When Ruins Become Resurrection
Year B, Lent 3
When I was first ordained, I never imagined that I would serve at a historic parish. I am still not sure that I am called to serve at historic parishes in general as much as I am called to St. John’s specifically. What I found most appealing about St. John’s was their story of continual rebuilding. This site we are on now is the 4th site of this church. We have been on this site since 1728 and this building has been though three wars. It has been burned and pillaged. It has been rebuilt. And that is what has fascinated me the most about the history of this church, the rebuilding and the tenacity of the community itself.
Of course, I confess that I am occasionally guilty of the bragging rights that come with being the oldest English speaking church in continuous existence in America. I have been known to refer to certain 300 year old churches as contemporary. I also like to put air quotes around the word “historic” when it is describing any church that is not St. John’s. It is slightly obnoxious, but I just can’t help myself at times.
I was thinking about my pride in this church as I was reading this Gospel reading regarding the Temple in Jerusalem. Religious authorities had a lot of pride in the temple. Jesus wasn’t always a fan of religious pride. This Gospel story is one that surprises people. It does not fit into the image that people have of Jesus. People picture Jesus with a lamb over his shoulders and children on his lap. They imagine him teaching and healing. They don’t usually picture him with a whip driving animals and people out of a temple while overturning tables and in general causing a scene. This is not the peace loving Jesus who we imagine in our heads. Yet it was clearly an important event in the life of Jesus because all four Gospel writers recorded it.
What was it that got Jesus all riled up? There are a lot of theories about that. Since he said, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” some people have assumed that he was angry about the fact that people were selling animals in the temple. This is possible but unlikely. Selling animals was a necessary part of the temple system. People were supposed to make sacrifices and most people did not travel with sacrificial animals. So it made sense to sell the animals at the temple. Others have said that Jesus was not upset that these animals were being sold, but that they were being sold at an unfair price. The sellers were taking advantage of people and profiting from these sacrifices that were meant for God alone. This makes more sense in light of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In those three Gospels, Jesus tells the people that they have made his father’s house a den of robbers. But he does not say that in John’s Gospel. He just tells them to stop making his father’s house a marketplace.
I wonder if what he really meant was that they were making the temple a market place for God. It was as if they were implying that they had exclusive rights to God…that people would only be in God’s presence when they were in the temple. This was especially a concern in a time when there were many people who were ostracized from the temple. Not just anyone could go in the temple, which means that God’s love was limited. Jesus knew that this was not the case. He knew that God was everywhere, present at all times. Jesus also knew that his life, death, and resurrection would transform how and where people perceived God. He wanted to introduce that change now.
The people who had the power in the temple were angry that Jesus thought he had any right to call this holy temple his father’s house. So they asked him for a sign…presumably a sign of his power. His response was even more troublesome. He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They were astounded. The temple that he was standing in had already been under construction for 46 years and it wasn’t even finished yet. And this carpenter was going to destroy it and build a new one in 3 days? But Jesus was not talking about a temple made of bricks and mortar. He was talking about his body. His body was where God dwelled. And his body would be destroyed in the crucifixion, but in three days in would be raised.
Jesus was not saying that God was not present in the temple anymore. He was saying that God was not limited to the temple and no human institution had control over God’s presence. No person or religious body could say that some people had access to God and some people did not. That is what got Jesus all riled up. People weren’t just trying to control money and power; they were trying to control God. They were trying to limit who had access to God.
One of my favorite images of St. John’s, is the painting that depicts the church right after the burning of Hampton. It is called “the ruins of church at Hampton.” During the civil war, the town of Hampton was burned down. The one structure that was left standing were the walls of St. John’s. I have always loved this image because it conveys the strength and sturdiness of the church. Recently, I discovered a new perspective. The walls remained, but the doors, the windows, and the roof were gone. There is an openness to that image that is refreshing. I imagine God’s presence overflowing from the open windows, doors and roof. There are no limits on the expansiveness of God’s love. It’s like God’s love is breaking down the doors. It is bursting out.
Obviously, since then we have rebuilt the roof, the windows and the doors. Yet what if we were to adopt that image of the wide open church in some way? We could rename that painting. It would no longer be called “ruins”, it would be called “resurrection,” not because of the building that it would one day be, but because of the opportunity that we have been given again and again to rebuild. Since we now have actual windows, doors and a roof, the members of this historic church are called on to be our windows and our doors. We are the connection to the church and the community. We are here to tell the community that there is no limit to God’s abundant love. It is overflowing and walls cannot contain it. We, the members of St. John’s are to be the vessels of Gods overflowing love. Not only that, but we too are temples of the Holy Spirit. God dwells in us and even our walls cannot hold that.