Angry Jesus, Imperialism & Institutional Church
Episode 6 – March 4, 2018
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Ainsley McNeaney – “Intro Royale” & “Sleep Through the Night”
Melanie Frade – “I Wont’ Speak”
*”I Won’t Speak” has not been officially released yet, but you can watch this video of Melanie performing her song “Sparrow”.
Reading No. 1
John 2:13-33 Jesus Clears out the Temple
Read by Stephen Milton in Toronto, Ontario.
“Reading” No. 2
“On the Money Changers” from Jesus by Kahlil Gibran
Love for the World
Part of each episode of the Living Presence Podcast will feature a section where we lift up people and places who can use our alliance, our attention and some hope. (If you are from a United Church, this would be similar to “Prayers of the People” or “Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession”).
The idea and our hope are that listeners from all over can send in the people and places they would like to bring to our attention, and I would love it if YOU would consider sending something in to be aired. You can either a) record something with the voice recorder app on your phone and email it to firstname.lastname@example.org OR b) call 289-903-0019 and leave a voicemail OR c) Leave a written comment and I will read it on the air.
THIS WEEK WE LIFT UP:
- The victims, their families and friends, of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida
- People who are grieving loss
- Those affected by sexual violence, sexism, etc.
- Those who are survivors of suicide
- The people of East Gwillimbury
- The Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nations
- The athletes from North Korea
- The families and communities of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine
- Those who are fighting for their communities to access fresh drinking water
- The Community of East Weymouth Congregational Church in Massachusetts who is fighting Enbridge right now
That was Stephen Milton reading about an angry Jesus driving out the animals in the temple…animals that would have been used in sacrifice…read from just outside of Queens Park (the provincial legislature in Ontario) and…..BAH! Just…big big sighs from me this week…
Once again, our schedule of readings, the Revised Common Lectionary, has us jumping around. Last week we were in Mark with Jesus rebuking Peter. This week we’re in John…which was written about 30 years after Mark, and who has a very different version of this story. And I’ve been finding myself annoyed, because these two Gospel stories have very different audiences and different goals for their biographies of Jesus.
For some context…
If you’ve been listening over the past five episodes, you’ve hear me explain a couple of times that each of the four Gospel Narratives is written for a unique audience, a specific time and a corresponding agenda. For the past few weeks in the Christian Scriptures, we’ve been hanging out with Mark. Mark was the first Gospel written to make it into the Christian Canon. Mark wrote his gospel around 40 years after Jesus death…probably just after the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and definitely in a time of war, rebellion and upheaval.
John, which Stephen read from today, was the last Gospel to be written. It was written somewhere in the ballpark of 70 years after Jesus’s death. The Temple had been gone for about three decades at this point. Christians are beginning to be subjected to localized persecutions by the Roman Empire. I could sit here and geek out over the first two hundred years of Christian History with you, but for the sake of time…and perhaps your boredom, I’ll just post some links in our show notes.
So back to our story. Jesus clearing out the temple – this appears in all four gospels. But if we had stayed in Mark…if I had thought to simply bypass the lectionary and stay in the same voice – we would have heard a different version than what we have here. For one, in Mark, as well as Matthew) and Luke (collectively known as the Synoptic Gospels), this story appears days before Jesus’ execution, and is, essentially, the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the Jewish religious leadership – they realize Jesus is dangerous and start thinking of ways to have him killed. Jesus’ anger at the marketplace seems to be more rooted in the economic exploitation of those coming to the temple for Passover. This is pretty much how it goes down…
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’
But you have made it a den of robbers.”
This is one of the more famous scenes from Jesus Christ Superstar…but it is not how the author of John describes the event.
Here, we still have an irate Jesus, but he’s clearing out the Temple at least a year prior to his death. It is right at the beginning of his ministry. It is not the catalyst for this death. In fact, Jesus enters into a dialogue. The priests come out and they ask Jesus, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” In other words, “By what authority are you disrupting how things run around here.”
“Tear down this structure, and I will rebuild it in three days.”
Can you imagine how that must have sounded?
