Gospel of John

The Temple Most Real

John 2:13-22 (NRSV)

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.

He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

The Passover of the Jews was near … “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

The story of the cleansing of the temple is so important that we hear versions of it in all four gospels. In John, this cleansing happens early in Jesus’ ministry, just after he has performed his first miracle, changing water into wine. In the synoptic gospels, the cleansing comes late, and is seen as one important trigger bringing about Jesus’ execution.

The scene in John is a crowded one. People came from all over Israel for the Jewish Passover, and just like today, where there was a crowd, there was money to be made. For Jesus, the problem was that business had spilled into the outer precincts of the temple itself, which of course served as the home of God among his people.

Two basic commercial acts were going on. First, animals needed for sacrifice were for sale. Most travelers did not bring animals with them for the journey. Second, Roman and other foreign coins had to be exchanged for Jewish coins if they were to be used in the temple, along the lines of how we might exchange dollars for euros or yen when traveling today.

We can assume that with high demand came high prices and inflated exchange rates, although that may have been a mere side issue for Jesus in this version of the story. The very presence of commercialism in this holy place was what ultimately disturbed him.

Jesus’ response was certainly aggressive. People sometimes cite this passage as evidence of God acting in anger, but as I read it, it seems Jesus took his time to devise a calculated plan. We’re told he made a whip of cords to aid driving the larger animals—fashioning such a device would have taken a few minutes, at least.

There’s also no evidence humans were endangered in this dramatic cleansing, although I do imagine the moneychangers bruising their knees as they scrambled to recover their coins bouncing and rolling across the pavement. It’s an ironic posture for people who were being irreverent before God just a few minutes earlier.

This story of cleansing raises an interesting question for us. Do we ever go too far in letting worldly desires, passions, and objects enter into our sacred spaces? What about worldly ideas? What is among us as we worship that might keep us from properly revering God?

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Jesus was a good Jew, and the temple represented the primary way God had related to the “chosen people,” the Israelites, for thousands of years. Because of sin, even the people of Israel had difficulty with the idea of being in God’s direct presence, preferring instead to have him symbolically housed in some way, with God’s permission and according to God’s instruction, of course. (This is another example of God meeting us where we are.)

Early in their history, while escaping slavery in Egypt, the Israelites had seen and heard from God more directly, experiencing him in the form of fire and smoke, earthquakes, terrifying trumpet sounds and a thunderous voice. God had spoken his commandments out loud to them, but the people then asked for an intermediary, telling Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

Later in Exodus, this need for separation led to an elaborate tabernacle, a portable holy place where God could be among his people and yet separated from them enough for their comfort. Centuries after taking and occupying the Holy Land, the Israelites established a temple in Jerusalem as a more resilient expression of God’s house, replacing the portable tabernacle. (The first link details King David’s desire for a temple and God’s response. You also might want to take time to read the account in 2 Chronicles 3 of the construction begun by David’s son, King Solomon.)

By Jesus’ day, the Israelites were on their second temple, the first one having been destroyed in an invasion. Like the tabernacle before it, the temple became holier and holier as one moved deeper into it, until one finally reached the Holy of Holies, considered the abode of God, a place where only the high priest could enter once a year.

The “zeal” quote is a reference to Psalm 69:9, a prophetic statement about the Jewish messiah. Obviously, Jesus cared deeply for this great expression of God’s holiness in the midst of the humans he was trying to save from sin.

The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” … After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

As much as Jesus cared for the temple as a Jew, he also knew his very presence marked a change in how humanity would relate to God. Where the tabernacle and temples had symbolically represented God’s presence, Jesus, God in flesh, literally existed to be God’s direct contact with his unholy creation.

Of course, for the relationship to be maintained, a path to holiness for all people had to be created. The Gospel of John indicates that even early in his ministry, Jesus knew where he was headed.

The Jewish leaders, in ways they could never imagine, did tear down the temple, with help from Pontius Pilate and the Roman guards’ whips, nails and cross. And crucified Jesus, working with the authority of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, did rebuild the temple most real in three days, through the act we now call the resurrection, making the temple of his body indestructible.

This is the great work of history, the path to eternal life and holiness for all of us no matter how sinful we are. We hear this story of tearing down and rebuilding, we understand how much God loves us, and we believe, making salvation our own.

Eternity is ours, and from the temple now in heaven, God’s Spirit flows forth on his redeemed, sustaining us until we see God’s glory in full.

The featured image is Luca Giordano’s “Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple,” circa 1675.


