When I was a teenager, I liked the singer-songwriter Peter Sarstedt. He didn’t produce many hits. He is mainly known for “Where do you go to my lovely?”, but there was a previous song, from 1968, called “I am a Cathedral”, which begins …
I looked up from my book.
I thought, “I am a Cathedral,
in my shadows of Stephen.
I am a Cathedral in my mind.”
I have no idea what it means, but I loved the song. It had a lovely mystical feel about it which appealed to me, talking about stained glass windows and solitude and insight.
In today’s Gospel reading, John shows Jesus saying – more or less – “I am the Temple”. And it seems to make as much sense as singing “I am a Cathedral”! So what’s going on?
The story is about Jesus driving out the sellers of animals for sacrifice and the money-changers from the Temple precincts. In Jesus’ day, the core of Jewish worship was the sacrifice of animals. There were regular morning and evening services, and people would come during the day to make their own offerings of one kind or another. Sacrifices could only take place in the Temple, because that was the place where God resided. And you could only offer the very best to God, so the animals had to be perfect. Now, if you had come up to Jerusalem from the further-flung areas of the Jewish nation, you would have problems bringing a lamb in good condition if it had to walk with you over hundreds of miles, so you would buy your animal of sacrifice when you got to Jerusalem. And it had to be certified as good enough for God, so you would buy it at the Temple, where you could be guaranteed an acceptable animal for sacrifice. And you couldn’t buy the lamb with Roman coins, you had to use the pure currency of the Hebrews, which meant having to change your normal day-to-day money for the special stuff. It meant there were plenty of opportunities to defraud the pious punter.
And Jesus found that offensive. The problem for him was the way that ordinary people were being diddled by the system, by the people in power. And he is so angry that he causes a riot, whipping the money-changers and the sellers of animals out of the Temple. There is nothing meek and mild about this Jesus – this is Jesus angry. He is not cosy or comfortable.
All this is taking place – the way John tells the story – at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, it takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life. So it seems that John has rearranged the events of Jesus’ life, and he has done so for a reason, because he wants to make a point. John is using this incident as a statement about the rest of Jesus’ ministry, that Jesus is a challenge to the powers-that-be and that he stands up for those who are oppressed. This is who Jesus is and what he stands for.
Amazingly, Jesus doesn’t get arrested there and then for public affray. But they do ask him why is he doing this and what authority does he have to cause all this bother. Jesus’ answer is mysterious: “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”. And those who hear him are perplexed because the temple was still being renovated, a process started by Herod in 20 BCE, which was still going on 46 years later. You couldn’t build a Temple like this in a hurry, and certainly not in three days.
After Jesus died and rose again, the disciples looked back at this incident and reinterpreted it and realised that Jesus was talking about his own body, that Jesus is the Temple, the place where God resides.
When you unpack it, today’s Gospel reading has shown us a lot about who Jesus is:
- He gets angry when ordinary people are being oppressed by the system
- He is quite prepared to challenge the powers-that-be and is not afraid of the consequences
- He is the place, the person, where God is to be found
But where does that leave us?
Paul writes in the 1st letter to the Corinthians, a few chapters further on from our New Testament reading today, that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God…” so Paul has taken the image of the temple further forward and says that Christians are the places where the Holy Spirit, God’s Holy Spirit, resides. What we see in Jesus, we need to find in ourselves. It is part of who we are. So we move from thinking about who Jesus is to thinking about who we are in Jesus.
Picking up on the images of Jesus we have been looking at today and asking how they apply to us ….
- Do we get angry because people are being oppressed by the system?
- Are we prepared to challenge the powers-that-be?
In two months’ time, the General Election will happen. The Archbishops’ wrote a letter encouraging all of us to engage with the issues and vote. They didn’t tell us how to vote. But voting is the main way we can challenge the people in charge and stand up for the kind of world we want under Jesus.
Peter Sarstedt sang about his reflection on being a Cathedral in his mind. We can claim with confidence that we are temples of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus was the Temple where God dwells. And that makes a difference about who we are, and the choices that we make and the things we stand up for. We are not just cathedrals in our minds, we need to be temples in our whole selves, in the way we live and the causes we choose to support.