Sermon: Living as the Temple of God
From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
Living as the Temple of God: March 15th 09: am: Revd Dr Ellie Sanderson
- Psalm 19
- Exodus 20:1-17
- 1 Corinthians1:18-25
- John 2:13-22
Hearing today’s Gospel of Jesus cleansing the temple is an interesting and provocative image as we approach our AGM and our Sunday set aside for dedicated living and giving. What does this Gospel story say to us about our surrounding consumer culture and the role of a sacred place located in its midst? The unsettling nature of the cleansing of the temple invites us to take stock of who we are as the people of God in this sacred space and to reflect on how we fulfil our call as God’s people today. What would Christ say on entering this temple? What would Christ do?
This morning we’re going to think about those questions by firstly talking about what the temple had come to mean to the Jewish community at the time of Christ, what the temple meant for Christ (in as much as we can gather from today’s Gospel story) and then come back to thinking about our sacred space, partly by feeding back to you some of our self-reflections from the appreciative enquiry process. This morning is therefore something of a stepping stone from our period of review and appreciative enquiry to the concrete steps forward which begin next week at our AGM and the rededication of our living and giving as a Cathedral community.
So, to begin, what had to temple come to mean to the Jewish people at the time of Christ? The temple was a source of great security and a symbol of unity and belonging. The institutionalising of the temple rituals over time had come to indicate stability for a nation of people whose history was that of exile and temple destruction. In some ways the by-line ‘as long as we have the temple we are OK’ would fit that sense of nationhood. But the temple wasn’t always there. God was not always ‘contained, or related to, in that way’, so to speak. Think of the way God is expressed in the giving of the Ten Commandments; thunder, lightening, a trembling mountain, a people filled with fear. This is a God who is certainly not to be contained easily. This is a God who appears in strange and powerful ways, interacting with his creation immanently and passionately yet very much in existence beyond any potential constraints of human system of worship.
So if the Temple, whilst structuring and honouring those encounters with God, perhaps also tames them. Now in the overriding context of Roman rule, the temple as a mark of nationhood was being challenged and compromised. In effect a ‘happy medium’ was in play between fulfilling Jewish temple customs and satisfying Roman needs. The temple was consequently being run by people not necessarily with God’s best intentions at heart, for example some people were making a lot of money from this happy compromise. Archaeological evidence has suggested that the high priests at the time of Christ lived in relatively palatial splendour. The money changers, the sacrificial system were not intended as a means of profiteering, yet people were making money out of the worship of God and making that money predominantly from the poor of the society. This position of compromise and exploitation is unsatisfactory. It sells God short. Think of the agonising cries of the prophets through the ages, yearning for God’s righteousness and justice to be manifest amidst corrupt generations. Compare those expressed longings of God with the scene of the temple activity set before Christ – in his own words, as taken from Luke’s gospel (19:46), and echoing those of the prophets, “My house shall be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den for robbers.”
There are two different timings given to Jesus cleansing the temple. Here at beginning of John’s Gospel it is placed between two quite contrasting events. Before it is the unsolicited abundance of grace demonstrated in the miracle of turning the water into wine at the wedding of Cana and following it is the difficult teaching to Nicodemus about the need to be born again. John is establishing the pattern and foundational marks of Christ’s ministry with three very different events which all point to the ultimate ministry and mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. In the synoptic Gospels the cleansing of the temple is recorded at end of Christ’s ministry in the final week of his passion; it is part of the culmination of Christ’s ministry. In both records there is a connection with the temple being torn down and it being raised again. Similar to Jenny’s teaching last week, we are again receiving another powerful image of the messianic role Christ is to fulfil through his death and resurrection. The central tenant of our Christian faith Paul proclaims in today’s epistle. With that understanding in mind, is the passion and anger of Christ in temple cleansing any surprise? This is no meek and mild Christ. This is a Christ who sits down and makes a whip. Knowing what we know lies ahead of him we can begin to understand the frustration and anger that Christ would speak from: ‘not for this, not for so little has God been your God, do not belittle all that God has given for you, all that I am about to give for you, do not make my life so cheep and unworthy, do not translate my life into such a mediocre compromise!’
Hence the dis-ease we feel with this passage today. We can not help but look to ourselves and say, ‘what of our temples, what of our sacred spaces’. Our humility requires us to ask that question.
Well, as we have reflected over all the ideas flowing from our appreciative enquiry about what being the Cathedral means to us, here is an extract of a narrative summary of our self-perception and desires:
“Overall we believe that the Cathedral at its best provides a superb level of liturgy and music which keeps the best of our traditions alive and growing. We are a living sacred space with an outward focus, gathering together a wide range of people in hospitality, worship and education; like the dossal, encompassing a mosaic of many parts which makes an awesome expression of welcome and the Glory of God. We value ourselves as a family and as such cherish our nurturing, caring and sustaining environment. Some of the central themes which shape our life together are the importance of music in our life and worship, our role as a sacred space for national and diocesan occasions and our weekly life as a steadfast place of traditional liturgical worship. Within this context we seek to nurture and grow our young people and families and strengthen all of our faith through inspirational preaching and teaching.” That is our sense of what we are and can be at our best.
In preparing for this morning, I meditated on Christ walking into this Cathedral. In my meditation, Christ immediately went to chapel without walls, gathering into himself the prayers and longings of the people expressed there, people perhaps most on the margins of a faith community. Christ then came through this whole building, finally through the chancel to the Altar and then within the Dossal. The dossal has been a powerful image for us as we’ve thought about ourselves. It has been spoken of as a place where we demonstrate our desire to exalt Christ and seek to welcome other people into that wonder of knowing the living and glorified Christ. It is made of many parts, just as we are as the new temple of God; all of us with different experiences and gifts in fulfilling our call to be God’s living temple. As the dossal, we are part of the ascending Christ.
The dossal invites all who enter this sacred space into that mystery – the mystery of becoming part of something for which Christ gave his all. The offering of such a gift therefore warrants Christ’s anger when God’s hospitality is taken so lightly. Ourselves as the temple of God is an awesome gift. A gift which solicits from us, in turn, reciprocal dedication in the way we live and give ourselves to God’s glory.