Worshiping with Abandon

John 12:1-8

It’s not difficult to discern that Mary—the sister-of-Lazarus Mary—did something strange and even shocking when she used a small fortune in perfume on Jesus’ feet.

If you see Christianity as a straitlaced, rules-oriented faith, and you would rather hold on to that view, you might want to avoid a story like this one altogether. The characters in this story had been swelling with emotion for days, and Mary finally exploded in an act of love that defied logic and propriety. The only speaker of earthly logic in this story was Judas, who was a few days from falling under Satan’s complete control, ultimately participating in Jesus’ death.

Siblings and Friends

Bible readers will remember Mary and her siblings Martha and Lazarus. There is a story in the tenth chapter of Luke where Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as Martha worked in the kitchen. When Martha complained, Jesus said Mary had “the better part.”

John tells us all three were Jesus’ friends. It’s likely their home in Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem, was where Jesus stayed when he drew near to the heart of Judaism. They also may have been wealthy, and because the sisters are described as living with their brother, they either were young and unmarried or widowed.

The described volume of nard, probably spikenard from India, was worth about a year’s wages to a common laborer. It is unclear why Mary had it. In a world without secure bank accounts, it might have been a compact way for her to maintain some financial security. She may have intended it for her wedding night—the Song of Solomon demonstrates that nard’s warm, musky, intense smell was associated with sex. And, as is clear from the story, it could be used to prepare a loved one for burial.

For whatever reason Mary owned it, the nard represented her concern for the future.

Statements of Faith

I mentioned before that these characters, particularly Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, were likely overwhelmed with emotion. Just a few days earlier, Jesus had performed his most astounding miracle, the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

As you may recall, Jesus deliberately dallied in going to his friends despite knowing Lazarus was sick, telling his disciples this event was occurring so “the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead and in the tomb four days. In the exchange that occurred between the sisters and Jesus, one thing becomes clear. They believed in Jesus fully. Martha went so far as to call Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Jesus, moved by Mary and Martha’s pain, then proved he has power over life and death by calling Lazarus out of the tomb.

We need to keep all that context in mind to understand Mary’s seemingly wasteful activity. She was riding an emotional epiphany—she and Martha had a better understanding than anyone in the room what it means to be friends with someone who has power over life and death. Their beloved brother had been restored. They had experienced the pain and stench of death, and Jesus had replaced all of that with hope and joy.

An Act of Worship

When Mary poured out that overpowering nard and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, Mary worshiped. There really is no other word adequate to describe her actions. And in her actions, we are reminded why we worship.

Yes, she was thankful, enormously thankful. Yes, she was filled with a sense of love for Jesus. She may have even hoped to love him as his wife—the act of letting down her hair to wipe his feet was undeniably sensual.

There’s more going on here, however. I think this woman who had sat at Jesus’ feet to hear his teaching knew in some way that salvation for everyone—life from death—was in the works. And knowing this, Mary dropped to her knees before our savior and worshiped, abandoning any concerns or cares she had for this world. She poured out her future on Jesus’ feet, knowing the work he would do as Messiah would provide any future that really mattered.

As we draw near to Holy Week, to Good Friday and Easter, can we learn to abandon ourselves so? Can we learn to trust so completely?

Those who do so will find true worship, and the scent of eternity will be on them and all who gather around.

A version of this article first ran here March 19, 2013.

The Long Arm of the Lord

John 6:24-35

Today is a communion Sunday. In just a little while, we will share some bread and some grape juice, and in doing so we are supposed to be drawn into the mystery of God’s work in the world.

Every time we perform this ritual, we all need to ask the same question. Do we get it? Are we penetrating the mystery deeply enough so that it changes our lives? I’m not saying we can grasp what is going on completely—I call this moment a “mystery” for a reason—but if we gather here and go through the motions of this act we call a sacrament, we want it to make some sort of a difference, right?

We don’t want to be like the crowd in our gospel reading today. We don’t want to be pursuing Jesus but completely missing the magnitude of his work.

A little background: Just before our reading in the Gospel of John, Jesus fed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish. Sensing the crowd was about to seize him and declare him king, he withdrew to the nearby mountains. That evening, he walked on stormy water to catch up with his disciples who were crossing the Sea of Galilee by boat, arriving in Capernaum with them.

By the time we reach today’s story, the crowd had actually decided to pursue Jesus in a flotilla of boats, showing up in Capernaum themselves. Why? Well, they were thinking Jesus seemed a whole lot like Moses. Their stories told them Moses provided free food and liberated people from political oppression. Jesus certainly had provided a lot of free food recently. Even if he never got around to the liberation part, all the bread and fish you could eat seemed like a pretty good deal.

