A Living Sanctuary
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Jesus spoke to them about the Temple, which meant his message had to do with God herself. The Jerusalem temple was “the house,” or “the place”: the place where Israel’s God promised to put her name, her presence, her glory, the place the One God promised to defend. The place where heaven and earth met, where they were linked, and where they enjoyed a glorious though highly dangerous commerce. Only the High Priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies where the fullness of the presence of God dwelt and then only once a year. It took generations to build, yet Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days, I will raise it up” (John 2:19).
What Jesus did with an improvised whip of cords made a mess, disrupted business before Passover the busiest time of the year, and must have cost a lot of money. But what Jesus said upended the religious, political, economic, and cultural foundations of their whole life. Jesus was speaking of the temple of his body (John 2:21).
It must have sounded crazy. Yet the incarnation is fundamental to our faith. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? (1 Corinthians 6:19) “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
God incarnate within and among us is the new foundation upon which to securely build our lives among the shifting sands of the world. I can expect Christ to be revealed in my neighbor, in the stranger, in my enemy, and especially among the poor. I can expect God is here whenever two or three are gathered in his name. I can expect to find the fullness of the presence of God within me. We are a temple not made with hands, a living sanctuary of hope and grace.
In my part of the world, Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, we have a word for this—ubuntu. “It is the essence of being human. We say a person is a person through other persons. I can’t be human in isolation. I need you to be all you can be so that I can become me and all that I can be.” This is what makes forgiveness and reconciliation such an essential life skill, without it our lives become needlessly diminished by conflict and the perpetual cycle of violence.
As people of incarnation we are called to look, to see, to break bread, share wine, and wash feet to enter into the temple of God. How can we learn to see our mortal embodied lives, our frailties, and failings a sacred threshold opening into of the divine life?
In her book, An Altar in the World, Episcopal pastor and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes that once we see that God is prepared to meet us within the sacred space in our body where we live it is not possible to lean into God’s love without simultaneously recognizing that God loves “all bodies everywhere.” The “bodies of the hungry children and indentured women along with the bodies of sleek athletes and cigar-smoking tycoons.” “One of the truer things about bodies,” Taylor concludes, “is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.” In other words, once I value my own body as God’s temple, as a site of God’s pleasure, delight, and grace, how can I stand by while other bodies suffer exploitation, poverty, discrimination, or abuse
Apparently, Jesus could not. He interrupted worship for the sake of justice. He moved from compassion to righteous anger to decisive action, because he would not stand for the violation of sanctuary. He would not tolerate blocked access to his Father’s house. He would not stomach any version of unfairness and cruelty towards the most vulnerable and beleaguered people in his society. (Debie Thomas, The Temple of his Body, Journey with Jesus, 2/25/18)
The incarnation of the holy spirit fills us with hope for a better world. St. Augustine wrote that “Hope has two beautiful daughters: Anger, so that what must not be cannot be; and Courage, so that what can be will be.” In the temple, Jesus teaches us the proper use of our anger. Anger shows what you really care about. Anger can bring about change. Anger re-negotiates boundaries. Cold anger, emptied of the will to extract vengeance, is powerful and creative rather than merely destructive.
As Disciples of Christ, we must not be afraid to listen and respond to our anger. The cleansing of the temple is a stark warning against any and every false sense of security. Misplaced allegiances, religious presumption, pathetic excuses, smug self-satisfaction, spiritual complacency, nationalist zeal, political idolatry, and economic greed in the name of God. These are only some of the tables that Jesus would overturn in his own day and in ours. (Dan Clendenin, Subtle as a Sledge Hammer: Jesus “Cleanses” the Temple, March 19, 2006)
Good is the flesh that the Word has become. Do we believe this? Do we believe it enough to honor bodies — all bodies — as precious temples of God? We dare not say “yes” glibly because as John Dominic Crossan reminds us, the cost involved is steep: “Those who live by compassion are often canonized. Those who live by justice are often crucified.” No, it’s not either-or. It’s both-and; we are called to both compassion and justice. But as the 10th-century Byzantine monk and poet Symeon the New Theologian expressed it so eloquently a thousand years ago, it is our love for Christ’s body that will compel us to both:
For if we genuinely love Him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body
where all our body, all over,
every most hidden part of it,
is realized in joy as Him,
and He makes us, utterly, real,
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in Him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
he awakens as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.
This is what the Christian Good News is truly about. In a great act of cosmic renewal, heaven and earth are joined together today in the body of Christ. We are a living sanctuary of hope and grace.