Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Third Sunday of Lent (7th March 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

A man walks into a dining room, sweeps all the food off the table, and sits on the table himself. What is he saying? There are several possibilities. He could be complaining about the food. He could be saying that he needed psychiatric help. Alternatively, he could be saying, “I am the meal.” While Jesus' contemporaries might have thought that Jesus was insane when he cleared the temple, he was actually acting out a simple visual parable. The animals were on sale to be used as sacrifices. By clearing them out and standing in their place Jesus is saying, “I am the true sacrifice that replaces this old sacrificial system.” Jesus’ statement about the temple follows the same pattern. He explains that the temple’s function, as the focus of God’s relationship with his people, will be replaced and surpassed by, and in, himself.

To emphasises this sign John the Evangelist has moved the story from Holy Week, where it is placed by the other Gospel writers and where we may suppose it took place historically, to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In the other accounts Jesus’ cleansing of the temple is presented as the main cause of his arrest, but John is more interested as using the story to illustrate how Jesus in his person replaces a Jewish institution. The story is set in all four accounts during the Passover festival, when lambs were killed in memory of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. Now Jesus appears as the new Passover sacrifice, the Lamb of God (as John the Baptist describes him) who will be sacrificed for the sins of the world.

<span style="font-size: 1rem;">This is the point of the story, not the question of whether or not there should be traders in the temple. Of course such people were needed. The sacrificial system in place demanded animal sacrifices, and the animals for such sacrifices had to be supplied and sold. Similarly money-changers were an essential part of the system. They changed Roman and Greek coins, with the image of the Emperor or of gods (you will recall Jesus’ use of a Roman coin with the image of the Emperor upon it) into the coinage of Tyre, which was used in Temple transactions. This may seem surprising, as Tyrian coins bore the head of the god Melkart, but Tyrian coinage was one of the most stable at the time, and those running the Temple were presumably good businessmen. Melkart was a pagan god, but the inhabitants of Tyre had not tried to force their religion on the Jews, unlike the Greek rulers of Syria or indeed, on occasion, the Romans.

The suppliers of animals and money-changers were performing a legitimate and necessary role as part of the Temple sacrificial system. It was presumably from a stall such as Jesus now overturns that Joseph and Mary bought the two doves or pigeons for sacrifice when they brought the baby Jesus to the Temple on the occasion that we celebrate as the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. Yet Jesus is now acting out his message that he is the replacement for Temple worship, and so the tables are overturned and the sheep are scattered.

John wrote his account after the destruction on the Temple. The Romans had sacked Jerusalem and completely destroyed the Temple and it was not about to be rebuilt. Judaism had to reinvent itself and became a religion of synagogue worship with teaching scholars or rabbis instead of a sacrificial priesthood. For most of Judaism all that remains of the priesthood is the occasional request for priests, that is for men surnamed Cohen, to come up to read texts from the Bible. 

The Falasha or Ethiopian Jews preserved the priesthood and when they were evacuated to Israel in recent times they brought their priests with them. I remember being invited in Jerusalem to attend the first Jewish priestly blessing since the destruction of the Temple, which would be performed by these Jewish priests from Ethiopia. I declined because I had accepted a previous invitation to have tea with the local Church of Scotland minister. It was a very enjoyable tea, but I thought afterwards that I had perhaps missed an historical moment. To gain some impression of what the old Jewish sacrificial system was like one has to visit, as I have done, the Samaritan community for their celebration of Passover, complete with the mass slaughter of sheep. 

So one could say that two religious traditions, Judaism and Christianity, have grown up built on the traditions of the Temple in Jerusalem (or indeed three if one thinks also of Islam). I mention this because sometimes Christians forget that Judaism too has been flourishing for nearly 2000 years without a physical temple. For us as Christians the most important thing is to see how Jesus has replaced and surpassed the Temple as the focus for God’s relationship with his people. The hidden meaning of Jesus’ words about raising up the temple in three days could only be understood, as the Evangelist makes clear, after his Resurrection, when his disciples realised that Jesus was referring to the temple of his body. 

<span style="font-size: 1rem;">In other words we are to see the parable acted out by Jesus in the Temple as a reminder that our salvation is to be found in the Temple of His Risen Body, the Christian community which forms the new temple in which God now dwells. Just as all Jews recognised the Temple as the place which represented their covenant with God and their identity as a people, so in the Person of Jesus we have both the embodiment of God’s relationship with us and the cement that which binds us together with our fellow Christians as neighbouring bricks in the Body of Christ.