Following Jesus without Embarrassing God[i]
By Charles Rush
August 8, 2010
John 2: 12-22
share with you a few
were completed by 1st graders, who had never heard them before. Out
of the mouth of babes comes proverbial wisdom…
Strike while the ......................... bug is close.
It's always darkest before .................. Daylight Savings Time.
No news is ............................ impossible.
You can't teach an old dog new .............. math.
The pen is mightier than the .................pigs.
An idle mind is ......................... the best way to relax.
Where there's smoke there's ................ pollution.
Happy the bride who ..................... gets all the presents.
A penny saved is ........................ not much.
Don't put off till tomorrow what ............. you put on to go to bed.
There are none so blind as ................. Stevie Wonder.
Children should be seen and not ............. spanked or grounded.
And the favorite .....
Better late than ........................... pregnant.
Those are great aren’t they? There is
nothing quite as preposterous to children as an old word in a new world.
Elders, or at least those old in Spirit, are always the last to get it that
things have changed around them. In our text this morning, Jesus speaks a new
Word to the leaders of the Temple, a word that they simply cannot hear, because
they are vested in the structures of Tradition, resistant to change under any
This story is
one of the few that is told in all four Gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the
Cleansing of the Temple comes at the very end of Jesus life, the last week of
his life. Jesus goes about the country teaching and healing people, then he
goes to Jerusalem, Cleanses the Temple, and it sets in motion a number of
responses from the Priests, the Chief Priests, and ultimately the Governor that
leads to the death of Jesus.
In the Gospel of
John, interestingly, the cleansing of the Temple happens right at the beginning
of Jesus’ ministry. It is one of the very first things he does. First, Jesus
shows up at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. And he turns the water into wine. It
is a good story for those who say that religion is of no value- water into
wine- now that could come in handy. In the gospel of John, turning water into
wine is a theological symbol that the Messianic
era has arrived, full of joy and celebration, a great party thrown by
God for all of us is happening and Jesus is at the heart of it. That is the
first thing that Jesus does.
Then this, he makes
a whip out of chords and enters the area around the Temple Mount. This is a
pretty busy place at the beginning of Passover, because all the people that had
come from around the Mediteranean for the Passover were coming here to get the
things they needed to make their sacrifices. And Jesus makes a whip and runs
all of the people selling things for the Passover, out of the Temple area,
pronouncing that they had profaned the worship of things. And he
predicts the destruction of the Temple and an end to this form of
Jesus was right
on both counts. About 60 years after he died, the Temple was destroyed during
an insurrection against the Roman Empire, which failed miserably. The Romans
pulled down the Temple, slaughtered thousands of Jews, and sent the Jews into
what became the modern Diaspora -- the great migration where Jews fanned out
all across Turkey, Russia, and Europe.
In the process,
Temple worship came to an end. The worship that entailed sacrifice came to an
end. The whole Jewish priesthood came to an end. And Judaism became a family
worship, centered in the home, organized by Rabbi’s, who were principally
teachers of tradition.
History aside, I
thought I would lift up this text today, since we are about to begin Lent, the
period in the Church calendar that remembers Jesus’ turn towards Jerusalem, a
turn that led to suffering and death. I thought it was important to point out
why Jesus died. He came into a very real confrontation with the religious
leaders of the day.
John says this
confrontation came at the beginning of his ministry, the other Gospels have it
at the end of his ministry. Both are saying the same thing in different ways.
John is a much more literary, theological, symbolic gospel. John puts this
event right at the front of Jesus’ ministry because it portends the climax of the Gospel. It is the theme that
is introduced at the very beginning that gets developed through his life and
finally comes to a culmination.
Jesus has only
one other direct confrontation with the religious authorities, which again has
a literary, theological, symbolic character to it. It comes when he raises
Lazarus from the dead in the gospel of John. There the religious authorities
are worried again. They say, “This man is performing many signs. If we leave
him alone like this, the whole populace will believe in him. Then the Romans
will come and sweep away our temple and our nation (11:47, 48, 53).” The
passage ends with a portent, “They (the religious authorities) plotted from
that day on to do away with him.”