But when they again asked for a sign—what they meant was, give us more food—Jesus tried to adjust their perspective. In essence, he told them, your ancestors missed the big picture, and you are missing it now. It was God who sent the manna from heaven; it was God who provided the Israelites quail in the desert and water from a rock. And while those signs, like Jesus’ signs, were to demonstrate power, they were not an end unto themselves. God was doing something much bigger. God’s reach is far greater than we usually want to admit, touching every point in time and space.

In the case of the Israelites in the desert, God was trying to teach a group of people to follow and obey. They were a ragged bunch of recently freed slaves wandering the desert, doubting and arguing the whole way. And yet God could see how through them he could heal a fractured universe.

Jesus was trying to get the crowds to understand the bigger picture, too. Specifically, he wanted them to see that he was the Christ, the apex of the plan that was unfolding in the desert thousands of years before when manna fell from the sky. When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and later, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” he was saying, here is the great opportunity from God, the life-sustaining gift. Simply believe to receive.

The bread metaphor followed Jesus all the way to the cross. On the night in which he gave himself up to death, he took bread and broke it, using that simple act to show what would happen to his body because of our sins. The wine stood in for his blood.

And when the real body was broken and the precious blood was shed less than 24 hours later, everything changed. Sin was vanquished; the devil lost his hold on us as the holy, perfect God-man died like the worst of sinners. A night followed by another night followed by a glorious morning proved the victory over death in the resurrection.

Do you get it? Do you see how God has been at work from the dim moments of prehistory through Christ up to now to make it possible for all of us, each and every one of us, to be in union with him?

I know it’s hard to understand in full. I work with these ideas every day, and I cannot grasp them in full. To say you can understand God’s work in full is to claim you have the mind of God, that you can see the very fabric of the universe disrupted by sin and then put back together by a holy carpenter nearly 2,000 years ago—a carpenter still at work through the Holy Spirit in us today.

But we can get it in the sense that we can be in awe of what God has done and is doing. We can see past our immediate concerns and wants and live as people who know there is something more.

Members of this congregation (and readers of this blog) may have heard me tell this story before in other settings, but it bears repeating. About ten years ago, I learned the power of communion by taking it to an elderly couple who roomed together at a nursing home, sleeping on floor mats near each other. In an odd twist, both had developed dementia within about a year of each other, and by this visit, they could barely speak.

Having lost everything—possessions, positions, even knowledge of who they were—they responded to communion with the awe I have mentioned. The wife took communion first, leaning on one elbow, and said the only words she could find that day: “Hallelujah.” Her husband said nothing at all, but he too propped himself up and received the bread and juice eagerly. His wife watched from her mat and said the words for him: “Hallelujah. Hallelujah.”

When you come to take communion today, approach the table like people who have nothing. Upon taking communion, know you have everything. The God of the universe lives among us and has died for our sins. When we believe, we have eternity.

A Beach Moment

There are stories in the Bible so powerful that I find it daunting to elaborate on them in any way. To do so is like standing in a gallery before a beautiful painting and breaking the holy silence by saying, “Note how the lines merge at this point.”

In this Easter season, I want to share with you such a text. It is, by the way, my favorite story in the Bible, the place I go for comfort. For me, it captures everything being revealed about God from Genesis to Revelation.

And yes, I feel like I’m already over-explaining it.

As a reader, do me a favor. I know we often read blogs as part of our hurried lives, our eyes racing over the words while our e-mail and texts beep for attention. Don’t do that today.

Please, either slow down or come back when you have more time, and carefully read John 21:1-19 the way you would read a really good novel. There are characters in pain in this story; remember, the disciples know Jesus is alive, but they also know they ran and hid when Jesus needed them most. And most of all, there is the resurrected Jesus, bringing healing.


Now that you’ve read it, let me share with you a few of the thoughts this text has given me over the years.

  • Even when faced with miraculous evidence of God’s presence, the best of us, when confronted with our sinful weaknesses, may want to turn back to what we used to be.
  • Because of the resurrection, we are a people of abundance. We simply have to see and accept that abundance.
  • The resurrected Jesus is exalted and glorified, and yet he meets us where we are, with love, grace and forgiveness, even if the sin is abandonment and betrayal. (I wonder, had Judas lived, how would Jesus have offered him forgiveness?)
  • And of course, as we are restored by Jesus, there is a mission—perhaps a difficult one—but a mission that gives us purpose beyond our former lives.

