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Politics of Scripture

A Church Reforming … Into What?—John 2:13-22

When Jesus clears out the Temple in John 2, he presents a vision for the reformation of God’s house. As questions about guns in churches are raised once again in America, this vision is one to which we must attend.

13The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.14In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15Making 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. 16He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”18The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After 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.

Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda. This phrase, popularized by Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, translates, “A Church Reformed, Always Reforming.” It has been used to champion a number of causes, but at its most basic it points to the truth that the work of the Church is never complete. God’s work ever since forming the earth in the first place has been to participate in the loving reformation of Creation from Adam and Eve to Christ to the present day.

In our gospel text for this week this same truth is presented by the Judean leaders who point out that the “temple has been under construction for forty-six years” (John 2:20). The Jerusalem temple would remain under construction until its destruction some forty years later. The temple of Jesus’ day was always reforming—a temple built and rebuilt with conquering empires, honoring the ancient God of Israel with an ancient structure populated in new ways.

This was likely part of how the presence of those selling animals for sacrifice and changing Roman money into shekels for offering came to be in the temple courts in the first place. It was the temple authorities’ best attempt at shaping the new economy to fit the old temple practices.

But despite God’s commitment to the work of Reformation, to the point of becoming incarnate in Christ for this very end, Jesus does not applaud the temple authorities. The work of the religious authorities could certainly be classified as “reforming”—finding new ways to carry on ancient traditions in a new Empire. For example, the function of the moneychangers was to change Roman money (which bore the image of Caesar) for the Hebrew shekel with no graven image in order to respect laws against graven images. And yet, Jesus doesn’t celebrate this reform. He doesn’t congratulate the moneychangers on remaining faithful to the biblical laws. In fact, his reaction is quite the opposite, driving out animals, chastising merchants, and turning over tables.

Jesus’ reaction could certainly be described as “zeal” (John 2:17). But zeal for what? Jesus’ zeal for God’s house does not seem to be rooted in temple maintenance and upkeep. If this were the case he may well have supported the moneychangers, since their activities helped to support the ongoing temple construction (alongside temple authorities’ largess and Roman taxes).

Nor was Jesus’ zeal rooted in religious law for law’s sake. While the elaborate system of purchasing the proper offering or sacrifice could itself be described as zeal for the biblical law, Jesus patently rejects this. Rather, Jesus’ zeal seems to run deeper than any physical manifestation—his zeal seems be for the temple environment or atmosphere. Put another way, Jesus is zealous about what the temple as God’s house represents—what the temple is about.

“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” Jesus exclaims. The temple was intended to be a place of prayer and devotion. The temple authorities in Jesus’ day attempted to capitalize on that devotion, to make money by highlighting dated religious ordinances rather than adjusting the interpretation of those ordinances (a practice common in the oral Torah of Judaism both then and now) to support the sincere worship patterns of the people.

One might say that they had re-formed the temple practices, but not for the sake of prayer and devotion. Instead, the authorities in Jesus’ day were re-forming temple worship into a market affair.

Although the phrase, “A Church Reformed, A Church Always Reforming” cannot be traced neatly back to the Protestant Reformation, many churches with ties to that event embrace it. In his own way, Martin Luther turned over the tables of the moneychangers of his day, reforming, among many other things, the Church’s practice of selling indulgences (the forgiveness of sin) in order to fund the building of its own “temple”, the Basilica of St. Peter. Luther insistence was that places of worship be just that—not extravagant statements about the wealth of their curators.

And it is that act that has sparked a long line of theologians since him, including Karl Barth, to hold the Church accountable not to the market standards of the day, but rather to the Law and Grace of God made manifest in Jesus. But Jesus wasn’t just talking about church buildings or temple offerings. When pressed about his claim that the temple might be destroyed, John tells us, “He was speaking of the temple of his body” (John 2:21).

The body of Jesus, knit together by the Creator in Mary’s womb, the Word made flesh (John 1:14) and washed by John on the banks of the Jordan, this body Jesus declared he could raise in three days. And in the end, he did just that. Crucified as a political expediency in order to protect the same authorities who had molded the temple into a marketplace to suit their needs long before, Jesus was raised from the dead three days later. A body itself re-formed not to come into line with the politics of the day or the demands of this world, but rather to continue re-forming that very same world which he had been a part of forming at the beginning of creation.

It is true that both the Church and the world are always re-forming. Most living cells only last for a small fraction of the life of the larger body of which they are a part. Reformation is a basic truth of our worldly existence. But the questions remains for us, as much as it did for the first-century Jerusalem temple, into what are we re-forming ourselves, our Church, and our world? And for what purpose?

In the wake of the church shooting in Texas last November, many churches began conversations about increased security. Or, perhaps more accurately, renewed conversations that were begun after the last church shooting before that (conversations similar to those now being raised once again in the US regarding school safety). Questions such as: Should doors be locked during Sunday worship? Should metal detectors be installed? Should armed guards be posted at the doors? Should the pastor keep a gun in the pulpit?

However we answer these questions as a Church and in individual churches, to consider them at all is to be true to Barth’s semper reformanda. Yet, the content of our answers points to the environment—the atmosphere—that we seek to form our churches into. And if, as Christians, we are committed to a reformation of Church and world that is consistent with that begun by God in the presence of the Word at Creation and continued by the Word made flesh in the crucifixion and resurrection, then we would do well to look to the atmosphere Jesus models for us in the Gospels.

Jesus models God’s reformation of God’s Church in God’s ongoing act of loving and creating. Jesus models this especially clearly in John’s account of this encounter in the temple, in which he does not simply throw everyone out, but confronts the merchants directly—even calling the dove-sellers to account. If we are to follow Christ’s model, then we too must do the hard work of calling one another to account. We must ask for and extend to one another a sign for our actions—a sign of our embodied commitment to and engagement with God’s purpose for the Church and the world in which it serves.

If the call to be a Church reforming is understood in terms of our embodied relationships, then, at it its heart, it is a call to be community. It is a call for churches and temples, formed by God to nurture relationships—with God and with one another, to reform themselves for this same purpose. It is a call for churches to see themselves and shape themselves as communities—as places of devotion and prayer, places to gather to support and show care and compassion not just to those affected by shootings but also to those who may already feel “shut out” in so many other ways (the very people, often, who tragically become the perpetrators of shootings).

If we want our churches to be places of worship, then perhaps we, like Jesus, must stand up to those outside forces of market politics. As Jesus declares, “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” So too we might declare, “Stop making our Savior’s house into a place of fear!” And as Jesus proceeds to do something about the disjunctions he perceives in the Jerusalem temple, so we are called to respond to the disjunctions between our faith and our world present in the Church today.

Instead of questioning how best to protect ourselves and our interests, I wonder what the conversation might look like if we in the Church sought in our ongoing reformation of both our houses of worship and the world, for which the one whom we worship died, to devote ourselves to the same purposes as Jesus. I suspect we would begin framing our conversations quite differently if we held one another to account, throwing out the moneychangers and fearmongers who try to occupy God’s house, and following in the footsteps of God’s Son, living the devotion and care that God has for God’s children and God’s creation in our own actions, our own flesh and blood. That is a reformation in which I would gladly play a part.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.

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