Saturday, March 10, 2012

Jesus' Presence in our Cross-Shaped Life

Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22

How many times do you suppose you have heard the comment, “Jesus is the reason for the season”? Lots of church leaders complain about the commercialization of Christmas, which now begins in mid-October, before Halloween, even. It’s hard to find baby Jesus amid all the candy canes and cookies and the shopping and shipping. It’s even harder to discover amid the songs and the decorations the reminder that Jesus was born so he could give his life up for us.
Yet, he was. In our Gospel story today, Jesus goes into the strip mall next door to the temple – or just inside the temple walls – and throws a tantrum. He wants to know where the remembrance of the Passover and Exodus is among all the buying and selling of animals. He wants to find God’s justice in the currency exchange stalls, and it is a real challenge.
Jesus demonstrates his frustration by making a mess of the area. This event is in all four gospels. In the synoptic (meaning seen-together) gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this event is on Monday of Holy Week. It is one of the triggers leading to his arrest. But in John, it is at the beginning of his ministry. Since it is such a radical change, there must be a reason for this way of telling the story.
So far in John, Jesus has been described as being the Word of God made human, has been declared to be the Lamb of God by John the Baptist, has gathered some disciples, and has reluctantly changed water into wine. This is all that has happened so far.
Stories in John always have multiple layers and meanings. So, this story must have some additional meaning, something more than remembering to keep God in the Passover. The clue to the deeper meaning is in Jesus’ comment, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Already in Chapter Two, Jesus is talking about his death and resurrection! Story by story, Jesus will introduce to the people what it means to live a cross-shaped life.
The people who were in the mall with Jesus challenged him by mentioning how long it takes to build anything as large as the temple complex. “Rebuild this temple in three days? Ha! You’ve got to be kidding!” The temple itself had been rebuilt about 500 years before Jesus’ time, after the people returned to the land after the Babylonian exile. In the decades just prior to Jesus’ birth, King Herod the Great had gone on a building spree, constructing many buildings, including repairing the temple and enlarging the area surrounding the temple. This project was still not complete, despite having been going on for over 40 years. (It reminds me of the Norvell Bryant Highway widening project. )
  The deeper meaning of “rebuild the temple in three days” only becomes apparent after the cross, after Jesus dies and is raised from the dead three days later. The disciples remember this story and make the connection that Jesus’ Presence on earth replaces the temple. I’m talking here about Jesus’ or God’s Presence [with a capital P] in the sense of the Holy Spirit, but the word Presence better describes what I’m talking about.  
They understand that God’s Presence is not contained within the walls of the temple. – It never was, but that was how the people often understood it. – [Brief rabbit trail: Despite the leaders’ best efforts to retain the temple system, it ended in 70CE when the temple was destroyed by the Romans. Jewish sacrificial worship rituals ended with the destruction of the temple. Jewish worship became decentralized, and took place only in the local synagogue. In the place of animal sacrifice, prayers became their sacrifice, and the Passover animals were slaughtered locally instead of in Jerusalem.]  
Jesus’ Presence on earth means there is no need for the temple as a place to contain God’s Presence. More than that: in John’s gospel, eternal life is in the present moment, living in cross-shaped relationship with God, right here, right now. Eternal life is filled with a vital connection with God: we are the branches on God’s vine. Without the connection to the vine, we are nothing. Without the connection to the vine, we have no sense of the Divine Presence.
There’s more: Jesus’ Presence resides within us, and we take that Spirit wherever we go. When we are working or studying or playing or shopping or visiting the doctor or web-surfing, Jesus goes with us. When we are visiting friends, Jesus goes with us. When we are gathered for worship and for study, Jesus goes with us. When we go ourselves or send money to assist in recovery efforts after disasters, Jesus goes with us.  
This means that wherever we are we have the possibility of sharing Jesus’ Presence with those around us. Our sharing may not include words. In some places like schools it is actually not possible to share our faith in words. But our faith shines through us in the way we treat others, in the way we model Jesus’ values of love and forgiveness, in the way we try to observe the Sabbath, in the way we live a cross-shaped life.
Worshiping with other believers refreshes our faith in Jesus’ Presence with us. Each week, we see members who are here battling cancer, arthritis or memory loss, members who are balancing work and church participation and the rest of their lives, members who are raising faithful children, etc.
We need to see each other here, to remember that it is not always easy to be faithful; to remember that it is not always easy to be present; to remember that we must work hard sometimes to put God first. I remember when Jeannette told me going to church was the only reason she had for getting out of bed all week. She was determined to be here, and she was, until she no longer could.  
Jesus Presence on earth replaces the need for the Jerusalem temple, and indeed, for any building. Jesus is present with us through the Holy Spirit all the time, no matter what we are doing. That does not mean we do not need a building. Congregations use buildings as places to share Jesus’ Presence, through worship, through education, through service and outreach to the community. We come to this building to experience God’s Presence in many ways.
Here’s your practical challenge for the week. We can describe our relationship with God as cross-shaped, just as Jesus would. We have a vertical relationship with God, a personal, prayerful, sometimes private, and sometimes intense relationship with God. Through this vertical relationship, we know Jesus is present with us. This vertical relationship helps increase our faith and trust in God. In this vertical relationship, we learn how much God loves us and forgives us and wants to have a relationship with us.
We also have a horizontal relationship with God. It is through this horizontal relationship that faith communities are formed and maintained. It is through this horizontal relationship that we pass on God’s love and forgiveness to others and invite others into a relationship with Jesus. It is through this horizontal relationship that those in need receive God’s care. It is also through this horizontal relationship that we grow in faith and trust and relationship with God.
It is possible to have only a vertical relationship with God, or only a horizontal one. But that is not how Jesus lived, and it’s not what he wants for us. When we have a cross-shaped life, we are more fully able to understand the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and the blessing of his Presence in our lives.   
Please pray with me. Jesus, your very life was cross-shaped and focused on bring your Divine presence into our messy world. Continue to call us to follow you and shape our lives to your cross and resurrection. Amen