been considered unusual by his fellow Jews, far less sacrilegious. Yet Jesus’s reaction is swift and violent: he drives out the animals, puts a stop to the business of the money-changers, and makes a derogatory remark about the Temple having become a market place. Returning to the story about William Webb Ellis with which I began we could say that through his actions in the Jerusalem Temple Jesus changed the rules of the game; rules that had been summarised in the Ten Commandments given on Mount Sinai to Moses and which had provided the framework for the religious practises of the Jewish people for centuries; rules that they were continuing faithfully to follow in the Temple.
Why did Jesus do this? Why did he react so fiercely to a system whose sole purpose was to help the Jewish people demonstrate their obedience to the first commandment: you shall have no other gods before me and their obedience to all the other commandments that flowed from it? Why did Jesus change the rules? The opening chapter of St John’s Gospel offers us some answers. In that first chapter we learn that Jesus is the Word of God (who) became flesh and lived among us; that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; that he is the Messiah; that he is the Son of God. This is the same Jesus who in today’s Gospel reading says to his fellow Jews, speaking of his own body, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. God’s dwelling place is now with human beings as a human being. Jesus, the Word of God, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the Messiah, is the new Temple. Jesus is the place where human life and divine blessing meet. Through the cleansing of the Temple Jesus forcefully rejects the idea that an encounter with the living God is necessarily dependent on a sacrifice offered, however faithfully, in a building. He has indeed changed the rules of the game.
The implications are profound. St Paul understood these implications when he asked the Christians at Corinth, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? In other words, if in Christ God’s dwelling place is now with human beings as a human being, then the way we understand and respect our bodies, and the bodies of all human beings, must be commensurate with that understanding and that respect. In honouring others we are honouring God. More than that, we are encountering God. These are the new rules that Jesus shows us. A child screams in pain in Eastern Ghouta following the onslaught of yet more barrel bombs; a teenager in Rotherham or Rochdale is trafficked for the sexual gratification of men who have groomed them for this specific purpose; adults with learning disabilities in a residential home in Devon are taunted by those whose job it is to care for them. All of them, no less than us, are temples of the Holy Spirit which they have from God; all of them have been subject to the blasphemy of abusive power and indifference; all of them have been desecrated. If we believe that Jesus really did change the rules of the game when he cleansed the Temple, then our task as his disciples is to learn and apply the new rules ourselves, and to help others learn and apply them. May it be so.