Going In and Coming Out

(sermon 3/28/21 – Palm Sunday)

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

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Three years. For three long years, as Jesus went from place to place with his disciples, he sternly warned them, and others, not to refer to him as the messiah. It happens so often in the Gospel according to Mark that it’s come to be known in theological circles as “The Messianic Secret” – Jesus’ commanding his followers to maintain silence about his messianic identity or mission.

But now, on this particular day, everything changes. On this day, the occasion of Jesus’ short little two-mile donkey ride from the little village of Bethany on the Mount of Olives, down into the valley, and back up into the city of Jerusalem. The event known as Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into the city, when as we all know, the people laid down their garments in front of him and laid branches down, giving him the cultural equivalent of the red carpet treatment on his journey; things done for the arrival of a king. And as they did, they called out “Hosanna!”, which is Aramaic for “Save, rescue us, savior!” and quoting scripture related to the coming of the messiah. The very fact that Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives was itself an enactment of a scriptural prophecy that the new messianic age would be ushered in when the messiah entered Jerusalem from there. And the fact that he rode in on a donkey was another scriptural reference.

Today, whether we care to admit it or not, we’re all conscious of our image. It shapes how we dress, what we eat, where we go when we’re able, what we say, what we post on social media, what we do in our spare time and with who – consciously or unconsciously, we all use these things to create an image of ourselves; to craft how we want others to perceive us, and assuming we aren’t trying to create a false image of ourselves, there’s nothing wrong about doing that; it’s perfectly natural. Jesus was doing the exact same thing here, in this event. All in all, in every detail about his journey, Jesus was carefully and intentionally putting the imagery, the place, the time, together in a way to make clear to anyone that he was absolutely claiming to be the messiah. There was no more “messianic secret” after this. Jesus’ going in to the city was essentially his coming out as the messiah.

But after riding into the city to all the acclaim of the crowd, and through it coming out in his claim to be the messiah, Jesus did something odd. Not only does he not drive out the Romans and establish a new, physical messianic kingdom in Jerusalem, as the people were hoping for and expecting, frankly, he doesn’t do anything particularly momentous at all. Mark tells us that he went to the Temple, looked around a bit, and then literally came out of Jerusalem, heading back to Bethany. The overturning of the moneychangers’ tables will have to wait for another day according to Mark’s gospel. First, after making this very bold, and to be honest, this very in-your-face statement in front of the Romans and the Jewish religious and social power structure, Jesus went back out into the suburbs to get a good night’s rest, maybe taking some time to pause and reflect on the events of the day, and what comes next.

People have commented on how unexpected, even odd, this seems on Jesus’ part. But maybe, by doing this, Jesus is making a statement that yes, he’s the messiah, but not the kind most of the people were waiting for. As Jesus was taking time to reflect on the day and its meaning, a lot of other people undoubtedly were, too, and maybe that was his whole intention; another part of his carefully orchestrated day.

In the church year, Palm Sunday is the sixth Sunday in Lent, signaling essentially the beginning of the end of the season as we move into Holy Week. Once again this year, we’ve gone in to Lent, made this journey of reflection, repentance, preparation, as we consider the coming of the cross and the resurrection; what Jesus’ essence and meaning actually is; what his story is; and what our own place in that story is, too. And now, we’re about to come out of it, similar to Jesus’ coming back out of Jerusalem. As we do, in the midst of the joy that this day, Palm Sunday, usually brings, it’s probably a good thing for us to take another moment to reflect, too. Another reflection of Lent, of Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection; all of the events that we’ll remember this week. A reflection of what difference it makes in our own lives.

Just as with all of you individually, it’s the same for us together, as the church. And not just in terms of going into and coming out of the annual Lent/Easter season in the church calendar. This year, in addition to that, together we’ve all gone into Covid life – this time of lockdowns and isolation and separation and sickness and depression and death. A time of real sadness and loss in both quantity and quality of human existence. And now, with vaccines rolling out and the ability to at least see some light at the end of the tunnel, and as we announced today, a target date for resumption of at least limited in-person worship, we’re finally starting to come out of Covid time. This Easter, I’m sure that will be a bit part of the prayers of gratitude that many of us offer up.  

