Churches without walls?

This week’s blog draws on the lectionary Gospel, John 2.13-22, set for Lent 3, to reflect on a question which our experience of the past 12 months has confronted us with quite acutely.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe; clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

Jesus drives out the merchants – John 2:13-16, Vie de Jesus Mafa

(I am leading a Zoom Bible Study titled Christ crucified! Why? hosted by Holy Trinity Church, Geneva, this coming Saturday morning, 10.00am – 12.30pm CET. The Zoom connection will allow additional visitors to join. Please contact me for the link and notes if you are interested.)

Several times in sermons he has preached in recent weeks via Zoom, my husband (Alan Amos) has spoken of how these days we are discovering ‘temples without walls’ or ‘churches without walls’.

In ways that we would never have imagined at the beginning of 2020, in the last year we have had to learn new things about the nature of Church. We have all had a bit of a crash course in the New Testament understanding that ‘Church’ primarily refers to the ‘Christian community’ rather than the building that in normal times is the place where we meet.

Christianity – right from its start – has always been a bit ambiguous about whether or not special places are important.

It is a core point which is being made by this coming Sunday’s lectionary Gospel, John 2.13-22,  which tells of what is often described as Jesus’ ‘cleansing of the Temple’. All four Gospels recount Jesus taking dramatic action against those who bought and sold in the Temple. In the three Synoptic Gospels the episode takes place just after Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city at the beginning of what these days we call ‘Holy Week’. In the Gospel of John, by contrast, it is actually located as the first action of his public ministry.

Of course, this may raise questions for us as to what exactly happened, why and when. I acknowledge that there is scope for different opinions on this, but speaking personally I don’t believe that Jesus ‘cleansed’ the Temple twice, once at the beginning and once near the end of his earthly ministry. ‘Historically’ speaking I think that the timing suggested by Matthew, Mark and Luke is correct, viz Jesus’ action took place in the last few days before his passion. I would go further and assert that it was in fact probably this action that set the wheels in motion which led to his arrest, trial and crucifixion. What he did in the Temple was seen as such a challenge to the status quo that it could not be tolerated by the religious and political leadership, and so he had to be ‘dealt’ with. Indeed in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (though interestingly not in Luke) one of the charges laid against Jesus in his ‘trial’ before the High Priest and echoed in the mockery he received on the cross was that he wanted to destroy the Temple (Matthew 26.61; 27.40; Mark 14.58; 15.29). It is easy to see how his actions in the Temple a few days earlier could be interpreted in this light.

Which then ‘begs’ the question, why then does the Gospel of John transfer his account of the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple from the end of Jesus’ public ministry to its beginning? I think that the answer is linked to the nature of the Gospel of John itself. Going right back to the time of Clement of Alexandria in the late 2nd century AD, John has been contrasted with the Synoptics as, ‘a spiritual Gospel’. The exact quote from Clement reads, ‘John, perceiving that the bodily facts had been made plain in the gospel, being urged by his friends and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual gospel’. What Clement is trying to say is that John’s Gospel seeks to give us ‘the inner meaning’ of what we read in the Synoptic Gospels, and that John’s transfer of the account of Jesus’ ‘cleansing’ of the Temple to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is a prime example of such inner meaning. It is placed at this point, to indicate that it is a fundamental starting-point to enable us to understand the significance of Jesus’ actions and words throughout most of the rest of the Gospel.

You may have noticed that each time I have referred to the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple I have put the word ‘cleansing’ in apostrophes.  This is because I am not sure that John is in fact recounting a story of the ‘cleansing’ of the Temple. By the word ‘cleansing’ I understand a process of returning to a better condition something that is intrinsically ‘good’. But I don’t think that that is necessarily  John’s perspective on what Jesus did in John 2.13-22. Rather his actions, particularly as interpreted through the evangelist’s comments in v21-22, suggest that what he was doing was declaring the Temple ‘redundant’.  A hint to this lies in the detail of the target of Jesus’ physical actions. In John’s Gospel, as well as the money-changers and the human beings who are selling and buying, Jesus drives out ‘the sheep and the cattle’ (verse 15) and the doves (verse 16). In other words Jesus ‘drove out’ (harsh words, used elsewhere in the Gospels against demonic forces), the animals that were essential for the Temple’s sacrificial cult. Effectively he was declaring that cult, and the building which housed it, redundant. It wasn’t simply that he was opposing the corruption of those who sought to make a living by selling ‘Holy Hamburgers’ as over-priced snacks to poor pilgrims, but he was challenging the Temple’s very raison d’etre.