“Dude, we’ve been working on this place for 46 years. And you’re going to build it again in 3 days??” C’mon…be serious. Anyway, you’re a carpenter, not a Mason…”
But they didn’t get it. Jesus wasn’t talking about the temple, he was talking about himself. He was talking about his body. God resides within the humanity of Jesus. John’s Jesus is less angered by economic injustice, but rather that the temple, and the religious leaders placed there through class, status and nepotism, are no longer needed, because the connection to God is available in the life offered through Jesus and not through a dogmatic connection to a building.
I want to be careful here…because there should be a distinction made between how things actually were, and how they are presented by the Gospel authors. We always need to keep in mind that the author of John has an agenda – he has a point he is trying to make through this symbolic story. I have no idea what the religious leadership was actually up to. All we have to work with in this story is what we’re given and then try to work through what we can take from it.
Remember, the author of John is writing 70 years after Jesus and 30 years after the destruction of the Temple. Early Jewish Christians likely would have been thrown out of their community synagogues as well. There would have been longing and nostalgia for the days for the Temple. That is where people could be close to God. I imagine a scene…a first century Palestinian pub…old guys drinking pints of caskale and reminiscing…”Remember the Temple? Oh those were the days…”
And if the author of John was listening in, he’d be saying, “GUYS! Don’t you get it?! You don’t need the Temple. It’s not about the Temple! You don’t need the temple to be close to God. There is another way.”
In my capacity with the Living Presence Ministry, I generally find myself working with four different and imperfectly categorized groups:
(And speaking of context, it’s important to acknowledge that I come from a Christian, mostly Mainline Protestant, specifically United Church of Canada context and, probably, bias…)
The first group are people who are “churched”…or rather, people who belong or are connected to a Christian faith community, or who generally identify themselves as Christians. And by the way…I didn’t come up with the use of church as a verb – I’ve inherited this language… But, those who are “churched” have a history within a Christian community and have generally found it to be an affirming experience.
The second group, are people who have a faith affiliation other than Christian. East Gwillimbury is rapidly changing town, and the new housing development I live in with my family has the great fortune to be made up of people from many different faith and cultural backgrounds. Hindu. Muslim. Sikh…the list runs too long to name all of them. My current neighbourhood is more diverse now than when I lived in downtown Toronto. I am happy to talk about Jesus with whoever wants to listen, but I have no intention or desire to convert or convince. I some ways, I function in the community as a chaplain -I am here to make sure everybody…no matter who they are or where they come from – is okay.
Then the third group…people who are “Unchurched”, meaning they have never belonged to a faith community before, don’t really have any background with the bible, or likely any other religious text. It’s possible that the only experience this group has had with the Church has been what they hear in the news (which, let’s be honest here, usually isn’t very flattering), or the occasional wedding and funeral.
And the fourth group…the “De-Churched”. People who have experience with the church and belonging to a Christian faith community, but for whom that experience was either harmful, or for whom the church has simply lost relevance.
Now, as I said earlier, these categories are not perfect, and there is often intersection among them.
From people in the last three groups, and particularly from the final two, I hear many criticisms of the Christian Church…and I’d say many of them are pretty valid. The problem is, though, that the umbrella of “Christian” is pretty large. The Pope is a Christian. Martin Luther King was a Christian. Men who wear hoods and burn crosses are Christians. Helen Prejean is a Christian. So is Desmond Tutu. And Donald Trump. And a lot of people who support him at rallys, which are then covered by the media. Westboro Baptist Church is filled with Christians. It’s a problem with the word Christian being used a noun and not as an adjective.
There are some people who have been abused and mistreated by the institutional Church. In Canada, probably the two groups who have been most harmed are LGBT communities, and Indigenous Peoples. Many Christian denominations still consider same sex relationships to be sinful and the idea that one could “pray away the gay” is still alive and well in some communities. Even within the United Church of Canada, which affirms dignity in diversity of all sexual orientations as well as gender expressions and identities,, there are still congregations who are emphatic that marriage is only between one man and one woman. This thinking has understandably turned many people off from exploring life within a Christian Community. It’s pretty hard – impossible, really – to feel like you truly belong somewhere that doesn’t accept such an integral part of somebody’s identity and human experience. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard, “I’m fine with this Jesus guy. He seems pretty cool. It’s all the other crap I can’t stand.”