But as we do start to come out of all of that, it should also be a time of reflection for us together as Christ’s church. This isn’t a new thought; you’ve heard me talk about this before on various Sundays, but now as the pandemic endgame is getting closer, we need to reflect on what this has all meant to us, and where we go from here. What has this past year taught us about what’s really important in our lives, compared with what we might have been prioritizing? What have we learned about ourselves – our assumptions, our familiar patterns, our own resilience? Has any of this deepened our faith and trust in God? For that matter, has it weakened it?

Has any of this experience led us to make changes in our lives that have been for the better, and that will change the way we live long after face masks and hand-sanitizer skin is just a memory? And for us together, as the church, what will we have learned about how we’re the church? How we minister to people in ways that are accessible and inclusive, maybe in forms of inclusivity that we haven’t traditionally thought of, and regardless of their, or our, physical constraints or location? How do we best reach out, in 2021 and beyond,  to share the good news with others? And for that matter, has our understanding of just what the good news is changed? Historical forces converged in 2020 in a way that it rarely does, and in a way that has reframed our minds, as individuals and as the church, about what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus, the one who was anything but subtle and deferential in the way he entered Jerusalem Has our shared experience – has our shared suffering this past year-  given us a new understanding of, a new empathy for, the suffering of many in our society? Have we gained a new empathy for people who are only a single paycheck away from financial ruin? Have we gained a new empathy for people who don’t have access to healthcare? Have we gained a new empathy for people who battle with depression or other emotional or mental health issues? Have we gained a new understanding and empathy for those in our society who are asking, demanding, that we, as followers of Jesus, actually live into the fullness of his teachings as we live our lives and help to shape our culture?

We’ve gone in to an almost unprecedented time of social, cultural, and yes, religious, upheaval over the past year. Now, as we begin to come out of it, will it have been in vain? Will we have used this time and experience to learn something from it, about ourselves, about others; about our faith, our church, our society? And if we have gained new understanding, will we have the same courage that Jesus showed on that first Palm Sunday? Will we move forward in love and compassion, committed to applying what we’ve learned?

The original ending of Mark’s gospel was apparently lost to the ages, and a newer, later one had to be written and added to it in order to put some closure to the gospel as we read it today. Our own ending, our answer to the questions that this time puts in front of us, isn’t written yet. But through trust in God’s Spirit, and through trust in Christ, our Savior, I’m hopeful that the ending of our story is going to be a good one.

Thanks be to God.

Seeing Jesus

Photo by Mark Aaron Smith on Pexels. Used with permission.

(sermon 3/21/21 – Fifth Sunday in Lent B)

John 12:20-36

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

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You might not have noticed yet, but this past week we started doing something new. We’re trying to add new content on our Facebook page every day; that way, if you like or follow the church on Facebook you’ll be notified of something going on with us on your timeline every day. Of course, some of this we were already doing. On Mondays, we’d already been posting a text version of the sermon from the day before. Every Wednesday is our Morning Prayer livestream; Fridays you get the weekly announcements email and the sermon preview; and Sunday, we’re worshiping together. In addition to those, now on Saturdays we’re publishing a preview of the music that will be part of the following day’s worship, including maybe who’s performing, what the music is, and maybe a little bit of the history of some of the music. And now on Tuesdays we’re featuring “Tell Us Tuesdays.” A lot of organizations and places do this same thing. Basically, it’s asking some question and having people to share their answers or thoughts about it. The questions aren’t anything hard – I promise we’ll never ask anything that requires advanced calculus – they’re just meant to be something interesting, thought-provoking, lighthearted, and hopefully fun, and something that might allow us all to get to know one another a little bit better.

This first Tell Us Tuesday, we started basic and offered a slightly tweaked version of a commonly-asked question. We asked, if you had a magic superpower that enabled you, once a week, to have lunch with anyone at all, living or dead, who would you pick for your first week’s lunch, and why? And as a follow-up, who might you have the second week’s lunch with? We got several good and interesting answers. One person said that they’d pick Jesus, because it would be a fascinating and deep conversation, and boy did they have a lot of hard-hitting and important questions for him.