The open area of the Haram esh-Sherif (Noble Sanctuary) surrounding the Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock marks out the extent of the Temple and its courtyards in New Testament times

We have been effectively ‘forewarned’ of this in the climax to the Prologue, ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14) The particular Greek verb translated here as ‘dwelt’ (eskenosen), is used often in Greek versions of the Old Testament to describe the Temple or the wilderness tabernacle as the place where God ‘dwelt’. Now however that ‘dwelling’ is most perfectly to be found in the person of Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh. Does that not mean that this core function of the Temple is no longer needed? That is I think exactly what John 2.13-22 is suggesting and that is precisely why it is placed at this point, so near to the beginning of the story. And it will be a theme that will recur over and over again in the following chapters of the Gospel as Jesus somehow subsumes into himself a wealth of images and symbols both linked to of the Temple, and to the great feasts (Passover, Tabernacles, Dedication) that are so closely associated with it. What is the implication for us, today of this central theme of the Gospel of John?

Sometime I want to write a book on ‘important passages of scripture that don’t make it into the Sunday lectionary’! One of my prime candidates for inclusion in that book would be Zechariah 14.20-21, a passage that I have long found fascinating, and I am sure offers a significant clue to what John 2.13-22 is seeking to share. Interestingly although other Old Testament passages are alluded to in the Gospel accounts of the ‘cleansing of the Temple’ (Jeremiah 7.11 in the case of the Synoptics; Psalm 69.9 in the case of John) the Zechariah passage is not mentioned at this point.  It is short enough to quote in full here (NRSV translation):

On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ And the cooking-pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking-pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them to boil the flesh of the sacrifice. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.

It’s that throwaway line with which the chapter, and indeed the whole book of Zechariah, ends. The prophet is looking forward to that future time when traders will no longer be needed in the house (Temple) because there would no longer be any physical distinction between the ‘holy’ and the ‘ordinary’ (the technical term is ‘profane’ – but in modern English that word has an unhelpful ring). Everything, the whole of creation, will be ‘holy’.  Indeed the primary reason for the Temple traders was to underpin that system in which the ‘holy’ was separated from the ‘ordinary/profane’ – to enable people to buy ‘clean’ animals for sacrifice, and change ‘secular’ money (containing pagan images) into coinage that was appropriate for use in that holy place.

For the Gospel of John, with the advent of Jesus ‘that day’ of which Zechariah speaks has now arrived! The incarnation of Jesus Christ has hallowed (made holy) the whole of creation.

As a (reasonably) faithful Anglican I cherish the places where the Christian communities I am associated with have worshipped over several, or many, generations. They are, in their different ways special to me. I affirm TS Eliot’s line from Little Gidding, ‘You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid’. And yet, at the same time I need to hold that love in a tension with the insight offered by the Gospel of John that the incarnation of Christ has transformed our understanding of ‘holy places’. It is an ongoing tension to which there is no easy answer. But I am sure that our experiences as Christian communities over the last year, in the Diocese in Europe and elsewhere, have indeed, as my husband suggested, compelled us to reflect on what it means to be ‘churches without walls’.

One thought on “Churches without walls?

  1. Thank you Claire for your reflections and insights. Over the years I have found the Diocese in Europe to be such a shelter from the claims on ordination within the Anglican Church in the UK. I pray daily for Anglicans in Europe and can see the good teaching is still very well shared about the Diocese.

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