Because of Jesus, we know we worship a God of love, a God who asks only that we return to him by accepting the free gift of forgiveness and salvation. It’s also nice if we respond to the gift as best we can.

God forgive me if I just got in the way of a good story.

The Cure for Doubt

John 20:19-31

Nonbelievers aren’t the only ones with doubts. People who call themselves Christian sometimes have doubts about Jesus, the resurrection, and how it all applies to them.

It’s not surprising we can struggle in such ways. The Easter story lives on the edge of fantasy—a man most undeniably dead leaves his rock-sealed, heavily guarded tomb and appears to hundreds in an indestructible state. Even more remarkable, we are to understand this event as a mere beginning, a foreshadowing of a radical change in creation that eventually will result in our own transforming, death-defeating resurrections.

Our doubts arise for a simple reason. Despite the promises of the Easter story, the world keeps smacking us around. We lose people close to us. Worry about the immediate future overwhelms us. Sometimes we simply experience intellectual doubt, our rational minds telling us to stick to what we can see as the basis for reality.

In today’s resurrection story in the Gospel of John, we find the disciple Thomas very doubtful. Thomas had seen the man he called teacher, Lord and master crushed by the power of the world, and he quickly fell into a rigid cynicism. Even when his fellow disciples excitedly told him they had seen the risen Christ, he was not impressed.

Let me see the hands, he said. Let me stick my fingers in that horrible wound in his side. I wonder if we’re supposed to read his words with a tone of bitter sarcasm. “Look, they riddled him with holes, including a spear-sized one running through his lungs and heart,” I hear him saying in the deepest, darkest corner of his soul. “You really think he is walking around?”

Thomas had to wait a week, but Jesus accommodated his request, appearing for his wavering disciple’s sake. Touch the wounds, Jesus said. Believe.

We see Thomas’ doubt cured. I believe that in this story we also can find a cure for our own doubts.

Even if we don’t see Christ physically present, our doubts can be relieved by an inner experience of God. That idea certainly fits with today’s story. Even the disciples needed to experience something more than the physical Christ to grasp the truth of Christ’s resurrection. This is why we have this account of Christ breathing on them, providing an early Pentecost, an experience of the Holy Spirit to sustain them.

The risen Christ breathes on us, too. We simply have to put aside doubt long enough to open ourselves to a similar encounter with the Holy Spirit, that aspect of God resident in Christ.

I am perplexed by how resistant people are to the simple acts that trigger the experience, even people who have long called themselves Christians. When I spend time with Christians struggling with doubt, I find they have a basic problem: They’ve forgotten how to spend time with the one who gave them their first taste of eternal life.

We encounter God most directly by spending time in prayer, learning the stories of the Bible, and worshiping so the Holy Spirit can work in us and through us as a group.

I know. I sometimes sound like a broken record with all this talk about praying, reading our Bibles and going to church. It is the Methodist in me. We suffer needlessly when we fail to methodically use the means God has given us to draw near him. When we do draw near, we allow God’s Spirit to whisper to our spirits.

Those who spend significant time in such activities can testify that the ensuing experience is as good as seeing Jesus in the room. Christ breathes on us, and doubt flees.

Who Are You?

"John the Baptist," icon in Kiev Museum, public domain.

“John the Baptist,” icon in Kiev Museum, public domain.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

The Jewish leaders sent messengers to ask John the Baptist a straightforward question: “Who are you?”

Having drawn crowds of Jews with his preaching and his call to repentance, he answered their real, unasked question, Are you the Messiah?, by simply assuring them he was not the savior prophecy had predicted. The messengers pressed John the Baptist, however, finally leading him to quote Scripture as his answer.

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the Prophet Isaiah said.”

We largely remember John as looking like a wild man, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Set aside to serve God from the moment he was conceived, he usually is depicted in art with uncut hair and beard, roaming the desert wasteland most of his life until he drew near civilization to declare the beginning of Jesus Christ’s ministry.

To understand John the Baptist, we have to read his story in all four gospels. In Luke, we learn John the Baptist was a miracle child in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled even before he was born. He leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, capable of recognizing the presence of the Messiah.

We also understand from Luke that Jesus and John the Baptist were related through their mothers, cousins separated in age by only six months. We can only speculate whether they spent much time together. Luke also tells us John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, meaning he may have lived part or all his life as a hermit prophet, possibly among a sect of Jews known as the Essenes.

When John the Baptist began his adult ministry as recorded in all four gospels, he preached a fiery call that the people should repent of their sins in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. Ultimately, Jesus came to John to be baptized in the Jordan river, that great symbol of God’s promises and new beginnings.