These are the
two themes that will cause a great confrontation- religious reform and the resurrection. And they both beckon the
same question from the people in Jesus’ day. It is found in our passage this
morning in verse 18. The people say, “What sign can you show as your
authority?” Or as we might say today, ‘what
gives you the right?’ ‘By what
authority do you do what you do?’
It is a great
question, one we still ask. Why do you
believe what you believe? When I was a graduate student, all the graduate
students from the different departments came together to take languages-
German, French and Latin. Everyone had to pass these courses and it brought all
of us together- Physics, Chemistry, Engineering, History, Religion.
We had one
enormously bright student in Engineering that stood out for his logical
obduracy. He was a linear thinker. He was annoyingly intelligent. He absolutely
despised language and only passed because of his near photographic memory. The
French professor would be declining an irregular verb which, of course, had
exceptions to the rule- which just had to be memorized. Hand in the air. This
guy would say ‘Professor, shouldn’t it be declined like this?’ ‘Yes’, the
professor would say, ‘it should but it doesn’t which is why we call it an irregular verb’.
This guy would
say, ‘That’s stupid. Why don’t the French just follow their own rules?’
The professor would say, ‘because they just don’t’. This guy would say,
‘That’s stupid. I’d develop a little more consistency if it were my language.’
And the professor would say, ‘But Leonard, it’s not your language.’
Every day this
went on. We got to be good friends -- not friends, good classmates -- because I
was about the only person that could get him to engage the actual French that
we have to learn and he was grateful.
One day he says
to me, “I have a question for you. You seem like your not stupid and you’ve
read a lot more than I have but there is one thing I don’t get?”
“What is it
“How come you
believe Christianity? All that stuff about God talking to people… all that
stuff about Jesus being divine… and walking on the water and stuff… You don’t
really believe all that do you. I’m only asking because you’ve read quite a lot
and you seem like your not stupid.’
Leonard was just
blunter than most people because when God made Leonard he had to use up all his social skills in order to make
him smart. But if I’ve had this conversation once, I’ve had it one
hundred times in the past twenty years.
I resonate with the question. From the
beginning, the Orthodox answer to the question has been that we believe in the
Truth that Jesus is the Christ because of the miraculous things that he did,
the prophecies that he fulfilled. These are the signs in the Gospel of John.
Only God could do that… so the argument goes.
authority of Orthodox Christianity has rested on the assumption that there is
an unbroken line from the time of Jesus to the present. St. Peter, the Rock,
the first of the disciples, became the Bishop of Rome. Roman Christianity
flourished. It gave us the scriptures as we have them today. It convened all
the early Councils that established what Christians believed. It started the
first churches, organized church structure.
Today, when you
listen to the best Catholic scholars, the
authority they cite is the authority of the Church itself. It is the
sheer number of adherents- fully a fifth of the world’s population, the largest
land owner in Europe by a long shot, the sheer number of Churches, the sheer
mental and spiritual power that is invested in the College of Cardinals that
decide doctrine and morals for the faithful, the sheer number of works of art
that they have inspired and commissioned. They cite, in short, Tradition with a
capital T. They stand for Tradition, they embody Tradition, they live out
It is a
compelling argument, which is why many of the brightest Christian minds choose
to become Catholic. The tradition is rich indeed. I might point out the
obvious, that this was essentially the argument of those in charge of the
Temple when they faced Jesus. They pointed to the massive Temple behind them as
being (like Catholics point to the massive Vatican) the authoritative Tradition
and asked him, ‘who are you (by
argument is compelling but if you live with Tradition for a while, it is as
human and compromised as anything in this world. A little of that gloss loses its shine upon
closer inspection. A quick review of the history of the Papacy is rife with
examples of Popes that were more like Ceasar than the Vicar of Christ.
