I talk about peace a lot, I don’t know if you’ve noticed love and peace probably the most, and grace. These are words and ideas I really like. I just finished a novel, another good one called American Marriage by Tayari Jones- another book to break your heart and break open your spirit, perhaps- but a line stuck out to me. We all want to have peace. The thing is, you have to make peace. It’s work to get to peace, real peace. It’s true for the main character of this novel whose life is ripped away from him due to ingrained injustice, who has to figure out how to come back to himself when all his dreams evaporate after being locked up for 5 years for something he didn’t do. You have to make peace- and you can’t avoid conflict if you are going to get to the true peace God wants for us.
Today the characteristic of white supremacy culture that we are focusing on, to repent of, is fear of open conflict- I really think it should be, avoidance of conflict. And if you know me you probably know that my innate tendency is to avoid conflict. I don’t like it. but you know me a little more you might have heard me talk about some intentional training and growing I have done around the topic, so that I can at least see the good that conflict can bring. I can now say God works through conflict.
Jesus certainly does not shy away from conflict in this gospel passage.
He is angry, he is in motion, he is using the strength of his human body to lift and flip tables, he makes a whip to drive out animals. For those of us accustomed to a meek and mild Jesus this story is a bit shocking. I personally think we have overdone the meek and mild, to our own detriment. Jesus in this passage is fierce, he is consumed by zeal, he is angry and emotional. He is, by the way, destroying property as he carries out his embodied protest to what was going on in the temple courts.
There is so much we could bring up about this story, how he is going to celebrate the Passover, which you may remember is the story of God’s liberation of the people from slavery. Another story of conflict when the Pharaoh did not want to let free labor leave and all kinds of destruction had to come upon those oppressing Egyptians before the slaves were able to escape. But a story of God saving, God bringing people from that inferior designation into the fullness of being the chosen people of God.
That was the festival being remembered, the reason Jesus went into Jerusalem, where the temple was.
And what were they doing in the temple courts, well people were supposed to bring a sacrifice, there were cleansing sacrifices and thanksgiving sacrifices. And it depended on your financial status what kind of animal you were supposed to bring. People who lived in the city wouldn’t necessarily have livestock of their own, so they had some there conveniently to sell. Probably you know, for a premium because they had to be cared for while they waited to be sold. But the coins most people used were the Roman coins, which would have the emperor’s image on them. In the 10 commandments given, during that exodus from slavery, making a graven image was forbidden as idolatry. So the coins people had to use day in and out because they were now under another oppressor, first they were not really supposed to handle at all and certainly not within the temple courts. So there was a second kind of coin that could be exchanged and used within the temple with no graven image. So a regular working person- remember about 90% of people lived in a day-to-day barely making it economic bracket- would gather some meager earnings to make their sacrifice, go and trade them for the other currency, which, if someone was gong to sit there and trade currency all day they had to make some profit, right? So they gained off of that, or the regular person lost, and then they took the currency to purchase an overpriced animal that they were required to sacrifice in order to bear out their religion and be faithful to God.
And who would eat that sacrifice- parts of it anyway- but the temple priests, who on some level were cooperating with the Roman occupiers, in order to keep their religion going.
Do you start to see what Jesus was so mad about?
In order to worship the God of liberation, the people were being forced to cooperate in their own abuse.
In this gospel, this is the first public act of Jesus’ ministry. In other words, in the gospel of John, all of Jesus’ ministry is under the shadow of an open conflict with the religious leaders of his day, because of how he flipped the tables.
But he didn’t start a fight just to start a fight. He was angry at the vicious cycle of injustice his people were being subjected to- angriest at how it was being carried out in the name of worshiping God.
Debie Thomas on journeywithjesus.net puts it this way: ‘Jesus interrupts “business as usual” for the sake of justice and holiness. He interrupts worship as usual for the sake of justice and holiness. His love for God, the temple, and its people compels him to righteous anger.’
We tend to think worship is the most important thing- but at least this time, for Jesus, it was not. How often do we get truly angry at the cycles of injustice in our world? How often do we get truly angry at the systems of racism that hurt all of us? Can we really love God if the sin we see around us never breaks open our heart? Do we prioritize God’s justice or our own wish to hold on to power and avoid conflict?
And then the whole exchange with the temple leaders points to Jesus’ own self as the new way God is present in the world, as he calls his body and life the temple. God is present in Jesus, so God is at work in this very open conflict.
This temple, Jesus is speaking of his body, and later the apostle Paul will admonish the Corinthians that their bodies are temples of the holy Spirit. While our bodies are not to be worshiped as the main place that God is present in the world, as Jesus walking on this earth was, we do bear God within us.
Each one of us.
So does zeal consume us when we see abuses happening to our siblings who are also temples of God’s spirit? When we see they are spit upon or pushed to the ground, tread upon and tear-gassed?
Do we want to defend those temples of God’s spirit, As zealously as we do a sanctuary?
Or do we retreat into being polite and not making a fuss?
Our call as disciples of Jesus Christ is not to pretend that everything is ok and avoid conflict. A lot of people across our nation have gotten really upset about church buildings being shut on Sundays during this time of pandemic. I miss being in our sanctuary, too. But if we read this passage carefully we should notice that the kind of reverence we usually hold for a building is not Jesus’ holy worship. He wants people to rediscover the God of liberation they should be worshiping just before the Passover, and always.
The God of liberation wins in this story, too- what Jesus foretells somewhat cryptically in the moment will come to pass. This conflict will not be resolved right away, not until Jesus is indeed crucified and then resurrects- showing that the God of liberation can free even from the most violent carrying out of a conflict there is. God’s raising of Jesus at the end vindicates Jesus’ anger from this story and everything else he will do in the gospel to reveal that God is not okay with any injustice whether it is new or old.
In the novel I was telling you about, Roy Jr, the main character, he does get angry too, it’s a quite different situation than the gospel but the conflict needs to be addressed, needs to be opened up to the core of it, before any of the characters can go on with their lives. He has to work, they all have to work to make that peace.
In our culture of white supremacy, it is quite often that politeness covers over the muck of sinful situations of injustice, often involving racism. This is a quality we as Christians need to actively repent of. Not getting angry just for the sake of getting angry, no, but not staying complacent to situations God would want to change. Engaging conflict so that the God of liberation can be revealed once again.
God is a God of peace- 100%. But not the kind of peace that avoids conflict. Otherwise God would have just let the Egyptians keep on abusing the Israelites. Otherwise Jesus would have calmly exchanged his coins to purchase his dove. God can work through conflict and when things are not aligned with God’s ways of justice, that is what God wants to do. We may need to practice with some role-playing, we may need some skills in listening carefully to one another. But in this area of avoiding conflict many of us can grow.
God can work through conflict so that we all live more closely aligned to justice, we can let go of systems we might be used to but are not what God wants. Through the conflict can come the peace. May we be brave to speak and act when it is appropriate and not only avoid conflict, following in the footsteps of Jesus our liberator, Amen.