And our First Nation’s Peoples: Various church denominations, the United Church included – were involved in running Residential Schools on behalf of the Canadian Government. The horror and tragedy of these programs cannot be overstated. The Church continues to have much to answer for. It is a reminder that Christianity has never existed outside the context of Imperialism…it’s just what side of the colonial coin we have found ourselves on at any given time.
In our relatively comfortable, post-modern world, it is easy for us to forget, or at least feel removed, from how and where the Jesus movement originated. It was a movement rooted in oppression and both the submission — and lack of submission — to imperial powers. Christians do an incredible disservice to our sacred texts if we do not read them through the lens of a people who were at best oppressed and at worst enslaved. We also do an incredible disservice to these texts if we do not acknowledge that where we came from – a faith born in times of persecution, is not where we are now. This is not to say that there aren’t people who identify as Christian who are discriminated against. But in our North American context, Christianity as a religion has traditionally been the faith of the majority, and certainly the identified faith of those exercising power.
As the Christian movement eventually became allies to the establishment rather than its foil, we began to find ourselves with status and resources. And we started to build buildings. Our earliest churches were merely converted homes, but over hundreds of years developed into the stone structures whose architecture we instantly recognize as being “Church”. Steeples and bells, stone steps and archways.
For many congregations, their buildings have become a symbol of their identity as a community of faith. They hold memories of beautiful times shared with friends, family and community. They are reminders of our shared history, where we came from and how we have found ourselves at this point in our journey.
They are also a status symbol, a marker…WE ARE HERE, and like this building, we are not going anywhere. Understandably, there are people who balk at this hubris.
But as we enter a post-biblical age, where it is no longer a given that members of the community will attend church, or even have an awareness of Judeo-Christian Scripture and story, we are finding the influence of our institutional church diminishing. Our relevance in the world is constantly being questioned, and rightly so. We are no longer the cornerstones of our communities. It is a difficult truth for many of us to admit to ourselves, but the church as we know it, as an institution and with our buildings, was created out of deeply entrenched colonial systems. And as a denomination that strives to journey on a path of reconciliation, it is necessary for us to examine which of our resources are a blessing, and which are holding us back from reaching our full potential to live Jesus’ example in the world.
Of course, it’s not a clear comparison between congregational church buildings and the importance the Temple in Jerusalem would have had for the Jewish people. The tragedy of the Temple’s destruction it is still observed every year at Tisha B’av, along with many other tragedies in Jewish history, and is regarded as saddest day in the Jewish calendar.
The Gospel of John has been the Gospel most often used to support anti-semitic and anti-Jewish ideas, although modern scholarship has offered evidence that what the author of John was trying to communicate and how we’ve been interpreting it doesn’t sync up. Christians also have an unfortunate history of imagining Judaism as remaining stagnant as the church evolved and moved forward. This, of course, is completely ludicrous.
There is completely legitimate criticism about the resources put into buildings and the institutional structure of the church, exactly what Jesus is raging about in this story. Does that mean I think we should get rid of institutional church and level all of our buildings? No. Not at all. There are not many places where people from many generations gather in one place, to live out their connection in a shared story…where people are accountable to and invested in one another. Indeed, in many towns and cities across the country, churches continue to be the first place offering resources for low income and marginalized individuals. But I understand the skepticism many have of Churches – that we have become the Temple Jesus is speaking out against.
I will say this though – I think the author of John could have been a little kinder – a little more pastoral – to his audience. Perhaps the temple was not needed to be close to God, but community often is…and that was also part of what the temple and the synagogues represented. A sense of identity. And that is also what Church can be when it’s done right – when it exists in diversity and inclusion rather than a means to decide who’s in and who’s out. When it exists in a way that allows us to stand up for something, rather than only propping up exploitive systems and dishonest leaders.
I understand the frustration. I understand the anger. In her song “Sleep Through the Night” which we will hear in a moment, Ainsley McNeaney asks:
Easy come and easy pray
Where those wings decide to lay down
Tell me, amazing grace
Who’re you gonna cut today?
It has been like that. In some places it still is like that. But it doesn’t have to be. When Church is done well…when Church is done with love…it is not.