Living in the presence of God

8 March 2015
Third Sunday in Lent
Lent 3B (RCL)
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

The “temple act” of Jesus seems to me one of the most historically probably events in the New Testament record. Such an act would have certainly called the attention of the Roman authorities to whoever performed it. It seems likely to have led to a swift punishment. The synoptic Gospels connect it with Jesus’ death. John, oddly, moves it to the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Since John’s readers would have likely been familiar with at least one other Gospel, John wants us to notice this difference. John also connects it with the sign of changing water into wine (the authorities ask Jesus what sign he can give for the authority to perform the act, and John has just told us that the water-to-wine was the beginning of Jesus’ signs).

John foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection by telling us the disciples remembered and interpreted Jesus’ words about the temple of his body after his resurrection. By using this narrative strategy, John encourages us to interpret Jesus’ resurrection in light of this event. John, like the other Gospels, was written after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The destruction of the Temple raised the question of Jewish identity in a particularly stark way. The Temple and its institutions had served as the locus of the identity of the nation, even for those who reacted against its co-option by Rome. 70 CE raised the question where the nation encountered its God. The Temple and its sacrifices served as a point of contact between God and the people. The entry of the high priest into the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement guaranteed the connection of God to the people. John hints here that Jesus’ body will replace this point of contact. It is interesting to note that the word for Temple in the first instance is hieros, which implies the whole Temple complex (When Jesus entered the Temple, he found merchants). In the second instance, the word used is naos, which suggests the building itself and the inner room in which the deity dwells (Destroy this naos, and in three days I will raise it again. The disciples understood he was speaking of the naos of his body). We should read John’s resurrection accounts with this in mind.

When Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb and enters, she sees Jesus’ grave clothes neatly folded (in contrast to Lazarus’), with an angel seated at the head and feet of where Jesus lay. This is reminiscent of the cherubim over the mercy seat in the inner sanctum. When Jesus appears to his disciples gathered in the locked room, he breathes on them and says, “The sins of whoever you forgive are forgiven them; the sins of whoever you retain are retained.” This recalls the role of the high priest on the day of atonement. As for the sacrifices of the Temple, for John, Jesus replaces the Passover Lamb, and the Christian community eats his flesh and drinks his blood (an act reserved to God in the Old Testament). So, the community at eucharist is participating in the divine life.

Before Jesus’ passion, Simon and Andrew approach him and tell him that certain Greeks are seeking him. Jesus then speaks about the arrival of his hour. Those Greeks never reappear in John’s Gospel, leaving us to wonder what became of them. Of course, we are reading the Gospel in Greek, so clearly they have been included in the community. I believe that is the point of Jesus instructions to his disciples about forgiving or retaining sins. We can bring in or refuse to bring in whomever we choose. To do so, we will have to “fall into the ground and die.” Paul says that Jews want signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but Paul is preaching Christ crucified, foolishness to Greeks and a scandal to Jews. We have to give up our primary mode of identity in order to gather at the table in eucharist. This is not the point of contact between God and humanity. It is our way of participating in the divine life.

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