During the medieval period, Christian scholars spent a lot of time thinking about pins. More specifically, they spent time thinking about how many angels could sit on the head of a pin. This may seem like a silly debate, but what these thinkers were really interested in was space. Specifically how much space spiritual beings like angels or God took up.
Space is an important thing to us humans, even though we may not talk about it a lot. Unlike the infinite number of angelic bodies medieval scholars decided could sit on the head of a pin; we have bodies which take up a specific amount of space. You only have to try and get onto a crowded bus or elevator to realize how much space your body takes up. But space is important to us for other reasons. First, space is important because we can change it. A few weeks ago in adult education class we talked about those things in our houses that make our homes unique: pictures, pieces of architecture, furniture. We talked about how all these important objects that we present in our home say something about who we are. We also talked about how we do this same thing in the church. Take a look around this room. The baptismal font and the altar are front and center suggesting how important the practices of baptism and Communion are to us. The place of the lectern and pulpit, where the Bible is read and spoken about, illustrate the importance of the Scripture to us. Whether we think about it or not we take up space and we do our best to try and personalize the space that we take up both at home and here at church
The Jews had a religious space too. They called it the temple and it is where our gospel story for today takes place. Just like our church says a lot about us the temple said a lot about the Jews. It was a holy place, meaning that it was set aside for special purposes and only certain people could enter it. The special purpose was sacrifice, which was a part of the Jewish religious practice. If you were to go back in time and take a tour of the inner court of the temple you would see tables for preparing animal sacrifices, a slaughterhouse, a large altar to place bread and grain sacrifices and storage sheds to keep all the tools necessary for this work. You may also see people selling animals for sacrifice.
This story of Jesus tearing apart the temple is recorded in each one of the four gospels. And in the other three gospels, Jesus gets angry because the moneychangers and the animal sellers were thieves who were cheating people. In Johnʼs gospel Jesus gets mad because they have turned the temple into a marketplace. And here is where we run into a common problem. One that we have experienced here at church over the last week. Disagreeing about what should happen in certain spaces.
The Jews believe that what they are doing is ok in the temple. As a matter of fact it is more than ok. The cattle sellers are providing a valuable public service for their Jewish brothers and sisters who have come into town for the Passover festival and who needed to sacrifice. Transporting an animal over long distances could be difficult so it would be much easier to just by it at the temple. To make matters easier, money changers are on hand to convert any foreign currency. The Jews believe that they are being faithful. When Jesus comes in and “cleanses” the temple he is actually disrespecting the religious space. He is not demonstrating holiness at all. And what is more he is interrupting the flow of activity during one of the busiest seasons of the year. It would be akin to someone walking in during advent and tearing down the Christmas trees, uprooting the poinsettias, and breaking all the advent candles.
For Jesus on the other hand the market in the temple is just one sign of a much larger problem. One that he came to fix: peopleʼs limited understanding of God. To Jesusʼ mind the sacrificial system is a way for the people turn faith into something as easy as buying an animal and slaughtering it. This had always been a misunderstanding with purpose of sacrifice which was meant to help the Jews understand that everything belonged to God: including the life of the person offering the sacrifice. The sacrifice was a physical symbol of the way someone should offer themselves to God. A way of life illustrated in the Ten Commandments. But the problem wasnʼt just the sacrifices that went on in the temple, Jesus even had a problem with the temple space itself. It limited peopleʼs worship of God. The temple was seen as Godʼs dwelling place on earth. The Jewish understanding was that if one really wanted to worship God, they had to go to the temple. But that wasnʼt how Jesus saw things. If we skip ahead two chapters to John 4, we can read a story about Jesus talking to a woman at the well. He tells her that a time is coming when people will worship in spirit and in truth. That is to say that worship of God wonʼt be contained in a place, but in a people. Jesus is looking forward to the day when people would gather for worship not in a building but in his body…the church.
By flipping over tables, by interrupting the sacrificial system, Jesus is trying to get the Jews to experience a moment without the trappings of religion. By foretelling the destruction of the temple and pointing to his own resurrection, Jesus is trying to help the Jews imagine a relationship with God that can happen without a building. He is creating a situation where the Jews can experience God by helping them to understand something that those medieval thinkers with their pins understood, that God is much bigger than the spaces that we try and put him in. Unfortunately, we at times can be like the Jews who only expected God to show up in certain places. But God is bigger than our buildings, our relationships, our loyalties and even our needs. And we need God to be bigger than these things.
Because if God is bigger than these things think about the other things that God is bigger than. There are those of us who are having trouble with a spouse that we are trying to support and love, but are having trouble finding a reason. There are those of us who are experiencing a tumultuous relationship with our children. There are those of us who are far away from our families physically and emotionally. Remember, God is bigger than our relationships. There are those of us who come into church and are angry, sad, depressed, or discontent. Remember God is bigger than you. There are those of us who are concerned about finances. Remember God is bigger than your needs. There are those of us who are concerned about the future of our congregation. Remember God is bigger than a building. There are those of us who are sick and have tried for so long to get better, but nothing seems to be working. Remember God is bigger than your body. There are also those among who are staring into the face of death. Those who are waiting for it to come, and those who have felt its hellacious sting as our loved ones are torn away from us. Remember God is bigger. God is bigger even than death. Jesusʼ resurrection guarantees that.
Jesus stood in the mess of the temple and proclaimed a bigger God. A God who is bigger than sacrifice and a God who is bigger than the temple. Today, that same Jesus stands in the midst of your mess because of the resurrection and wants to show you a God who is bigger than all of your limitations and expectations.