"It is a mistake to think that God is chiefly interested in religion."
- William Temple, 20th Century Archbishop of Canterbury
One of the first and truest clichés that any Christ-follower learns is that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.
Sadly, the potency of that statement is diminished by the frequency of its appearance, especially on bumper stickers, bracelets, and t-shirts. (Nothing holy should go on a bumper, by the way. If you’re not ready to live it, you’re certainly not ready to weave it through traffic. If you are already living it, you recognize that brandishing it like a slogan sort of undermines it in the first place.)
We have difficulty living with God. That’s why religion is such a comfort. Religion compartmentalizes God, gives us clear rules for how not to tick Him off. It segments and augments the things we should be doing instinctively, turning our behavior into merits and demerits for glory or gore.
Though it has been pointed out before, our relationship with God can be understood as any other relationship. My relationship with my wife, for example, has “rules” of a sort: don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t mistreat, don’t neglect. But if I did nothing but follow those rules, our marriage would sorely lack romance. We wouldn’t be fostering love, we’d be cohabiting a contract.
Forgive us for wanting something more.
The sports world also provides an adequate parallel. Did you know you can successfully play a full soccer match without breaking any rules simply by standing at midfield and never moving? Technically, you’d be keeping all of the rules; you’d be on-side, you’d never tackle from behind, you’d never touch the ball with your hands. But in reality you wouldn’t be fit for the national team of Liliput.
There must be more to relationship than rules. There must be more to God than religion.
But we often fail to see it, and further fail to experience the thrill of living it. Jesus tried to demonstrate this with his numerous confrontations in the Temple, on the Sabbath, and against the religious powers of his day. He wanted them to know they were completely missing the point. They kept the rules, but they were playing midfield statue soccer. They obeyed everything they were supposed to, but there was no romance in their divine marriage.
For them, everything was legislation, a spiritual bureaucracy, an adventure in missing the forest for the trees.
In this section we will look at four episodes of Jesus’ life that placed him into direct conflict with the religious establishment of his day. These episodes demonstrate clearly that Christ understood the relationship between God and His people to be broken and in need of reconciliation. We need to be reconciled to God for our sins, but we also need a further reconciliation--a deeper and more holistic healing, if you will--of our basic understanding of how this relationship with God is supposed to work.
The first episode I’d like to examine is the famous Temple Tantrum, found here in John 2.13-22:
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market! His disciples remembered that it is written: Zeal for your house will consume me.
The Jews then responded to him, What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?
Jesus answered them, Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days. They replied, It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?
But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
Let’s be clear: what Jesus did here was like attacking the Bank of America. He went right into the heart of the culture and economy of his own people and blasted them for exploiting and living unjustly.
Jesus’ action gave a clear warning, not only to his original audience, but to future audiences as well. He made it clear there is no place for those whose minds are filled with religion-for-hire or who seek to prostitute the gospel for the sake of position, favor, or authority.
Nehemiah, a 5th Century BCE Jewish governor, did much the same thing when confronted with Temple fraud. In his case, he learned that the high priest had been renting out rooms in the temple and skimming from the rations of the temple workers in order to curry favor with foreign dignitaries. In his anger, Nehemiah broke into the temple storerooms and cleaned them out, fired everyone responsible, and tore out the hair of the high priest.
Jesus followed in Nehemiah’s footsteps, modeling that same kind of single-minded devotion to God for us.
Jesus’ clearing of the temple took place in one corner of the large building. Though the story makes it seem like his temple cleansing was the main event, in reality, Jesus probably only interrupted a very small portion of the temple business that day. However, the aftershocks of his activity went far and wide. The area in question was the Court of the Gentiles, measuring roughly the size of ten football fields, contained within the temple complex which was about three times larger – and the likely commotion would have been equivalent to a cheerleader kicking a linesman in the shin at halftime. That’s not to say it wasn’t significant. Many people would have seen and been startled, and news would have spread fast. But it wasn’t on the scale of WWE Smackdown or the Main Event at Caesar’s Palace.
Jesus was specifically confronting the wanton slaughter and selling of animals for huge profits to the priests and their black market thugs. The doves mentioned in the story were the only sacrifices that the poor could afford, while the cattle were the more extravagant offerings available to the upper class. Since the Court of the Gentiles was meant to be the place where anyone could come and offer sacrifices in appropriate ways (and without inappropriate fees or interference), and since many of the people who came to offer those sacrifices traveled a great distance and would have arrived totally burned out and exhausted, it is easy to understand why Jesus was so intolerant of this criminal behavior.
Furthermore, notice that the first thing Jesus did was to scatter the animals and set them free (v. 15). Prior to Jesus’ Temple Tantrum, the road to redemption was paved with the blood of animal sacrifice and priestly intercession, but Jesus changed all of that for good. His compassion for the outcast spilled over into his passion for the animal inhabitants of the world. There is no biblical record that Jesus ever participated in animal sacrifice, nor did he advocate that his followers do so. Clearly, Jesus had in mind that the old system of killing animals would be replaced by a new system predicated on a sacrifice of a very different kind.
