Exodus 20:1 — 17
I Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2: 13 — 22
We hear the saying a lot: “People are more important than rules.”, and it is a good thing to hear and remember. Rules are good, but people are always more important. That upsets us sometimes, because we all know how much easier it is to follow a set of rules than it is to consistently love other people and treat them with kindness and compassion. We sometimes forget that the reason we have rules is to help us live richer and deeper lives, both individually and corporately, and instead of using the rules to free us from our more harmful tendencies, we fall into the trap of becoming slaves to the rules, fearful of breaking them.
One area where that commonly occurs is in our relationship with God, or our spiritual life, if you would like to call it that. Human history is filled with examples of hatred, persecution, and even war caused by disagreements concerning religious matters. Sadly, many of these unfortunate episodes are sparked by disagreements over surprisingly petty things: the proper way to hold one’s hand while crossing oneself, the use of musical instruments in public worship services, the wearing of neckties by men. Of course, these minor incidents are only the excuses needed to start the trouble – the real reasons are an abundance of fear and a lack of love. We are fearful of breaking the rules and upsetting God, so we forget about loving other people. Yet, as Christians we say that God’s most complete revelation is not as a set of rules, but as a person – Jesus.
We see Jesus today as he comes to the temple in Jerusalem, which was supposed to be a focal point in the nation’s relationship with God; the place where God and the world met. He sees it filled with people making business deals to help them meet their ritual duties. This story often brings images of corrupt merchants being driven out by a Jesus who is angered because they are taking advantage of the people coming to the temple to worship. However, we shouldn’t automatically jump to that conclusion. It may very well be that many of these merchants were not cheating their customers – they were simply selling them the materials they needed to fulfil their religious obligations. People would travel long distances to the temple, and transporting the animals needed for sacrifice was sometimes not feasible, so they would bring money (no less a sacrifice) to the temple and then exchange it for the prescribed animal. In a similar fashion, those who came to give money could not offer the common currency, since it contained forbidden images – perhaps that of the emperor or a pagan deity. So they exchanged the money they had (once again, often not a small sacrifice) for acceptable temple coins. Of course there probably were some cheats among the merchants in the temple courtyard, and there most likely were some shady business deals going on. But in all likelihood, many of the people were quite sincere in what they were doing – trying to follow the rules as best they could.
If that is the case, then Jesus’s actions might seem a little rash. That notion might make some people uncomfortable, but if we truly believe that Jesus is God in human form, then we shouldn’t be surprised when he acts like a human being. Jesus is frustrated by what he sees: so much worry and fuss over the details of religion, while the essence of it – love – is so easily forgotten. In fact, some of the religious laws that had slowly come into being over the centuries since the exodus from Egypt and the Ten Commandments were so difficult to obey that many of the poorer people could not fulfill them, and the minority of the people who could looked down upon them as sinners. Jesus was witnessing the triumph of rules over people, and he is so grieved by it that he not only disrupts some of the details of the temple worship, he calls into question the temple itself.
He does not say the temple, or any of its laws and rituals, is bad. He merely asserts the authority of another temple: his body, where God and the world were united. By doing so, he upholds the sanctity of all human bodies as temples of the most high God. After all, we are made in the image of God. Furthermore. God was made in our image when God lived a human life as Jesus of Nazareth. Because of creation, we bear God’s image; because of the incarnation, God bears our image. We are doubly holy temples, where God and the world meet; each one of us bringing the presence of God into our world as we become channels of peace, love, joy, and health.
We have rules now in our society and church that are different from some of the biblical laws – that is fine, we are in slightly different times and situations. Still, the rules are there to help us grow in our vocations as temples, but we must never forget that it is the people who are holy, not the rules – no matter how good the rules are. That does not give us the license to follow only those rules that we choose to obey, but it does give us the responsibility to follow them prudently and mindfully – purposely using them as tools to help us grow in love for our God, our neighbors, and ourselves – which as we recall, Jesus says is the essence of all religious laws.
As living temples, we have built into us all the requirements we need to fulfil that law, even though we might not always nave the inclination to do so. That is why we still study the biblical rules gaining insights into how they can help us live in our, own time and place, and that is why we pray seeking to know God and ourselves better as we build our relationship with God through time spent in silent conversation and contemplation. We also look at the current laws and regulations, both in our church and in our nation, to see now they might be changed or interpreted differently to help us live together in peace and flourish as the unique and wonderful individuals God has created us to be.
We have a wonderful reminder of our vocations as temples of God here at the altar. Soon we will have the opportunity to come to the table and receive concrete and visible signs of Jesus into our lives. We might not understand exactly how that happens, but by faith we can then take the Jesus in us and give him to others. As the altar is prepared, it is treated with great respect, as is the bread and wine that we believe becomes for us the body and blood of Christ – the life of God in humanity. It is right that we show such reverence to holy things, but only if we are prepared to show the same reverence to everyone we meet everyday of our lives, for they too are holy. It may be more difficult to respect those around us than it is to respect the special things at the altar, and that is why we need to be aware of the reason we come to this table. We do it in remembrance of Jesus – God’s revelation to us that people are important: far more important than any rules.
So let us make this trip, and every trip to the altar into a time of growth as we become more and more aware of the holiness of the Body of Christ on the table as well as in the people around us. Let us reverence each other and ourselves as God’s image. Let us bring God’s grace to our world while never forgetting to accept it from others, as we grow in love and truth as living temples. AMEN