Sunday, March 8, 2015

a cord of whips

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today's Gospel deals with the cleansing of the Temple, where our Lord drives the dealers in money and animals from the temple courts. It is a passage that, to be frank, that some people are a little uncomfortable with. It is not that our Lord is showing emotion; they are happy enough to know that he wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus; or that he clearly liked to have a bit of a laugh and a joke, as displayed when he called Simon 'Peter' or Rock – Rocky if you will – and James and John 'The sons of thunder'; or even that he knew fear and anguish, as displayed in the Garden of Gethsemane during his agony in the Garden as he waited for his enemies to come and arrest him and for his torture and slow, cruel death to begin.

No, what they are uncomfortable with is that he is angry, an emotion we generally like to consider as negative; and that he then moves on from anger and uses physical force to drive those who have made God's house into a den of robbers out of that sacred space.

So, first let us make it clear that anger is not always to be seen as a negative thing. There is such a thing as righteous anger. This is the emotion that we get when we seen wrongs being done, various kinds of injustices; and it serves a good purpose when it spurs us on to speak out or act against the evils in the world around us. So for example if we were in a restaurant and we were to witness a member of staff refusing to serve a black man or a Muslim woman with the words 'we don't deal with your kind here,' then the natural anger that burned in our hearts would be righteous anger, and we would be more than justified in standing up and speaking out to support the person being discriminated against, calling for the manager, suggesting to all others present that they walk out should the manager affirm the biased behaviour, and indeed going further and taking the issue to the authorities or local media.

What our Lord witnessed that day in the temple falls into the same category. There he was, standing in what was then the holiest place in the known world – all the holier, I might add, because at that very moment God himself, the one to whom all this worship was being offered, stood amongst them in the form of Christ, the second person of the blessed Trinity, had they but known it – and finds it little better than a cattle market, with the sacred precincts filled with the cries of the animals and the men who drove them on, people haggling prices over the poor creatures while standing on the ground covered in their filth, the stench of it drowning out the incense from the temple, while all the while the money changers fumbled at their greasy tills nearby, raking in their profits from the piety of others.

The sight of it made Christ angry; which is to say it made God angry, that it was an offence before his eyes. It was more than righteous anger, it was holy anger, divine anger; and so our Lord made a cord of whips. But do not mistake what he did for some kind of random violence; this was more in the line of a prophetic gesture. The temple courts were huge, the throngs of people immense; one man could not drive them all out. And if he had caused serious injury to any, soldiers would have been called or the temple police and Christ would have been thrown out at best or into prison at the worst.

But instead of calling for the authorities, or indeed rising up against him in a mob and taking matters into their own hands, they ask him for a sign, to justify to them what it is that he is doing, to make sense of it for them. They may not understand what he is doing, but they recognise righteous anger when they see it and doubtless recognise the truth of his words and know they should not be using a holy place for worldly dealings; and they recognise a prophetic gesture when they see it, and know that the one making it is a holy man, calling them to change their ways.

So what message might we take this Lent from our Lord's righteous anger and prophetic intervention at seeing God's Holy Temple profaned? We do not, after all, allow any of the churches in this parish to be used as a cattle mart; and indeed, I think in general people know quite well how to behave themselves when in the House of God, and also how to gently correct others when they occasionally slip in that regard.

But we might consider how public Jesus is being about what he is doing. Clearly the idea that faith is a 'private thing,' something to be kept to yourself, seldom mentioned, and not allowed to intrude into 'real life' things such as buying and selling, is not for him; not for him the idea that people of faith need to keep quiet about their beliefs and not mention them in public and certainly not use them as way of trying to shape public debate. Think what his last words to his disciples were: go out and make disciples of all nations. Is that something that can be done by keeping faith private?

There was nothing private about what Jesus did that day. And so perhaps the message for us today is not to be afraid to be a little bit more public about our faith, a little bit prouder of the fact that we are Christians, a little bit slower to back down when people try to accuse us of trying to force our faith on them – indeed, secularists often do so to make it all the easier to force their views on us … and if we fail to challenge them, then their secularist philosophy, which not only is far from being a 'neutral' option, but is also often openly hostile to both faith and the religious rights of others, will prevail. Christ wasn't afraid or ashamed to publicly proclaim God's word; and neither should we. Amen

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