I'll Wait for the Movie

Faith is not a spectator sport. Our New Testament lesson from the gospel of John is a familiar one, Jesus cleansing the Temple. It seems to be used most often as evidence of the fact that Jesus was not a pushover, or of proof that there is such a thing as righteous, even Christian, anger when rightly understood.

One interesting fact about this story is the place it has in the different gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all put the incident late in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, it is what Jesus does on Palm Sunday after riding into Jerusalem. He heads directly for the Temple, where he fashions together this whip of cords, completely disrupts the marketplace, even flipping over a table or two in the midst of it all. In the eyes of those three gospel writers, this story begins to explain why it is that Jesus quickly becomes public enemy number one in Jerusalem: he has upset the status quo and has taken on the powers that be.

John’s gospel, the one we read this morning, puts this episode at the beginning of Jesus ministry. In fact, it is the second thing that Jesus does, after turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. There are those that try to explain this by saying that Jesus must’ve attacked the Temple marketplace twice: once at the beginning of his ministry and once at the end. I’m not convinced of that personally, but rather chalk up the different placement to being the product of different authors.

But what is it that John could have had in mind by placing this so prominently at the beginning of his gospel? It comes, most definitely, as an early precursor to Jesus’ ongoing debates and conflicts with the religious authorities of his day, a theme to which John returns again and again. And yes, it probably also has to do with the righteous indignation that could motivate Jesus at times.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if this has more to do with the notion that faith is much more than a mental exercise…

The lesson from John is paired this morning with the Ten Commandments, the heart of God’s covenant with God’s people. Moses has led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, bringing them to the foot of Mt. Sinai. And while Moses is receiving this summary of the law, written on stone tablets, the people are down at the base of the mountain, already disrespecting the God who delivered them, building a golden calf and worshiping it instead. When Moses finally comes down and discovers the scene, he shatters the tablets in anger.

I imagine his trip back up Mt. Sinai to meet with God and get his replacement tablets. It’s almost like going to customer service and insisting that your phone screen had a crack in it when you bought it, and not when you sat on it…hypothetically speaking, of course.

The point being that the essence of this relationship between God and God’s people was an embodied essence. We think of the Ten Commandments as a series of “thou shalt nots”, when, in reality, it is a rooted morality – one that begins in relationship with God, and extends from that central point out to our relationships with others. We treat one another with dignity and respect because God first treats us with dignity and respect. What we say and what we do matter – because speaking without acting is not only hypocrisy; it is, simply, not faith. Faith, in order to be faith, must be active.

It reminds me of children playing on the playground. One dumps sand over the other’s head, causing a flood of tears. And when the grown-ups intervene, the one who did the dumping says, almost indignantly, “I said I was sorry!” To be sorry with our words and to be ruthless with our actions says more about our maturity than we might like to admit.

Think about the role that Jesus’ actions play in his ministry. He begins, in John’s gospel, not as a teacher, but as a miracle worker. At his mother’s urging, he intervenes at a wedding banquet, allowing the celebration to continue in full stride. As soon as this happens, he arrives in Jerusalem, not to teach and preach, but to show some muscle, overturning tables and driving the vendors out of the Temple. It is only then that the stage is set for his late night meeting with Nicodemus, the skeptical Pharisee, or his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus is shown first as a man of action; and then as a man of wisdom.

After all, this is what is at the heart of the Christian faith. We Presbyterians tend to focus so much on “word” that we forget how John’s whole gospel begins, where that divine word becomes flesh. The faith we believe cannot remain one of thoughts alone; it must be transformed into whole lives that can be vessels of the God whom we know in Jesus Christ. After all, Temples and monuments to faith can be razed to the ground; lives of faith, however, will rise again and again from the ashes.

On Friday, Reuters published a story on church foreclosures, a story mirrors that of our housing market. Since 2010, 270 churches have been sold after they defaulted on bank loans. That’s a record high number. Now before we go hitting the panic button here, remember that OPC has no debt. There is no mortgage on the building or on the property. Financially speaking, we owe no one anything. We have funds in the bank, and, as you know, Session is working hard to make sure that our reserves stay just that: reserved.

And yet, is that ultimately the point? Throughout the New Testament, the word “church” is used time and time again. But the one thing it is never used for is to refer to a building. “Church” is a people; a community; a gathered group of disciples, followers of Jesus. The Greek word for “church” emphasizes this: ekklesia, literally those people who have been called out of the world and into the presence of God – not merely into a physical space, but into a whole reality that shapes and moves us for the lives we lead.

A couple of years ago, we were reading a book together as a congregation titled Unbinding Your Faith. One of the exercises in the book was to interview someone who was not active in church, and to ask them a series of questions. The first question was something along the lines of “What comes to mind when I say the word ‘church’?” The answer, more often than not, was “hypocrisy”.

We don’t need to look very far to see why this might be the case: from politicians who seem to use their faith as nothing more than a tool for election, to ministers who engage in absurd and horrific abuses of power, even coronations? Everywhere we look, there is ample evidence of those who call themselves Christian, who say one thing but do another.

Friends, we are the church. And when we leave this building today, we will still be the church, wherever we go. What does that mean to us? What does it mean to be a people who have no other gods, only God? What does it mean in 2012 in Brookhaven to observe the Sabbath, or to abstain from murder, adultery, theft, lying, lust? It is not enough to say we believe; we must live as though this all might actually be true, each and every moment of our lives!

Faith is not a spectator sport. We can’t just wait for the movie. Faith is a way of life that strives to reflect the character of God to a world that is so much in need. That is our calling. That is our story. May that truth come alive each and every day within us!

Let the church says, “Amen.”