Where we meet God

11 March 2012
Third Sunday in Lent
Lent 3B (RCL)
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

The stained glass windows at Church of the Advent have an image of the Ten Commandments. There are the two tables of stone. On the first, we find the Roman numerals I – V; on the second, we find the numerals VI – X. This looks like it makes sense, but in reality, both tablets would have had identical copies of the full treaty (that’s what the Ten Commandments are, a treaty between God and God’s people). One tablet would have been placed in the Ark of the Covenant, which lived in the inner sanctum, and the other tablet would have been erected where everyone who came to the Temple could see. Each party to the treaty would have had a full copy. That way, both parties could have reference to the terms of the treaty.

Reading the Ten Commandments in their full form (not truncated the way we do in the Penitential Order), one is struck by how much they say about God (I am the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt; on six days, I created all that is, and rested on the seventh, etc.), and how little is actually required. The Ten Words served as a reminder to the people of which God, exactly, they belonged to and worshiped.

In John’s Gospel, the Temple Act is displaced from the end of the Gospel (where it occurs in the three synoptics) to the very beginning (just after Jesus’ first sign of changing water to wine). In the other three Gospels, it is the act which gets Jesus killed. For John, the cleansing of the Temple serves a different purpose.

John’s community initially was probably a reform group within the synagogue (see Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple), and therefore began with a Jewish identity. As long as the Temple in Jerusalem stood, no one needed particularly to raise the question, “What makes us Jews?” One’s relationship to the Temple and its cult sufficed to define Jewishness. Even Jews in diaspora sent annual offerings to the Temple to support the cult. Once the Temple had been destroyed by Rome, Jewish identity became an open question. For John’s community, Jesus replaced the Temple as the locus of identity. During the Temple Act, Jesus says, “Tear down this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.” His resurrected body replaces the Temple. Even the resurrection appearance in John’s Gospel points to this replacement. When Mary enters the tomb, she sees two angels, seated one at the head and foot of the empty space where Jesus’ body had lain — the two cherubim of the inner sanctum. The empty tomb replaces the inner sanctum.

So, in Temple Judaism, when questions of our relationship with God or withing the community arose, one had recourse to the Ten Words. After the destruction of the Temple, the Johannine Community had recourse to the person, the body, of Jesus, that is, to their own community and the expression it received in the community’s Gospel. The risen Jesus lived in the community and performed the works of the Father there. The community received the spirit and the vocation to release or hold sin — all things that had been true of the Temple and its priesthood. The rest of John’s Gospel unfolds in the shadow of this profound truth.

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