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Lent 3 – 3/3/2023 – St. Pauls

A while back, I came across a hymn written by Brian Wren. It is named….Good is the flesh. Here is just one of its many verses….

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the flesh is not a phrase I hear much in church.  Much less milk in the breast or glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell.  Though I learned early on that the Incarnation is central to Christian orthodoxy, I did not learn to link that doctrine to actual bodies, actual flesh.  Much less did I learn to honor the sacred in skin, limbs, muscles, and hair — mine or anyone else’s.

But that is precisely what Jesus does in this week’s Gospel reading, when he brandishes a whip, overturns the tables of the money changers, drives out the sheep and cattle, and dares his listeners to destroy this temple.  They misunderstand, of course, and assume that Jesus is referring to the Herodian temple they’re standing in. But no, St. John insists in his Gospel.  Jesus isn’t referring to edifices built of stone or brick or wood.  The home of the transcendent is not a courtyard, a parapet, or an altar.  Rather, God resides in a different kind of temple altogether — the temple of Jesus’s own body.

These days, I think a lot about what it means to honor human bodies — mine, yours, everyone’s — as holy places.  As homes for God.  It’s not an easy thing to do in a religious culture that too often views the body as inherently sinful, shameful, and spiritually dangerous.  Neither is it easy to do in a secular culture that commodifies the body, cheapening it for the sake of profit.  Most of the time, I see my own body as something to shrink, conquer, or tame.  I see its flaws so much more clearly than I see its God-ordained dignity and beauty.  Rarely — so rarely — do I see it as a vehicle for love, hospitality, and grace.

And yet if St. John is telling us something essential about where and how we might find God, we are people of the Incarnation in the truest sense, called to look, to see, to break bread, share wine, and wash feet.  How can we learn to see our embodied lives, our sensory lives, our physical lives, as fully implicated in our lives with God?  How can we move past contempt, squeamishness, and fear, and offer God our whole selves?  How can we welcome the pleasure of God in our flesh?

Jesus’ encounter with the moneychangers in the temple suggests that there is a high cost involved in honoring human flesh as the home of the divine. What Jesus calls out when he cleanses the temple is not Judaism or various forms of worship. It is how the system worked. Jesus grew up as a faithful Jew going to the temple. He didn’t show up this day and say, Wow! There are animals and money changers in here. I didn’t know that. This is wrong. It was business as usual. Business as usual means changing Roman coins to temple coins, purchasing an animal, and offering a sacrifice. It is a system of exploitation via exorbitant tithes and taxes that blocks access to the divine–that literally keeps the bodies of the poor outside the gates of the temple, forcing them into more and endless debt before they can approach and worship God.

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that it is not possible to lean into God’s love for my body, 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. 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 interrupts worship for the sake of justice.  He won’t stand for the violation of sanctuary.  He will not tolerate blocked access to God’s house.  He will not stomach any version of unfairness and cruelty towards the most vulnerable and beleaguered people in his society.

Jesus is a disrupter. A leveler. An up-ender. Zeal is what animates him. Fervor, not casualness. Depths, not surfaces. Jesus is not impressed by market-place faith.

So, where does this leave us? Perhaps we need to begin by asking honest questions about our reaction to this story. How do we feel about Jesus’ posture, language, tone, and actions in the temple? Are we offended by his anger? His impatience? His violence? If yes, why? What cherished version of God, church, piety, or worship does Jesus threaten in this narrative?

And then: What are we passionate about when it comes to faith? What are we most inclined to defend or resist? What are we zealous for as members of the Body of Christ? Is zeal even on our radars? Or have we settled for a way of being Christian that is more rote, safe, casual, and comfortable than it is disorienting, challenging, transformative, and missional?

And so here we have Jesus—the temple of God— burning with zeal for his Father’s house. He doesn’t use love and forgiveness as palliatives; Jesus allows a holy anger to move him to action on behalf of the helpless and the voiceless. In this gospel story, there is nothing godly about responding to systemic evil with passive acceptance or unexamined complicity. If human bodies are temples—holy places where heaven and earth meet—then it is incumbent upon us to protect these holy places from desecration. We need to stop believing that our highest calling is to niceness.

Where has our power to act, to deepen relationship, or to love fiercely, atrophied?  Where has our faith become so abstract, so disembodied, that I no longer find it natural or easy to rejoice with those who rejoice, or mourn with those who mourn?

This is what happens when we live a Christianity of the mind without also living one of the flesh. After all, it is with our bodies that we experience pain, anger, terror, and joy. It’s my stomach that hurts when I mourn. It’s my face that burns when I am angry. It’s my whole body that warms with pleasure when I am happy.

Good is the flesh that the Word has become. Do we

believe this? Do we believe it enough to honor all bodies as temples of God? I challenge you not to say a glib yes because Jesus’s boldness in the temple hastens his death. If we follow the disrupter, if we upend the temple when it neglects to serve as God’s house, if we burn with passion that animates Christ’s coin-scattering justice, our choices will cost us. At the same time, our churches will become houses of prayer and refuge, hope and transformation. Sanctuaries of welcome to all people and nations.

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 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.