It’s an answer that a lot of people offer when this question is asked. You might even remember that George W. Bush was asked a variation on this same question during a presidential campaign – what historical person would you most like to meet – and he gave that same answer, prompting some people to worry that he was “too religious” for the job. Whatever else George Bush’s merits or flaws, I don’t think that his answer to that particular question was really anything to hyperventilate over, since an awful lot of people would, and have, said the very same thing. In fact, I don’t have any statistical data to prove it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if, in fact, that wasn’t the single most popular answer to that question, at least within the primarily Christian West. It’s simply true – a lot of people want to see Jesus.

In fact, that’s exactly how today’s gospel text begins, too. Some Greeks had come to Philip, asking to see Jesus. They didn’t ask Philip * about* Jesus. They didn’t ask for a brochure. They didn’t want a link to his website or podcast; they wanted the real thing. They wanted to really, truly encounter him, up close and personal, in the flesh. So as you heard, Philip and Andrew went to Jesus and tell him that there are some Greeks there who want to see him. But then, Jesus starts in on a dissertation about how a grain of wheat has to lose its life in order to be reborn, to grow, and sprout into something bigger and better than itself. Now, we know that in a literal, scientific way, a seed doesn’t actually “die” in order to grow, but Jesus is speaking metaphorically, poetically, here, so let’s grant him a little leeway. After he says that, he continues on about how anyone who would be his follower would have to do something similar; and cryptically saying that he himself has to do the same sort of thing.

From a broader theological and literary standpoint, people have said that this appearance of the Greeks seeking Jesus, and Jesus’ answer, is meant to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ mission beyond Judaism and extending outward to include the Gentile world as well. That’s likely true. But on a more basic level, asking Jesus if he’d see the Greeks who were there, and getting Jesus’ dissertation, I could imagine Philip and Andrew looking at each other and asking Jesus, “So… is that a yes or a no?” Jesus seems to ignore their question completely. But given a second look, maybe that isn’t the case at all. Maybe his response is precisely an answer to the Greeks.

Maybe Jesus is saying “Do you want to see me – to really see me? Look around you. Wherever and wherever you see someone giving of themselves; whenever you see someone who isn’t afraid to risk themselves in order to help, to achieve something bigger, greater than themselves, something that will benefit many more people than just themselves – whenever you see that, you’ve already really, truly seen me. You’ve encountered me. You’ve experienced me.”

Maybe Jesus was saying to them “You have the luxury of wanting to see me while I’m still here in the flesh – a mere circumstance of time and place, for you and me both. But there will be others to come, many others, who will want to see me but who won’t have that luxury. So that’s my answer to anyone, anytime, who wants to truly see me. Any time you see a person willing to put themselves on the line, in a place of risk, anyone willing to put themselves in that place of insecurity that comes from considering the lives and needs of others ahead of their own, you’re seeing me. You’re seeing my very essence, my eternal being and meaning and message, all of it existing since before creation and existing throughout the cosmos and all space and time. It’s an eternal truth: if you see someone doing that, then you are really, truly seeing me. And you are really, truly seeing a follower of me, even if the person themselves would never identify themselves that way, even if they’d be upset hearing that description of themselves. Still, that’s the eternal truth.”

Maybe that’s what Jesus was saying. Maybe in Matthew 25, he’s saying the same thing about where anyone can see Jesus, and what it means to be a follower of him. Maybe.

And maybe Jesus’ words here make the Lord’s Supper all the more poignant a way of being really, truly in communion with him, really, truly united spiritually with him – the one who died and was raised from the dead; resurrected, reborn, for the good of all the world. Think of the everyday, common elements that we use for Communion: A grain of wheat dies, grows, and becomes something greater than itself, life-sustaining bread. A grapeseed dies, grows, and becomes something greater than itself, life-enriching wine. What better way to express this eternal truth of how, and where, and in what, we encounter, experience, see, Jesus?

Given that possibility of how and where we might see Jesus ourselves, I invite you this week to think about your own lives, and to remember where, and in what circumstances, and in whom, you’ve actually seen Jesus. Where have you unwittingly found yourself on holy ground, marveling at being in the presence of the divine – when you’ve seen someone selflessly giving of themselves for someone else’s benefit? And maybe as a follow-up, can you think of any time in your life when maybe someone else saw Jesus when looking at you?

Come to think of it, that might be a good question for this week’s #TellUsTuesday.

Thanks be to God.

