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John 2.13-22: Spiritual spring cleaning - Getting the centre, the mind and the passion right

John 2.13-22

It is getting a bit warmer – we hope – and maybe a bit dryer.
And it is time to begin to do some spring cleaning
But not just of our houses or places where we work, or even our churches.
This is a time to do some spiritual spring cleaning

Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1455). Chasing the Merchants from the Temple, 1403-1424. Bronze panel, North door, Florence Baptistery, Italy.

Getting the heart right

Jesus clears the rubbish out of the temple.

The temple was the gift of God to his people.

It was the place where God had said that his presence would dwell. It was place where men and women came together to meet with God.

Jesus describes the temple as ‘my Father’s house’. 
That is not just a claim to unique authority. It is. John writes in John 1, ‘we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son’.
But it is also a relational term: the temple is not just a building where people worshiped. It was a home, where people came to meet the Father of the Lord Jesus and where people could come to meet the Father for themselves. The only other time that Jesus speaks of his Father's house is when he tells them that his Father's house has many rooms and he is going there to prepare a place for them. 

But they had turned this gift of God, the Father's house, into a stock exchange, a trading market, a bazaar

One of the recurring issues through my ministry is what should we do in our buildings, especially because we have to pay the bills.

At St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds, we put on concerts and exhibitions. Once a year we became part of the town Christmas market. And there was always the question with the concerts, what sort of music? I notice that some cathedrals are now putting on silent discos

St Andrew’s in Moscow – it was both more complex and simpler.

It was more complex because more people came to us. There are not many gothic style churches with towers in Moscow. We had countless organisations and individuals asking to film in our church and I had to try and decide what was suitable and what wasn’t. On one occasion a Russian megastar (well, his minions!) asked if he could film a music video in the church. They said it included a dance routine, but when they explained to me what they wanted, it sounded to me more like women rolling around on the floor with hardly any clothes on. I thought that we should probably not do that. It was a good call, because when I saw the final video, recorded elsewhere, it was not just women rolling around the floor with hardly any clothes on, but nuns rolling around on the floor with hardly any clothes on.

It was also simpler, because whereas for us in the UK our historic church buildings have always been both community spaces and sanctuary, Orthodox churches would never be used for anything that was not worship, and wider society would be more quickly scandalised if something happened in church that was not considered appropriate. And so it was easier to say no when we needed to say no.

I was probably over cautious, and there was little consistency. I said no to a high-end fashion show, to a dinner for wealthy people, to a whiskey tasting day, but yes to concerts (most evenings), filming,  bazaars, summer and Christmas fairs and a motorcycle rally!

Our church buildings do matter.

They don’t matter in the same way that the temple matters
The temple was the unique meeting point between God and humanity

But with Jesus there is a huge change.
Jesus becomes the new temple. That is what he is getting at here when he says. ‘“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19). He is talking about his own body.

Up to now it was the building that mattered. Now it is the person of Jesus who matters.
He is the meeting point between men and women and God.

In John 1 he has told Nathaniel that he will see angels going up into heaven and coming down from heaven on him. He is the ladder between God and us.
And Jesus says that where two or three people meet in his name, wherever they are, then he is there.

But that doesn’t mean that our church buildings are not important.

They are not necessarily important in terms of enabling us to meet with God (although I hope that they are places where people can meet with God), but they are important for us in what we are saying about God.

a) That is why what is at the physical centre of our church buildings is important. It is saying that this is what is important to us.

I have to confess that I struggle when the centre, the focus of the place that we set aside to worship God, is a political symbol, a charismatic person, a choir or music group. That is not what unites us.

People have argued whether the centre of the building should be the Lord's table or altar – as they are in each of our benefice buildings; it might be; or whether, as in many non-conformist churches, it should be the lectern and the pulpit. Or it might be the symbol of a cross: as Paul states, ‘we proclaim Christ crucified … Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (1 Cor 1:23,24)

I am not sure that it really matters – because they are each symbols pointing to the person of Jesus Christ.

Our buildings do matter.

Jesus could have gone into the temple, looked around and said, ‘The temple has become corrupt. It is not serving as a meeting point between God and humanity. And it is being replaced by me. So what goes on in the temple doesn’t matter. They want to treat it like a market – let them treat it like a market’.
But he doesn’t. He wants the temple to fulfil the role for which it was built – to be that meeting place where all peoples can come and worship God. He wants it to be a place where God, and God things, are at the very centre. And he gets angry when we put things in the place of God that are not God.

There is a passion about his anger. 'Zeal for your house will consume me'. It was his passion, the reason the Father sent him, the reason he was prepared to go to the cross - so that men and women could be drawn together into the presence of his Father. 

b) What is at the centre of our church building? And now I am not just thinking of the visible centre.

I wonder if Jesus came to our churches – I wonder what he would say. If he came to the Church of England, what would he say. 

Would he be angry? Have we replaced him with money or business? They are not necessarily the same thing. It is possible to go about our busy-ness and not make any money, because it makes us feel important and gives us meaning.
Or have we replaced him with entertainment, popularity, acceptability, status or comfort or what I like?

I do not think that is is wrong to have the occasional Christmas market or summer fair in our church buildings.
And it is not, I hasten to add, that the marketplace in itself is wrong. 
It is just that things need to be in their right place.

