Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-25; John 2: 13-22
Last week, the Provost explored the question of who is this Jesus who calls us to take up our Cross and follow him. Who is this character whom Peter identifies as the Messiah? Today, I want to explore a complementary question: who is the man Jesus? What can we learn about the flesh and blood person who walked the streets of Jerusalem in the first century?
Our lectionary takes us to John’s Gospel, to Jesus travelling up to Jerusalem for the Passover. This story comes at a different place in John’s Gospel from the other three where it is much later in the story. But note that the reason for the journey is to celebrate the Passover – a festival that will be celebrated again during Holy Week, with a different context and outcome.
So the first point to note about the man we’re concerned with is that he is an observant Jew. He’s travelling to Jerusalem to observe the festival – and we know that at Passover, one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar, the population of Jerusalem exploded.
It was the place to be if that was at all possible. I guess it was a bit like Edinburgh at the height of the Festival – streets so busy that it’s difficult to get anywhere; umpteen languages being spoken; every possible place to stay filled, if not over filled. So Jesus was part of that throng. But he wasn’t just along for the social contact. He may have been going somewhere particular for the Seder meal, but that wasn’t his first destination. He got to Jerusalem and headed for the temple. The first thing we learn is that this man is serious about the practice of his religion. There are requirements for those making Passover preparations, and he’s on his way to carry them out.
Jesus arrives at the Temple and is shocked and angry by the scene that he encounters. Things aren’t as they should be – the merchants and money changers have gradually taken over the space in a way that suits them, rather than the environment they’re in – and they’ve made it into a market place for their own ends. It’s a scene of exploitation and greed that Jesus is very quick to challenge.
So the next thing we learn about Jesus is that he is on the side of justice. He sees that there is a very particular set up here, that the most devout people in the community are being financially abused by people out to make a quick buck. I always imagine that the Temple marketplace has become a magnet for vendors – that they travel from all sorts of places to sell their wares, or to act as money changers; that it’s a haven for people who want to make money and don’t have too many scruples about how they do that. We don’t know who these traders are or how far they have travelled. We know nothing about their religious affiliation. What we do know is that they have seen an opportunity to line their own pockets and that Jesus has called them out on it.
And how he called them out. This wasn’t a time for gentle negotiation or the art of persuasion. This was a full on challenge made with authority. How dare you? No ifs, no buts, just stop right now.
So who is this Jesus? He’s someone who takes his religion seriously and, as a result, is willing to speak out for the sake of justice.
A religiously observant man. Note that we’re not talking here about piety – in fact Jesus routinely challenges false piety. We’re talking about religious observance, about engaging with the major festivals, recognising those markers within the year. Doing what is required in order to be in a right relationship with God. This is the embodied Jesus, living as we live, faced with decisions and challenges as we are, setting priorities and living by example.
And his starting place is his life of prayer. This is the man whose way of being in the world is our model for how we might live our lives. And if we are to take seriously the Lenten injunction to ‘take up your cross and follow’, this is the fully human Jesus whom we’re called to follow.
I was reading a Twitter thread the other day that began by noting that people outwith the churches are inclined to describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. And the question was, what does it mean to be religious but not spiritual. In other words, what does it mean to be observant of religious practices without actively engaging in a relationship with God? It’s perfectly possible to keep the outward manifestations of religious life without any of the accompanying internal movement towards living differently. And I wonder how much of the tension within our churches emerges from just such behaviours. It’s easy to focus on ‘doing it right’ and to shy away from ‘living it right’.
We can see that for Jesus, being religiously observant was about much more than keeping the rules. His religious observance and spiritual engagement led directly to his challenge to the traders and money changers; his anger came from an understanding of the injustice of their practices. His actions were integrated – evidencing that he was showing how to be both religious and spiritual; that it is both possible and highly desirable to embrace both.
What then does that mean for those of us who want to respond to the command to take up your cross and follow? Can we find ways to ensure that we are both religious and spiritual, and in so doing find ways to integrate the two so that our actions are informed by our prayer, and our prayer is informed by our action.
One starting place might be to allow ourselves to get angry. We’re bombarded with imagery of injustice in all sorts of places within our world. We know that there are serious inequalities; that some people are exploited and others reap the rewards. These are matters that we regularly bring to God in prayer. And that is half of the equation. The other side is to work out how and where we might channel that anger. How and where we might put our energies in order to begin to have an impact.
None of us can take on every injustice or worthy cause within our world. But each of us will recognise that there are some issues that, for us, are more important or more distressing or more urgent. There isn’t necessarily a hierarchy of things that it would be good to concern oneself with. There is however, a Gospel imperative to concern ourselves with something.
There’s a reminder of that in the reading from the letter to the Corinthians: we proclaim Christ crucified. In so proclaiming, we are making an implicit commitment to respond to that crucifixion, to count ourselves amongst those who have been changed by the incarnate Jesus and the crucified Christ.
There are plenty of opportunities in our lives to challenge what we see and know to be wrong, to be abusive, to be exploitative. It takes courage and it takes energy – and it may not make us popular. But it is one way to evidence that we have indeed sought and picked up a cross.