The Persistent, and Sometimes Annoying, Image of God

(sermon 3/14/21)

Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

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Sometimes, you just never know where, and when, or who you’re going to learn something from. To get a wake-up call from; to see something so clearly that you hadn’t seen before even though it may have been staring you in the face all along; you just needed a jolt out of your familiar patterns and assumptions in order to understand the reality and truth that was hiding in plain sight.

Maybe we’ve gotten a reality check like that from the innocent wisdom of a child, or a respected elder. Maybe it came from a boss, a coworker, a therapist, or even, on rare occasion, a pastor. And sometimes, we might experience an eye-opening reality check from a chance encounter with a total stranger.

That’s exactly what happened to Jesus in today’s gospel text, as he encountered a Canaanite woman – an intersectionally second-class human based on her gender, her religion, and her ethnicity, who still persisted with Jesus, taking it upon herself to try to get him to help her – and more specifically, her daughter, and to put an end to her family’s suffering. As we heard in the text, her persistence and her words, even after being rudely dismissed by Jesus, eventually hit home with him and were successful – in shining a light on the reality of her family’s situation, pointing out that they, too, were children of God and deserving of better; in convincing Jesus to expand his understanding of his mission; and in getting him to help them.

It’s unfortunate but true that when people need to get us to see what we aren’t seeing or to care about what we haven’t been caring about, when they need our help to end their suffering or injustice, whatever the type of injustice, they often need to shake us out of our complacency. They have to discomfort us to get our attention. They have to say things using language that we might not consider polite, and do things that we might consider rude or otherwise outside the rules of propriety or civility – the same rules, it has to be said, that were often created precisely to lock them into their suffering.

We all know that there’s been a lot of that kind of shaking going on here in Louisville, and around the rest of the country, for that matter, over the past year. Most of you probably know that yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Breonna Taylor being killed by Louisville Metro Police officers. At the same time, the trial of the police officer charged with the death of George Floyd is getting underway. As a nation, even though many still haven’t grasped it, many others have, in fact, been shaken out of their assumptions about the supposed “others” in our society, and they recognize that as people of the kingdom of God, we have a responsibility to help end their suffering and injustice, and to help end their second-class place in our society. This has been a momentous year in our history, not only because of Covid, but I believe at least as importantly, because it was a year like very few others that laid bare to all of us, followers of Christ or otherwise, the realities of racial inequity that’s been hard-wired, baked into our social structures, when many of us were happy holding on to the delusion that we were now a “color blind,” or “post-racial” society. This past year, though, has shown us that we were as blissfully ignorant of – and yes, unwittingly complicit in – these inequities, every bit as ignorant and complicit Jesus himself was in the personal suffering being endured by the Canaanite woman and her daughter, an ingrained social rejection so embedded and natural that even Jesus was annoyed by her and felt comfortable dismissing and insulting her, calling her and her daughter no better than dogs.

Interestingly, this weekend of ongoing examples of people here standing up and loudly, persistently, defiantly, and maybe sometime, uncomfortably, demanding an end to their suffering, is also “Self-Development of People Sunday” in our Presbyterian calendar. The Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People turned 50 years old this past year. Currently, it helps people here in the United States and in more than 40 other countries around the world, providing financial grants directly to small, grass-roots initiatives designed to help people help themselves to a better and more life-affirming future. All of the projects that SDOP funds must:

  • Be presented, owned, and controlled by the group of economically poor people who will benefit directly from it;
  • address long-term correction of conditions that keep people bound by poverty and oppression, by working to promote justice, build solidarity, advance human dignity, and advocate for economic equity;
  • be sensitive to the environment while accomplishing its goals; and
  • not advocate violence as a means of accomplishing those goals.

The SDOP is truly one of the shining examples of what our denomination is doing, concretely, in terms of helping people who are calling out to us for help, as the Canaanite woman did to Jesus, and that protesters downtown continue to do to us. It’s also a program that, given its 50-year standing, shows that the goals of our being a Matthew 25 congregation aren’t just empty words or paying lip service to some trendy vision.