It is here we really see John’s humility, rooted in his clear understanding of his role in the universe. John initially resisted Jesus’ request, saying Jesus should baptize him. At Jesus’ prodding, John finally relented and performed the act. Jesus’ servant ministry was launched in humble solidarity with people craving righteousness and holiness in their lives.

As John’s story proceeds alongside Jesus’ story, the ministry of the messenger fades as the ministry of the Messiah burns more brightly. There is no earthly glory for John, no story of victory in this life. Ultimately, he died an ignominious death, his severed head presented to a dancing girl and her wicked mother.

How different John the Baptist’s story seems from ours. And yet, Christians, how similar our calling is to his.

If we are ultimately to emulate Jesus, striving to have the attitude of John the Baptist is a good start. I don’t mean we have to wear itchy clothing and roam the desert eating bugs, or die a martyr. It helps us all greatly, however, if we can keep God’s great plan before us and find our role in it.

John the Baptist existed for one reason, to declare the coming of the messiah. Again, in this Advent season we’re being reminded that we, too, anticipate Christ’s return. The church and its members exist largely to “make straight the way of the Lord,” to call people to repentance so they are ready to meet their savior.

How we do this requires John-like humility and a little artfulness. Humility helps keep us holy; to quote Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Any good work we do can quickly dissolve when mixed with sin. Just think Bill Cosby if you don’t understand what I mean.

Artfulness in relationships and communication comes with prayer and practice. It also helps to trust that God’s Spirit can shape us and others in ways we thought we never could be shaped.

Who are you? Regardless of how you may appear to others, or whether you meet worldly definitions of success, you are a child of God, saved by Christ from eternal death because of God’s love for you. So are all the people you meet. Let them know.

Peace Be with You

John 20:19-29

If you’ve been a regular the past few weeks, you’re aware we’ve been focusing this Easter season on some of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. I’ve not been concerned about keeping them in any kind of order; we’ve seen the risen Jesus at the tomb, on a beach, traveling a road, and in all his glory in heaven.

This is the last Sunday of Easter, and I want us to go back to the Gospel of John, looking at one more of those early resurrection appearances. We should hear a message similar to what we’ve heard in previous weeks, but it’s time to also talk seriously about whether we’re going to respond to what we’ve heard.

In the 20th chapter of John, beginning at the 19th verse, Jesus appears to a terrified band of disciples. Mary Magdalene has told them Christ has risen from the dead, but the news has given them little comfort.

Certainly, these disciples were afraid of the Jews and Romans who had crucified Jesus. It’s also likely that they, having failed Jesus in his time of need, feared what the risen Christ might say or do.

The door to the room where they huddle is locked, but a lock is no barrier for a body that has defeated death and is now indestructible, infused with the unrestrained power of the divine. Jesus appears and tells them repeatedly, “Peace be with you.”

All of Jesus’ key disciples are present except Thomas, who refuses to believe in the appearance until “I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side.”

A week later Jesus appears to Thomas with the same message: “Peace be with you.” He even invites Thomas to touch the scars. And of course, Thomas believes.

“Peace be with you.” There is so much of importance in this story, from the nature of the resurrection to the need for the Holy Spirit to the importance of faith. But that simple assurance from Christ, “Peace be with you,” is the church’s rallying cry.

Somewhere in our community, there are children who fear each day because they face abuse, hunger or neglect. The true church, acting as Christ’s body on earth today, finds them, rescues them, feeds them and loves them, bringing the peace of Christ to their lives.

Somewhere in our community, there are people suffering a crisis of identity, people who feel they have no value because they lack a job, a family or a relationship. The true church finds them, tells them they are first and foremost children of God, and again, the peace of Christ is present.

Somewhere in our community, there are sinners, hard-core sinners, sinners who believe their evil is so great that nothing can be done to redeem them. They feel they can only fear or smirk at the church.

The true church tells them the work of redemption already is complete; as Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery in John 8, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” And like the cowering disciples, these sinners find that in a faithful relationship with Christ, there is no condemnation, only peace.

Somewhere in our community there are the mentally ill, the substance abusers, the unwed mothers, the prisoners, the sick, the dying. To all of them, the true church finds ways to rely on the Holy Spirit and creatively say, “Peace be with you.”

Do you know what happened to Thomas after he saw and believed? Early church writings indicate he traveled as far as India telling people about the risen Christ. That would mean he traveled farther than any other apostle.

When your doubts are replaced by the peace Christ brings, incredible things happen. We are not to “rest in peace” while in this life. Peace is a gift to be shared with others.