When I was a student in Durham I attended St Nics. They called it the church in the marketplace. I like that. We pray that we can put, in our society, the church, a place of prayer (not the place of prayer) in the centre of the marketplace – so that our society is, in our prayers if not in reality, centred on the communion table, the word of God, the message of the cross.

But let’s keep it that way round. The church in the marketplace. Not the marketplace in the church.

Maybe our buildings need to be safe places which enable us to encounter one who is not safe. One who is always drawing us to what is beyond us, bigger than us.
I met one family who, every time they drive here, stop at St Mary's, North Creake church, and go in and lie down on the pews. They look up at the angels. That is what I mean about coming into buildings that make is look to one who is beyond us. 
And maybe, by the work of the Holy Spirit, people will encounter Jesus and a glimpse of his Father's house. 

And what if Jesus came to our homes. What would he say? What does our home say about us – about the most important things in our life? What takes centre place? There is a lot to be said for putting a cross or some Christian symbol in a prominent place in our home. A reminder to you. A message to others. 'In this place, Jesus is Lord'. and a reminder to myself. 
It is also why wearing a cross for some can be very helpful - whether publicly or hidden, close to our heart. 

It is not coincidental that we have this reading during Lent. This is the ideal time to ask the Holy Spirit to do a spring clean in our lives. Just as Jesus came in and cleansed the temple, so we ask Holy Spirit to help us as we self-examine, as we confess and repent of the rubbish, and as we allow Holy Spirit to throw that rubbish out, to do a spiritual spring clean.


Other notes on the Passage

1. Getting the mind right: the place of memory

Twice in John 2.12-22 we are told ‘his disciples remembered ..’ (v17,21)

The first remembering is a passage of scripture: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’ (It is a quote from Psalm 69.9)

The second remembering is the saying of Jesus, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’.
“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.” John 2:22

There is much here.

First, I note that Jesus’ words are identified with scripture. When they remember what Jesus said we are told that ‘they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken’

Secondly, it is the collective disciples who remember: that is very good news for those of us who despair of our individual memories. It is the whole Church, people of God, that remembers. What we are doing now – and especially what we will do in a few minutes around the Lord’s table today - is collectively remembering.

Thirdly, they remember Jesus words in the light of the resurrection.

It was only after Jesus rose from the dead that those words began to make sense.
No doubt one of the disciples – maybe it was John himself – after the resurrection said, ‘Didn’t Jesus say ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up’? He was talking about his body! I get it!

At the end of John’s gospel it is written – and it is the other book end to this particular text – ‘Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.’ (John 20:8-9)

They saw and believed and then understood the scripture.

We, 2000 years later, have not yet seen the risen Jesus (although I have met two people who have had visions of him), but we have the words of those who did see him – the scripture - and we are invited to receive the scripture and believe.

Forgive me, that is quite complicated – but also exciting

It means that if we want to get our minds right, then we have all that we need here (in the scriptures) and here (in each other) and here (in what we are doing today).

We need each other for this. We actually need all Christians from other times and other places, because otherwise our ‘remembering’ is going to be very lopsided.

The world has recently discovered book groups.
The people of God discovered book groups thousands of years ago: gathering together to listen and to talk about what it is that we have heard read.

But there is a difference.

When we read and study scripture together (on a Sunday or in a Lent course) we are not reading words about someone who was an inspiring teacher but who died 2000 years ago. We are ‘remembering’ words about someone, of someone, who was crucified, but who rose from the dead and is alive now. And by reading, and putting our trust in those who wrote, and in what they wrote, we meet with the risen Jesus.

We read believing that the one of whom it speaks, the one who speaks is still alive, indeed is with us - that he meets us as we read the scriptures.

‘Therefore, says Paul, be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God’.

2. Getting the passion right

Jesus was angry.
But it was a right anger.
It came from a heart centred on God and a mind set on God.

‘Zeal for your house will consume me’.

We should get nervous here. We live at a time when people rage: there are the obvious: extinction rebellion, pro- Palestinian marches, or Capitol riots. It doesn’t happen so often in Burnham Market, although mention the National Trust ..

But actually that rage can be shown in our attitudes to people, in our social media posts, or the email that we slam off to someone

Our anger is usually inappropriate.

So often I speak from here [my gut] when my brain is not in gear.

We need passion, but we need godly passion.

And it is that passion that will drive us. At times it will eat us up. ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’.

And that godly passion will mean that at times there will be anger. At other times profound sorrowing. At other times deep longing, And at other times great joy.

And I note here that Jesus’ deep passion, the reason that he came from heaven to earth, the reason that he went to the cross, was – and I’m using John’s language here – his love for the world. In his passion he gave himself for us. He was consumed with zeal, and he said that he would give his body to us to be consumed as our bread. He came to draw us to himself and to his Father in heaven, so that we could be in communion with each other, with him and with his Father, so that we could become dearly beloved children in his Father’s house.

My prayer is that this time of lent, this time of spiritual spring cleaning, will be a time when the Holy Spirit helps us get the centre – the centre of our buildings and the centre of our hearts - right, and helps us as we remember scripture and allow God to continue to shape our minds right – so that then we will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be driven by the passion of God.


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