A challenging topic, which some might have found off-putting. It was an interesting message to preach right in front of the communion table, however.
Exodus 20:1-17; John 2:13-22
We heard the Ten Commandments read from Exodus. Now, people make a big deal out of the 10 commandments, and some have tried to post them in public places, to make them some official moral code. Others are content with the commandments as an insightful personal guideline for living a moral life. All these folk are thinking mostly of the last five commandments: honor your parents, don’t murder, cheat on your spouse, steal, slander someone, or scheme about getting your hands on your neighbor’s stuff. Do we really need a divine revelation about these matters? Sure, some people break these commandments; but I can’t imagine they have no inkling that they shouldn’t. Because most cultures, most religions agree about all these commandments. And that’s great. But for that reason, these five commandments don’t seem very revelatory to me. They seem like common sense. And I’m just not inclined to pat myself on the back because I follow five common sense moral principles.
But the first five commandments, which many pass over to get to the common sense second five, are where I think things get really interesting, really revelatory. These commandments show us that some of the most important sinning that we do is nothing so obvious as murder; real sinning happens precisely when we are being religious. And this is revelatory, because don’t we imagine that things like prayer and praising God’s name are good, pious, honorable things to do? Aren’t we inclined to think well of someone who attends church regularly and prays often; but we are suspicious of someone who observes no religion, even if that person otherwise seems like a good person? (In polls, Americans have ranked atheists among the least favorable groups; in one scenario, an atheist was deemed equally as untrustworthy as a rapist.)
God apparently doesn’t agree. God in the Bible is much more concerned about those who misuse religion than about those who have no religion. Idolatry is a bigger problem than atheism. In our prejudiced minds, we might hear the word “idolatry” and imagine some primitive “native” bowing down to a little statue. But Amos, in our call to worship, was talking about Israel’s idolatry. And we have to wonder if his hard words could apply to us, the New Israel. An idol is simply any part of our religion—it doesn’t have to be a little statue; it could be an idea, or value, or practice—that comes from our small minds, not from God’s Spirit. And we all do this. Who here has not inserted something of your own wishes and imagination into your view of God? We all commit idolatry, even if in little ways.
And in the words of Exodus, “we make wrongful use of the name of the Lord.” In Sunday school, right, we learned this as “Do not use the Lord’s name in vain,” and it meant do use God in swear words. (I can still remember my Sunday school teacher demonstrating, very self-consciously and tentatively, a swear word using “God.”) That’s not it. This commandment is about claiming to speak for God when you don’t. The ancient Israelites understood, better than we, that is not wise to throw the word “God” around. They understood that God’s name is holy. And it should be obvious who in this room is most in danger of claiming to speak for God when you don’t: me! I guess that’s why you spend so much of our budget on me, because I bear the occupational hazard of making wrongful use of God’s name; and notice Exodus says, “The Lord will not acquit anyone who makes wrongful use of his name.” My goodness, you people have led me to sell my soul!
In his book God Against Religion, my friend Matt Boulton notes that, at the beginning of the Bible, there is no temple or worship in Eden, and at the end of the Bible, no temple in the New Jerusalem of Revelation. “Religion,” he writes, “far from being the happy solution to the basic human crisis of separation from God, is rather the very occasion for that crisis in the first place.” Religion done wrong is what most separates us from God, and religion is always done at least a little wrong.
So our question this week is this: Must we give up our religion to follow Jesus Christ? We have all this religious stuff that we do. Images we have for God, things we say about God and to God, prayers we fall back on, values that we assume are based on God, rituals we perform. How much of all that religious stuff might be misguided? How much of that might be idolatry? (Because there doesn’t seem to be much neutral ground when it comes to God.) This religious stuff might be the stuff God most requires us to change.
Jesus himself demonstrates out this cleansing of religion in today’s reading from John. He’s not a Christian criticizing “those Jews,” he’s purging his own established religion, the only true religion of his day, of its corruption. He pointedly commands: “Stop making my Father’s house into a marketplace!” We can only imagine what Jesus would do if he came in here. Would he overturn our tables, and pour out our collection baskets? Maybe he’s exclaim: “Hey, nice windows. Smart investment there.” Who knows? He wouldn’t drive out our sacrificial animals because no one has those anymore. But do you know that religious scholars commonly refer to America as sporting a “marketplace of religion”—that’s the idea that churches have to compete like businesses to attract “consumers” of religion. You’ve heard the expression “church shopping,” right? And of course the customer is always right; if you don’t like what you hear, you can pull out and go elsewhere. It’s not all bad, I suppose; this marketplace of religion keeps churches on their toes. But in our own way we’ve absolutely made our Father’s house into a marketplace.
At the end of the passage, Jesus cryptically refers to the temple of his own body as a replacement for the temple in Jerusalem. This idea is absolutely critical for how Christians think of worship, but it’s so deep we can barely begin to understand it. We don’t have a temple. We don’t believe God resides in this building, as such. The closest we come to that is what we will do momentarily: communion. Jesus promised his continual presence with us in this meal; this [gesture] is our ultimate assurance that we have access to God through the stuff of worship, even the material stuff of bread and drink. And that could invite idolatry. But the presence of Jesus and of God in this meal is shrouded in mystery; to claim, as many do, that the bread becomes Jesus’ actual body and the juice his blood, I think is way too literal, a little ghoulish, and maybe even idolatrous. Christ is present in this meal but we can hardly say how. Consider this: Before we partake, we’ll say together: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That’s basically like saying Christ is present to us as a past story that culminated in his death; and Christ is present now in God’s eternal beyond, risen; and also Christ is not yet fully here, but will come again. This ancient saying points to just how complex and mysterious is Christ’s presence in our worship. Christ is no idol; he remains quite beyond us.
Through most of the year, we rightly emphasize Christ’s risen presence to us, and our presence to him before the Father. Communion can even be our momentary elevation into God’s heavenly banquet. But today, in Lent, we are right to recall that this meal that we share with God is also a reception of God’s judgment upon us—the bread that had to be broken for us, the cup that had to be poured out. In Corinthians, right after Paul recites the words of institution, which we will hear later, he adds this: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. …But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”
Lent is the right time to judge ourselves, to discipline ourselves, and when we do so truly, it is Christ who judges us. We have to recognize our worship of God as both this gracious access we have to God, which even makes us partakers in God’s own eternal life; but we each have to judge how we use religion, and seek to purify our religion, because religion is also the most serious source of our sinfulness. Maybe our religion is too much about me, and not enough about God. Maybe we picture God as too stern; or maybe we do not rightly honor God’s holiness. We certainly shouldn’t fall back on the old refrain: we’ve always done it this way, so it must be right. And this judging of ourselves is part of God’s good gift of true worship, which is only made possible because of our Lord. Only in Christ Jesus, our Mediator, can we conceive of being fully one with God in righteousness, even while we are condemned and judged in our sinfulness. Most decisively on the cross, Jesus has brought together God’s mercy and judgment, and because of that we worship him as our true spiritual food and drink.