March 8, 2015

March 8, 2015

Lent 3, Year B

Tourists or Pilgrims

About fifteen years ago, I was in London on Good Friday. I've never been to the real Holy Land, but, as a life-long Anglican, London felt like a spiritual capital city to me. I decided to go to the Good Friday service at Westminster Abbey, which is where Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. (I actually have the soundtrack to that service.) More recently, Prince William and Kate Middleton were married there.

I was very excited to worship in that space—although it feels strange to say I was "excited" for Good Friday. The service was supposed to start at noon—the hour when Jesus hung on the cross. After the service, there would be a silent vigil until 3, the hour when Jesus finally gave up his breath. I was looking forward to being among other worshippers, struggling to stay present at the cross for those hours when so many of Jesus's earliest friends and disciples had deserted him.

When I entered the building, though, an usher in full robes immediately came up to me and said that the building was closed to tourists because of the worship service. I was internally furious: I may have been very casually dressed and carrying a large backpack, but I wasn't a tourist; I was a pilgrim.

So I immediately tried to whip out my Anglican credentials. I said, "I'm here for the Eucharist." However, that choice of words was a rookie mistake. There is no Eucharist on Good Friday: It's the one time of year when we remember Christ's death and absence from our world by not celebrating communion. We might receive bread and wine, but it's always been consecrated as Christ's Body and Blood on some other day.

I pretty much melted from humiliation when the usher told me, "There is no Eucharist today." It was as if he'd caught an imposter. The usher didn't want to make a scene, of course, but I really think he was still bitter and suspicious as I entered the sacred space.

I should have said, "I'm here for the liturgy." That would have been the right code word. Or, I could have simply said, "I'm here to worship." But although I was kicking myself for not saying the right thing, I was also furious at the very building I was worshiping in. I'm very sorry to say that I spent part of that Good Friday service fuming that this sacred temple was mostly a tourist destination, and that I'd come with all good intentions to worship, and the usher had tried to keep me out.

I thought of this incident when I read today's gospel reading. I liked feeling as though Jesus would have been enraged on my behalf, as he was for all those worshippers who had come to the Temple for Passover and had found their way impeded by currency exchanges and temple taxes. People were coming to the Temple as pilgrims, and they had to deal with all the hassles of tourism—changing money and paying inflated prices.

As much as I appreciate the fact that Jesus would have told off and driven out that usher from Westminster Abbey, I don't want to stop my reflection there . . . because in Jesus's ministry, anger is not the end, but the beginning.

The story of Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple occurs in all four of our gospels. And in all cases, the story orients Jesus's ministry and sets his course in some direction from which there's no turning back. One key difference in this story between the gospels, though, is not so much its contents, but its placement in their overall narratives of Jesus's life.

In the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, Jesus enters the Temple and overturns the tables on the first day of the last week of his life. The way these gospels structure their narrative, Jesus spends about a year teaching and healing in and around Galilee, and then he finally enters Jerusalem. His actions in the Temple provoke the authorities and set in motion the arrest, prosecution, and crucifixion of Jesus. In other words, Jesus' ministry builds up to this moment of anger, which the authorities work quickly to crush.

But the gospel of John positions this story very differently. As we see, it comes from the second chapter of John's gospel, right after Jesus reluctantly performs his first miracle of turning water into wine. In John's gospel, Jesus travels back and forth to Jerusalem over three years, visiting the city for religious festivals.

I imagine Jesus in today's gospel heading to Jerusalem without gearing up for a confrontation or steeling himself for suffering as he does in the other three gospels. In today's gospel, Jesus heads to Jerusalem simply to celebrate the Passover, to commemorate the greatest act of salvation and liberation that God had done for his people, and to worship God in God's one and only Temple, where worship would surely be full of spirit and truth. Only . . . it's not. And Jesus's disillusionment and anger in the Temple would re-orient his entire life and way of ministering.

In the Temple, Jesus finds people selling animals to be offered as sacrifices—sheep, cattle, and doves. Jesus finds money changers sitting at tables. He reacts by driving things out, pouring things out, and turning things over. So much of Jesus's later ministry in John's gospel follows these same gestures of driving out, pouring out, and overturning, but in new ways: He calls Lazarus out of the tomb; he pours out the water of life for the Samaritan woman at the well; he insists on serving and washing the feet of his disciples. Expulsion, emptying, and overturning have new meanings for Jesus as his ministry evolves, giving his words and actions have even greater revolutionary power.

As John's gospel shapes the narrative of Jesus's life, Jesus launched his career after finding what enraged him. He let that anger fuel him and orient his life. And Jesus let the destructive power of anger give way to constructing and creating new ways of communing with God and connecting with our neighbors.

In the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, this episode in the Temple provokes the authorities to the anger that eventually kills Jesus. But in the gospel of John, Jesus's life-giving ministry builds until he raises Lazarus from the dead, and that demonstration of Jesus's life-giving power is what makes the religious authorities tremble most.

Our gospel text preaches to us today not only by its words, but by its place in the life of Jesus: an experience of outrage lit a fire in Jesus that set the course of his life and converted itself from a destructive force to a life-giving power. If we can connect with our own experiences of sparking anger, and if we can re-position these experiences from the end to the beginning of our lives, who knows what power the Spirit will breathe into us.