And whether you’ve known it or not, you’ve been a big part of it all along – because funding for the SDOP comes from the annual One Great Hour of Sharing offering. As you know, we receive this special offering every year at Eastertime, and Springdale has always been a strong and faithful participant in that offering. You’re going to hear more about that offering in the next few weeks, but today, on SDOP Sunday, while there’s still a lot of work to be done in this regard, through SDOP and otherwise, know that we Presbyterians – know that *you* – have heard the voices of people calling out, shaking us out of our complacency, and we have stood with them through this program.

And know, too, that this is an important thing to consider during Lent. The Canaanite woman’s words and actions shook Jesus out of his obliviousness. And Jesus’ words and actions, up to and including his death on the cross, is meant to shake us out of our own obliviousness, and to show us that not only does God consider *us* precious and worthy of love and acceptance and a life of justice, equity, shalom – but God considers all people – all people – worthy of that same love and acceptance; that love and equity and shalom. Given that, out of gratitude for the love that God has abundantly poured out upon us, it should also be both our greatest task and our greatest joy to work to help all of God’s people who are suffering and in need.

Photo: BBC

Because Christ dwells within us; and because we know that we’re reconciled with and made whole by God *through* Christ dwelling within us, we can look into the face of this beloved child of God and see every beloved child of God. We can see Breonna Taylor. And at the same time, we can see George Floyd. And the Canaanite woman, and her daughter; and our own sons and daughters. Because of God’s love for us, in this face, we can see you. And me. And Christ himself.

Thanks be to God.

“Who Does He Think He Is?!!”

(sermon 3/7/21 – Third Sunday in Lent)

John 2:13-22  

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

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When you think about all the various art forms – painting, sculpture, music, dance – it might sound funny, but I think that the art of storytelling is one of the highest and most important of art forms in any culture. The fact that a gifted storyteller can come from any social level within that culture, and have any level of education or even no formal education at all, seems to make the art of weaving an intriguing, meaningful, powerful art form.

When we read the scriptures, we benefit from many gifted storytellers, originating in many different settings and scattered across more than a thousand years, and the author of John, the Fourth Gospel, is maybe one of the most gifted of them all. This author sets out to tell the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and his meaning, just as the other three gospel writers did, but John does it in a very different way, and he means to convey a very different, even cosmic, message than the others set out to do. This is the case even when John is weaving, crafting, composing his story using the same building blocks, the same stories coming out of the life of Jesus that those others used.

Today’s gospel text is a case in point. This is a story we’re all familiar with – this story of Jesus entering the Temple courtyards and driving out the animals and the people selling them; and turning over the tables of the money changers. It’s the only story in any of the gospels where Jesus, in a state of anger, a state of righteous wrath, commits any kind of vandalism, and even violence, against anyone.

And that’s exactly where the story gets so much of its appeal, its attraction, to such a broad range of people, because it describes Jesus engaging in these kinds of acts that so many of us, at one point or another, and truth be told, more than just once, have felt like engaging in in similar times of anger. This story has been held up by followers of Jesus across virtually the entire spectrum of Christian belief, except for absolute pacifists, I suppose; they get a pass on this – but virtually every other type of Christian since the beginning of the faith itself, as a justification for them at least occasionally engaging in the same kind of destruction and violence, in the name of God and whatever they believe was God’s will in some instance. Christians, from the most conservative to the most progressive, and everywhere in between, have held up this story as an argument to justify their own actions.

And it isn’t just individuals, but larger groups, too, even entire peoples. In Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, one of the most important speeches in U.S. history, Lincoln points out the irony, and the oddity, seen in the people on both sides of the ongoing Civil War – that “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”  It wasn’t the first time that had happened in history, and it certainly wasn’t the last. We human beings have claimed God’s approval of our own supposedly righteous use of violence, and often cited this story from Jesus’ life, to justify everything from the Crusades; to Nazis with their belt buckles that stated Gott Mit Uns/”God with Us”; to our use of the atomic bomb; to the bombing of black churches, “liberal” churches, and abortion clinics; to left-wing extremists approving of the use of violence during anti-racism protests; to right-wing extremists driving vehicles through Black Lives Matter protestors or shooting at them. 9/11 was justified as being righteous vengeance in the name of God; and yes, recent domestic terror attack in Washington DC, a number of people who stormed the Capitol Building on January 6 and caused the deaths of several people were marching behind a big wooden cross and chanting White Christian Nationalist calls to violence, all in the name of Jesus.

