"God of Moses,
you guide us with your law,
you welcome our worship on the mountain and in the temple;
we worship you.
Draw us deeper into you
that we will reflect your love and faithfulness
and serve your kingdom with holiness.
Through Jesus Christ Our Redeemer,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
It is always helpful for our walk with God to be reminded of the Ten Commandments. These commandments help clarify our obligations to God and to fellow human beings. With a slight interpretative nip and tuck (e.g. change 'donkey' in verse 17 for 'luxury car'), the commandments are timeless. In a world of growing financial inequality, for example, it is worth asking whether disobedience of the tenth commandment is one reason for disparity.
We read the commandments today, noting the gospel reading, with the first four commandments especially in focus. These commandments challenge us to worship God, only God and to admit devotion and veneration to nothing that is not God. The implied zeal of the person living according to these commandments is the zeal of Jesus which takes him to the Jerusalem temple and leads him to drive out that which did not conform to these commandments.
One of my favourite psalms!
But why is it a favourite? A trivial reason is that in the 1970s we used to sing the words to a catchy tune! A more substantial reason is that this psalm inspires praise and worship of two great gifts of God: creation and Scripture.
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Paul is crystal clear in this passage that the cross - the manner of Jesus' execution and the place of Jesus' death - matters. The humiliation and shame of Jesus' manner of death - a naked man publicly executed, an apparently religious man killed as a common criminal - potentially diminish the Christian message. Opponents could laugh at Christian preachers, dismissing them and their message with guffaws about how "this Jesus bloke" died. It was a "stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" (v. 23).
But for Paul this obvious weakness in the message of the gospel was a strength. The fact that Jesus died so ignominiously meant that his abject death was Jesus in fact becoming sin for our sakes so that we may be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18-21; see also Romans 3:21-26). Here, in this passage, Paul presumes an understanding of what "the cross" (i.e. Jesus dying on the cross) achieves, so he talks of the cross being "the power of God" for those "who are being saved" (v. 18) as well as being the "wisdom of God" (vss. 22-25; also vss. 27-31).
We assume that for his Corinthians readership, at this point in time, he needed to tackle Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian readers in the Corinthian congregation who were raising some kinds of questions about the Christian message. Perhaps questions being sharply posed by Jews and Gentiles close to these readers. "The gospel wasn't that wise, was it?" - we sense some were saying. Others, we sense, from what Paul says (e.g. v. 22), were saying, "So where are the signs of God's powerful work." To them Paul says, precisely in the foolishness of the one claimed to be Saviour was wisdom and precisely in the powerlessness of the one claimed to be Saviour was power, and it all took place in the crucifixion. "... but we proclaim Christ crucified" (v. 23).
At the heart of this reading, in the context of Lent, is the form of prediction Jesus makes about his death and resurrection, a form which can be placed alongside the form we read in last week's gospel according to Mark.
'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 you will 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.' (John 2:19-22)
'Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.' (Mark 8:31)
In other words, in two different contexts, with two different kinds of audience, Jesus is remembered as having spoken about the event of his death and resurrection differently, but a common memory is the prediction that the time between dying and rising again would be three days. (It is another story how we count those three days across the three days, mid-Friday, Saturday, dawn on Sunday!)
So, as with last Sunday, we note that Jesus has a steadfast determination to reach his destiny which he knows will be execution in Jerusalem.
Something else is common to the two gospel readings. Each gospel writer faces the challenge not simply of telling the history of Jesus (this happened, then that happened, then he was crucified, then ...) but also explaining the history. With respect to Jesus' death, the gospel writers need to explain how a supremely good, indeed perfectly innocent man ends up being executed with criminals. A running thread through Lenten readings is the unfolding set of circumstances that led to a good man doing good being treated as a bad man doing bad things. Here we set aside how Mark explains why Jesus died and focus on how today's reading from John's Gospel contributes to John's overall explanation.
In this reading, John takes an episode which the three other gospellers are united in placing in the last days of Jesus' life, and places it at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry.
We may struggle with John's apparently cavalier attitude to chronology so it may be helpful to think of John as a mix of poet and artist. Like them, John takes familiar matters of life and places them in new contexts to make us think more deeply about their significance. Here (I would argue) John takes a decisive event in the last week of Jesus' life (which in the other gospels explains how opposition to Jesus hardened to the point of resolve to kill him) and places it early in his version of Jesus' life in order to open our eyes to the opposition which Jesus provoked from the beginning of his ministry.
First, John tells us - verses 13-17 - that Jesus comes as one whose zeal for the Father exposes unfaithfulness to the Father on the part of those who should know (their Scripture) better.
Secondly, John tells us that Jesus is much more than a reforming Jew, intent on purifying the temple. Jesus comes to replace the temple (19-21).
Since the replacement will be his own body, John opens up for all his readers the prospect that through the remainder of the gospel we will find out more about the new way of relating to God, through the body of Jesus and not through the temple in Jerusalem. (For which chapters such as 3, 4, 6, 10, 15 are very important about the spiritual relationship believers have with the risen Lord Jesus present through the Comforter sent by God the Father and God the Son).
How might this reading apply to our lives?
First, all such episodes in the gospels challenge us about whether what we call church (building, activities and events in the building) has itself fallen prey to the errors Jesus attacked re temple worship and associated activities. Some churches (in my experience), keen to raise needed funds, allow their premises to be hired out for purposes which some would question in respect of whether they compromise the church building as a 'house of prayer'.
Secondly, the contrast Jesus makes between the physical temple of Jerusalem and his 'body' as the new temple of God could make us think about what we do about being church. Most churches (as gatherings of believers) meet in churches (buildings purpose built to gather in), so generally there is nothing wrong with church buildings. But (or BUT) many of us experience attachments to church buildings which become unhealthy for the ongoing life of the gatherings of believers, constricting the growth and development of the 'body' of Christ.
Thirdly, and thinking specifically of Lent, Jesus models for us a life devoted to God. The zealousness of his actions flow from a heart centred on God. A season of 'self-examination and penitence' such as Lent is an appropriate time to ask ourselves whether we are devoted to God.
A question which we might profitably ask ourselves (picking out a word from verse 17 NRSV) is, 'What consumes us?'