The blood of animals was replaced by the blood of Christ himself.
Jesus replaced one kind of sacrifice with another, also replacing the old temple with the new temple of his body (see verse 21). Now, instead of sacrificing animals and offering them to God, Christ has sacrificed and offered himself to God on our behalf, and it is in communion that we recognize the sacrifice of his broken body and shed blood.
"The meal where Jesus becomes bread for our bodies is the divine substitute for animal sacrifice."
- Len Sweet, 21st Century American futurist and theologian
The church is now the community in which the sacrifice of Jesus is embodied. We carry his sacrifice with us wherever we go (see 2 Corinthians 4.10), and in so doing keep a constant reminder that it is not our forms and functionality that make us holy, but our relationship with the God of the Universe who descended into the world to die for the world.
At this point it may be very easy to become smug, to look back at those temple servants and wonder how they could have ever missed the boat to such a degree. But I caution you against doing that, because the same sins that plague them--and that plagued the temple servants in Nehemiah’s time--plague us now.
We still commodify religion. We still prostitute the gospel. We commercialize religion and advance our own agendas over and against the mission of God to heal the world.
There are obvious examples of this to excess: TV preachers, political Protestants, denominational lackeys. But it is the less-obvious examples that deserve a little space and criticism here.
For my own church, I think we’re pretty careful not to co-opt the gospel for political or financial purposes; however, I do think we oft en run the risk of expropriating the gospel for social causes and anti-establishment rants and raves. Ours are the left -wing sins that mirror the sins of the right-wing infatuation with the military industrial and entertainment complex, but are themselves no less sinful.
We join churches because they stand up for what we already believe in: that people matter, that human rights matter, that human dignity matters, that ecology matters…and they do! But then we get impatient with the pace of the gospel mission and seek to short-circuit the plans and purposes of God.
Simply put, God’s mission sometimes takes longer than we would like. Our agendas are not oft en patient enough to wait for God’s mission to bear fruit. As a result, when we don’t see our churches doing enough social justice, or when they seem to be spending too much on frivolities like building maintenance, or wasting too much paper, or not speaking out loudly enough against whatever the current foreign military occupation has designed, we become nasty and mean-spirited. We treat others with contempt, and we ignore the movement of the Spirit in our own lives, thwarting the transformation that God wants to see in us in favor of the transformation that we hoped to see in the world through us. We justify our hate with geopiety. We comfort our intolerance with a shift less grace that allows us to feel safe from God’s judgment so long as we’re judging those who haven’t figured out what we already claim to know.
But we’ve really just traded one set of sins for another, haven’t we? We’ve polarized our unrighteousness and called it holy because it doesn’t look like the unrighteousness of those we feel privileged to have rebelled against.
The Democrat only sees the sins of the Republican, and vice versa.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
This is why Westwinds has adopted a three-fold mission statement. We want to focus not only on the transformation of ourselves as image-bearers of God, not only on the beautiful community of God’s people in which His will reigns supreme, but also on the ultimate reconciliation of the world back into a perfectly ordered and harmonious planet.
That’s why we tell our people we’re here to shadow God, build the church, and heal the world.
Shadowing God reminds us that we must stay in step with God’s plan for us as individuals. We are never fully formed; we are always works-in- progress. That work progresses only by staying in step with the Spirit and being constantly malleable to and edited by God.
Building the church means we recognize Christian spirituality is not an individual sport. Church is plural, and God’s purposes for reconciliation involve us sorting out our relationships with the people around us.
Healing the world connotes the fact that our salvation is neither merely privatized nor communized, but expressed most faithfully in mission. We invite the Spirit to change us and to create a holy community of similarly simultaneously changing people, so that together we can effect change in the world.
Shadowing God protects us from either just being content to remain crappy people but have lots of church-y friends, or just being involved in some kind of social agenda with no real ethic of personal transformation.
Building the church protects us from either just focusing on our own spiritual experience to the exclusion of those around us, or just diving into random projects as a means of escaping human interaction, laughter, learning, or solidarity with those in pain.
Healing the world protects us from either being really great moral examples who are so ‘heavenly minded as to be no earthly good,’ or creating little ecclesial communes who focus only on those with club-member elite status, content to let the pagans, or their forests or their ozone, burn.
There’s a trifecta at work in the ministry of the church, a three-legged stool that simply cannot function well while balancing on only two (or, God-forbid, one) leg. What God really wants from us, His people individually and corporately as the church, is that we come to Him in open relationship, embody the sacrifice of Jesus, and work to reconcile ourselves and others to Him and His mission to heal and to save.
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