I’m thinking of
one of the Borgias -- and it amazing how many people from that one family were
Pope at one time or another. One of them, who lived in the 8th
century I believe, had these lavish
dinners at the Vatican and liked to show off just how wealthy he was by
throwing his silver off the balcony into the Tiber river after each course
rather than have it washed. He was also cheap. And he had his servants stand
beneath the balcony with nets to catch the silver before it went by-by for
We have lots of
examples of leaders of the Church behaving more like generals than Monks,
plotting political intrigue rather than simple virtue. When you read Church
history as a whole, there is a strong ‘in spite of ourselves’ quality to it that should engender more
humility than assurance.
“By what authority?” An interesting
question. Even if Jesus was the Christ, it was far from evident at the time.
The kind of authority that relies upon tradition, that relies upon objective
structure, is fleeting is it not? Many people who are successful comment on
that fact. Sic transit Gloria. You see politicians surrounded by
microphones, reporters clutching at their every word. 10 years ago, no one knew
who they were, no one cared what they thought about anything. Suddenly, they
find themselves at the center of the universe. It is very empowering, very
heady, almost intoxicating. It is true of so many vocations when you rise to
the top… Everyone wants to know what you think about this and that.
And just so it
passes. It is one of the hardest things to give up in retirement. The phone
just doesn’t ring. Within a fairly short time of stepping out of the limelight,
stepping out of the center of responsibility, very few people ask you about
your opinion any more. Your spouse, who never asked you about your opinion to
begin with, surely doesn’t want to hear about it now. You no longer have that
built in authority. You are just you
again. No one is going to listen to you because of your position. You are just you.
When they asked
Jesus that question, he was a nobody.
He couldn’t call on tradition. He had no position. He was just a guy trying to
speak the truth.
And it is
interesting what he later says about true worship. Later on in the Gospel of
John, he meets a Samaritan woman. She is not a person of power, not important…
just a woman in a patriarchal society, and only half-Jewish. She asks him about
real worship because the Samaritans worshipped in a different place than Jerusalem,
using a different ritual. And she asks the question, which one is right, ours
Jesus says, “The
time approaches, indeed it is already here, when those who are real worshippers
will worship God in spirit and in truth.
This is what God wants.”
In other words,
it is not out there, it is in here- in Spirit and Truth. The answer reminds me
of the wonderful promise of Jeremiah, ‘The time is coming when I will write
my law on their hearts’. People will not have to go around saying, do you
have the truth, do you. It will be
Back to my
boneheaded colleague Leonard. I asked him, ‘What is the point of religion?’
He said, ‘to make us better people’. ‘That is a pretty good start’, I
I can only speak
for myself, but over the years, I have found that what Jesus came to tell us
about produces spiritual maturity in a way that I haven’t found anywhere else-
that life is about living out of grace,
is pivotal in relationship,
that love is
the goal of life,
that hope in the midst of darkness has a
power to overcome like nothing else,
that positive faith radiates
grace, forgiveness, and love in a way that is healing for others and
centers us as well,
that this is the way that makes for peace,
that true fulfillment is not found alone but with other people working on these things
that the point of life is not so much to be perfect as it is
to be honest and move in the
direction of integrity,
hat we cannot finally find peace and centeredness in
ourselves as long as other people are living in misery and degradation so that
we are people of compassion, mercy,
that we must work for justice.
I have found that it is a better way
of living, a more realistic way of living. There is a self-authenticating
quality to the things the Jesus talked about. They work better than the
alternatives. In other words, the proof is in the fruit that it produces.
Martin Luther used to say that the
Gospel would be pointless unless it came to us Pro Me- For me… Unless it
gets to us in here and makes a change. It is like a medicine we need each day.
Someone sent me a prayer most of us
probably pray each day.
“Dear God, So far today, God, I've
done all right. I haven't gossiped, haven't lost my temper, haven't been
greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or overindulgent. I am very thankful for
that. But in a few minutes, God, I am going to get out of bed. And
from then on, I am probably going to need a lot of help”. May God send you the
help you need. Amen
[i] Rev Rush
preached a version of this sermon on February 3, 2002
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