Sermon at St George’s Cape Town, 11 March 2012
Third Sunday in Lent at 9h30; texts: Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19.7-14; 1 Cor 1.22-25;
Gospel: John 2.13-22 (sermon text)
Christ the Activist and Iconoclast
We are confronted with a text that does not easily go down with the rest of the gospel. What happened to the meek and gentle Jesus who only spoke, who never retaliated when he was violated against? Our image of Christ may have to be corrected. The remark ‘the Passover of the Jews was at hand’, was that a reminder of Jesus this time being the paschal lamb?
Jesus went up to Jerusalem, to the temple, where the confrontation would have to take place. There were those selling oxen, sheep and pigeons for the on-going sacrifice. There were also money-changers as “only Tyrian coinage could be used in the temple”. (J C Fenton)
“Money-changers were thus an essential part of the temple traffic.” (J Marsh)
The violent act of Jesus is described in detail by all four gospels. In our text from John’s gospel we read:
“And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and the oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” v 15
The Jews could have taken him to court on at least two counts: destruction of property, and obstruction of business that was sanctioned and legalised. There is no mention of anyone being hurt or injured, but that could easily have happened during the turmoil and scuffle that must have ensued.
The story is much stylised and one can almost be certain that there was more to it than is hold here. For example it is very likely that at least some of those involved in this kind of temple business put up resistance against Jesus.
Why did Jesus act in a violent way? And was this act a deviation from everything else that he did? For example, Jesus’ behaviour after having been arrested, before his crucifixion, was quite different. He was here the victim that did not retaliate, that did not fight back – as Steve Biko did – , who would either speak – with words that certainly showed acute self-awareness – or hold his peace.
Be this as it may, this action of Jesus in the temple at the upcoming Passover – which also recalled the exodus from Egypt – provoked the anger of the Jews, yes, as we will see, more than that.
It seems as if property and certain (human) activities are not sacred, or untouchable, while human beings still would be. The very fact that this story has been kept in the biblical canon in all four gospels would indicate that this behaviour somehow also is sanctioned in other circumstances.
So, why have so few, especially among Christian followers, been inspired by this action?
A violent act it is, of sorts. Is the problem to know how to keep the borderline between turning tables and then in the heat of the moment attacking people?
It is difficult to see a follow up of this story in our churches today. The text has three more moments that should be recalled.
Jesus says that in his Father’s house there should not be a trade of this kind. The Jews then ask him for a sign that perhaps would justify such an action. They would not mind another miracle. The sign is that a destroyed temple Jesus could rebuild in three days. What the Jews could not know was that he spoke about the temple of his own body.
The third moment is that the disciples later on would recall this exchange of words, and how Jesus in fact, already then, had talked about his own resurrection from the dead.
II. Animal sacrifice or emporium
One could rightly ask, what triggered off Jesus’ action, was it the emporium, the fact that at least part of the temple had become a place of commerce, or that this business was there for the animal sacrifices?
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the emphasis is clearly on the trade and the commercialization of the temple that lies in the foreground. In John’s gospel it is both, but with an emphasis on the sacrificial practices. One could even claim that there is this one point in Jesus’ ministry that goes beyond all other, which may indicate that Jesus’ action is something that is not even captured in terms like activists and iconoclasts:
Jesus would lay down his life for the world (of his own accord according to John 10.18) as a sacrifice that would undo, that would make all other sacrifices unnecessary and null and void. So, instead of seeing Jesus here leaning towards political activism we are witnessing a theological concentration: It was pleasing to God that God in Christ would reconcile the whole world to God self (2 Cor. 5.19). A battle of physical action and words in Jerusalem’s temple suddenly get cosmic proportions. It may even be that this very incidence provoked the Jews to such an anger that they hereafter saw sacrificing him in death as the only way out.
There is this evangelical conviction that we cannot help God in this salvific action. It is God’s own work that we have to be thankful for. Luther discovered in his rereading of Hebrew 7.27 that indeed “(Jesus) has no need, like those highpriests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all (my emphasis), when he offered up himself.”
The gospel is just about that: God in Christ did that which we could not do, save ourselves. The question is rather how we, having received this gift of salvation, proceed, how we utilize it.
And this must be said, having had this theological concentration, trying to understand, if not exactly justify, Jesus’ action in the temple, there is also a political dimension here.
It is for us who have in such a fashion been liberated, to show, in social and political action, compassion to the whole world, and especially to those who are disadvantaged.