It’s here where I think John’s mastery as a storyteller is so important. We often hear this story the way the other gospel writers place it in their stories and what meaning they give it – it’s told as happening the day after Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem  during the last week of his life, and his actions in the Temple become the last straw in the eyes of the religious and occupying powers that precipitates his arrest and execution on Good Friday. But John places the story in a different place in Jesus’ life, very near the beginning of his story – remember, this is in Chapter 2 – and in so doing, he masterfully casts the story as having a very different meaning.

John nests this story in between Jesus’ turning the water used for ritual handwashing into fine wine at the wedding in Cana; and Nicodemus’ stealthy night visit to Jesus, during which Jesus lays it all out – that he has come into the world as a sign from God of God’s love for the world and as God’s means of reconciling with it. Taking these three bits together, we see John pointing to Jesus as the one who is already ushering in the new era, the reign of God, the new age – the new eternal, great “wedding banquet,” here symbolized by the actual wedding in Cana, and the fine new wine replacing the former ritual water. We see at the wedding that Jesus has the power to perform miracles, but in his actions at the Temple, John emphasizes the authority by which Jesus does those miracles and that as such, he has the divine authority to implement righteous wrath in the world; all while, in the Nicodemus conversation, boldly proclaiming not wrath, but God’s love for this world and all within it. In these three short scenes that John weaves together early in Jesus’ story, he lays out precisely who and what Jesus is, and what authority he has. To John, this isn’t just a story about Jesus going off on a wild tear in the heat of the moment and doing something that gets him arrested. It’s a sign of his true identity that sets the stage, that lays the foundation, for all that will follow in his story.   

It’s also confirmation that God, in this case through Jesus, is indeed a God who has wrath. Conservative Christians often criticize progressive Christians, claiming they focus only on God’s love and mercy, while ignoring or soft-pedaling God’s wrath. It isn’t really true; progressives believe that God exhibits wrath just as much as conservatives do; they just believe God’s wrath is reserved for, and directed at, different things.

While this story confirms that God can definitely know wrath, it’s important to recognize that based on literally everything else Jesus ever said or did, if that divine wrath, that righteous anger, were ever to be expressed through destruction or violence, that destruction or violence would be left to God, and not us. Christ has called us to be and to do a lot of things, but physically, violently doling out God’s wrath is something that’s very much above our pay grade, no matter who we are, or how much we might want that to not be true sometimes. When Jesus overturned the tables and drove out the merchants, people indignantly asked, “Who does he think he is?!!” From our own vantage point, we know that Jesus is God, but we also know that we aren’t.

The answer to the question of whether God might ever consider it acceptable for us to resort to violence, especially when appealing to the name of God while doing so, has been debated practically since the beginning of the faith, and it will continue to be debated long after we’re all gone. I certainly don’t know the fullness of God’s mind regarding that question, although I’ll admit that Jesus’ words and the full breadth of scripture seem to point in a much more pacifistic direction than in my very human, very fallible bones, I’m sometimes comfortable with. But wherever that debate  might lead, I still think that it’s inappropriate for us to include within it any appeal to this particular story of a violent day at the Temple perpetrated by Jesus, the eternal Son of God, as an argument or justification for us behaving in the same way. I think that the more appropriate takeaway for us in this part of John’s story is both that it points to Jesus’ identity, as well as pointing out some of the kinds of things that actually do lead to God’s wrath – in this case, it’s the economic exploitation of people – bad enough anywhere and anytime, but made even worse here, because it’s being done right at the Temple, right under God’s nose as it were, giving it the apparent cover of it being acceptable and justified in the eyes of God. A big part of John’s message in this story is a reinforcement that in Christ, we’re shown that God loves all of us, beyond measure and to the end of the age – that God’s love for all of us is so great that one of the things that most inspires God’s wrath is when any of God’s people are used or exploited by others, economically or in any other way, for that matter.

 In fact, if we read John’s wonderful, masterful story about Jesus – his life, his identity, his meaning – in any way that gives us cover to engage in vandalism and violence against any other child of God, then what we’re getting out of that reading isn’t the Word of the Lord, but rather, as Shakespeare might say, a tale told by an idiot.

Thanks be to God.