Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Lent Three 7th March – Chris Walsh

Perhaps, like me, you used to sing the hymn ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ as a young person. I don’t question at all the characterisation of our Lord as gentle, meek , but I am not so sure about ‘mild’.

It paints a picture of one rather passive, kindly but pushed around by the will of those around him.

I don’t recall singing a hymn to the other side of the character – strong, robust, determined, infinitely generous and other-centred and a champion of truth against the flow of corruption, mendacity and power-hungry self-centredness, the antithesis of what I discern is God’s hope for humankind.

Don’t you love, therefore, this narrative of Jesus taking the flail to the money-changers and merchants who occupy the temple precinct, turning over their tables, restoring the accepted reality of the temple as a place of prayer, not an emporium, a market place, less still, as he says in Matthew and Luke, ‘a den of thieves’.

This was a place where Jews could honour their obligation to visit the Temple, buy a sacrificial animal and worship, but they had to convert their local money into temple currency and some of the money changers were rather loose with exchange rates. Poor people had to pay more than they should for the dove that was to be their sacrifice.  Hence the ‘den of thieves’ reference.

But the cleansing of the Temple heralds a restoration to its rightful purposes, to a place of worship and prayer, a parable if you will of a Lenten cleansing of the temple of our own selves to the purposes God has intended for us to be, stripped of the material preoccupations with which we clutter our lives and the life of the church.

While we love our ‘home’ churches as familiar sacred spaces, let us concentrate not on what they are but on what they enable, contexts in which we can sense and embrace the numinous, the immanence of God from which we are then sent out to bring that same presence to our regular lives.

We have no need to make a blood sacrifice. That has been done for us and is what we re-enact, re-member, at the communion, actual or spiritual, that one, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world; a sacrifice in which we are called to share.

Remember the prayer of ‘sending out’, the missa, which is at the culmination of the mass and is really its purpose, to cleanse us, feed us, nourish us, strengthen us as we take the temple of ourselves from God’s holy place into the lives we lead; to take the greater wisdom and love of God into the secular challenge that we confront and serve every day.

Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Send us out in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory.

But please don’t think this must be the end of marmalade sales! Far from it. This remains a sacred parable of God’s love sent into everyone’s breakfast table, fruit of the earth, transformed by the work of loving human hands to enrich the mornings of many pilgrims, far from exploitation and a den of thieves!

The cleansing of the Temple is, we know, often deployed to illustrate anything but a gentle, meek, mild Jesus. This is a man in a righteous rage, appalled by the abuse of the sacred space, and angry at the pathetic failure of those whose work it is to protect and uphold its sanctity. It encourages me to respond with the same kind of righteous anger when there are injustices and evils to be fought, careful that the anger is indeed righteous and not self-justifying peevishness.

In the synoptic gospels, this story occurs at the end of Jesus’ ministry after he has set his face towards Jerusalem, and wept over it. It is one of the more visible and notable occasions when his actions and utterances get under the skin of the religious leaders; it is another nail in the cross of calvary, another lash of the flail used to prepare him for it.

Our Lord submits, consents to the Passion and engages in acts of provocation, answering questions with even harder questions, putting to right those in error, which bear him towards it. It is, as we considered last week, his way of taking up the cross, of facing those untruths that cannot be ignored, that demand something other than the assent of silence.

I wonder where Jesus might lash out with his flail in today’s context. What would he say about the church? He might have something to say about the lamentable and persistent failure to protect the young from sexual abuse. He may have some advice for church leaders on the right financial priorities. I recall how the Diocese of Sydney lost some $100 million dollars at the GFC, much of which it had borrowed to sit, as one critic put it, at the gambling table of the stockmarket. Do we do enough to bring in the marginalised?

And where in the wider world might he cry out in righteous anger? The economic imbalance where just on 300000 children under 5 die each year from unsafe water and sanitation. The planet groans at our arrogant neglect of the climate. We fail to live peaceably with others. Choose your own cross to bear. There are plenty to take up if we seek to follow him into the temple precinct.

The Temple, of course, is the meeting place of the divine presence and the people of God. It is a place where the people of Israel might purify themselves so better to let them become one with God. This is what we seek to do in the disciplines of Lent, recognising, as he says, that the Temple, the place of God’s presence is the Christ himself. It is not where we choose to worship nor even how we choose to worship. It is simply the inner and outer realities of ourselves, the attitude, the openness, the humility and the obedience we bring to it. If we submit with him, we can rise with him, even in three days.

I can do no better than to leave you with a sonnet from the remarkable Malcolm Guite:

MALCOLM GUITE – Cleansing the Temple

Come to your Temple here with liberation

And overturn these tables of exchange,

Restore in me my lost imagination,

Begin in me for good the pure change.

Come as you came, an infant with your mother,

That innocence may cleanse and claim this ground.

Come as you came, a boy who sought his father

With questions asked and certain answers found.

Come as you came this day, a man in anger,

Unleash the lash that drives a pathway through,

Face down for me the fear, the shame, the danger,

Teach me again to whom my love is due.

Break down in me the barricades of death

And tear the veil in two with your last breath.