Third Sunday in Lent; Lent 3B (RCL); Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22.
Christians often think that when Jesus “cleansed” the temple, he was simply getting rid of corrupt practices not associated with the worship of God. In fact, he is directly challenging the temple institution. People traveling to the great festivals would need to buy animals for sacrifice upon arrival, and to contribute to the Temple treasury, they would need to exchange their Roman coinage for Temple coinage. This activities were require for proper worship.
So, what then is Jesus doing? John moves this incident from the end of Jesus’ ministry to its beginning. It is implausible that the Temple authorities would have let someone who did these things at festival-time live many hours afterwards, let alone three more years. And John places this event immediately after the miracle of water to wine (which happened in Galilee). The wedding feast would also have involved sacrifice (the killing of an animal for meat) — the wine would have been part of the sacrificial feast.
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel, Jesus’s discourse replaces sacrificial meat and wine with his own body and blood. Throughout the Gospel, there is an emphasis on Jesus’s presence replacing the Temple as the locus of God’s presence in the world (even Mary’s vision of angels in the tomb recalls the cherubim in the inner sanctum). In the story of the Temple incident, Jesus even says that his body (which will be raised in three days) replaces the Temple (which by the time John wrote his Gospel had been well and thoroughly destroyed).
At the cross, wine appears for a second time in John’s Gospel, with sour wine in a jar standing by the foot of the cross. Jesus, from the cross, creates a new household comprised of his mother and the disciple whom he loved (the reader of the Gospel?), just as the wine at the marriage feast established a new kinship, and sacrifice at the Temple established or renewed the identity of the people of God. John is suggesting that, rather than the Temple and the sacrificial system, it is the community gathered around the words and signs of Jesus that orders the cosmos, and mediates God’s presence within it.
During this time of COVID lock-down, perhaps we have learned that it is not just the bread and wine of our eucharists that mediate God’s presence in the world, but rather the community that gathers around Jesus’s words and signs. The bread and wine signify that gathering and the new kinship thereby established. Perhaps this explains the seeming confusion in John’s sixth chapter, in which at one point Jesus says that whoever does not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood has no life, and then at another point says that the flesh is vain and the Spirit gives life. The bread and wine signify the deeper reality, which can exist in the absence of the sign, if necessary.