III. The sign and zeal for thy house
The Jews wanted a sign and a sign they were given: the temple can be rebuilt in three days. “And he spoke about the temple of his body.” v.21
A temple not built with hands will be decisive in the future. It is the zeal for this house that may or may not have physical structures that Jesus expresses.
The disciples see his zeal and are reminded of Psalm 69.9-12, which will take things to a new level again. The cleansing of the temple provokes the crucifixion. Psalm 69 talks already of the passion of Christ:
“For zeal for thy house consumed me; and the insult on those who insulted thee have fallen on me… I am the talk of those who sit in the gate and the drunkards make songs about me.”
As John’s gospel frequently pre-empts that which is to come, one will also now be able to appreciate his comment to the Samaritan woman at Sychar’s well: “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (John 4.23); a temple (Jerusalem, Sychar, Samaria) would do but would no longer be decisive.
IV. Christ the Activist and Iconoclast
That Jesus was an activist stands clear to me. The implications of this should be further discussed, not forgetting that Christian activism, due to the legitimate concern for the whole world, also would have political implications.
The same goes for Jesus the iconoclast. The word’s meaning is above all “anyone who deliberately destroys religious images”. We were not there, but it must have been an incredulous situation. Totally unexpected and so misplaced that officials, who witnessed what took place, must have been shocked to their wits end. Their faces dropped.
It must have looked funny: it was so unexpected that people were paralysed. No one interfered. The Jews’ question about a sign was extremely subdued and expressed under shock. They were not hostile, not even unfriendly – yet.
If Wilberforce was inspired in his work against slavery on Christian grounds, and therefore may be a good example of an activist, I am not sure how or if we should emulate Jesus as the prime iconoclast.
History is full of bad iconoclasms, in the Eastern Church regarding the role of icons and in the Western world after the Reformation. And we have this interesting but also very humoristic and ironic incident in 1853 just outside Ladismith, Cape, at two small congregations in Amalienstein and Zoar. When the Lutherans in Amalienstein had their church dedication Reformed Christians from Zoar marched over to Amalienstein and tried (by force) to confiscate the crucifix that was on the altar!
We may sum up in this way, bearing in mind that Jesus’ mission went beyond that of being either an activist or iconoclast; Jesus’ self-awareness, which we never will understand properly – was it there as Jesus the human or as Jesus the Son of God, or both? – but nevertheless this self-awareness of his is playing the crucial role during this action. He is making the statement of his life: Not these animals for sacrifice, there is another way, his own giving of self – and this must remain our conviction and faith – God was in Christ in all this.
V. The implications of this action of Jesus for the church and ultimately for the world
What we do in the church’s liturgy has reverberations for the rest of the world. What we do will project a cosmology. There are embarrassments here. If, for example, the general view of the church still is that heaven and hell are geographical places then we will generate a cosmology that is belittled and ridiculed – and rightly so.
The main question however is whether we project what is happening on the liturgical centre stage.
For example, do we in our liturgy give clear expression of Christ’s death and resurrection? Does our liturgy furthermore indicate, hopefully in a powerful way, that Christ’s concern is for the poor and downtrodden, for those at the outskirts of things, as well as for those who are present in the liturgical assembly? We may test our way of worshipping on these points.
Liturgy is open for, as it consists of, cultural elements of various kinds. All are welcome as it were. The big question then is how African culture and religion (widely understood) can make a true home in our liturgy. Are there sacrificial aspects here from which we could learn? I am convinced that such elements can be made visible in the liturgy, but once any cultural element (or religious for that matter) enters this liturgical space it will now be broken into the likeness of Christ’s sacrifice, as he did it once and for all (bearing in mind that there are still Western cultural elements lying or hanging around that have not been broken into Christlikeness at all).
Christ’s sacrifice for the whole world, actualized in the church, have another two implications, at the least. First it has to do with intercessory prayer. Any church is obliged to pray for “the others” also, that is for the whole world and for our neighbour on a constructive and permanent basis. The church must also pray for perceived and real enemies.
Secondly, Christ’s sacrifice for the world makes it necessary for us to give sustenance and support not only of ourselves and our own congregation, including those in need amongst us. No, we are called, in a systematic way, to give to those whom we do not know, those who are outside our own community.
With some awareness of a needed African renaissance for example, there should be a concerted effort to help those in need, for example the many rape victims in the war- and crime-ridden eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Christ’s activism is a wake-up call for us to act without borders, well knowing that his activism was salvation history in the making.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now and will be for ever. Amen