Sunday 19th March 2006
Year B, The Third Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
John 2:13-25

When I first started learning church history at school, it was difficult for us to imagine how people could riot in the streets and even kill each other over points of Christian doctrine which ultimately caused the Byzantine Emperor Constantine to bang Episcopal heads together to produce the Nicene Creed; but we had not taken the exam before civil war broke out in Northern Ireland; and today, with Shia and Sunni Moslems on the seeming verge of civil war in Iraq, it is all too easy to grasp the violence of religious feeling.

Meanwhile - and I hope you can see the connection - our Government has announced yet another enquiry into the economic dominance of our major supermarket chains which are allegedly preying on small shops. I shall say nothing on the issue except to tell the story of a Hurst High Street Trader, very strong in the Use It Or Lose It movement who went to the supermarket to do his Christmas shopping.

For us as a society, and perhaps even for us as individuals who are part of it, the supermarket has replaced the Parish Church as the temple in our lives. Incidentally, when thinking about temples I particularly like the story of the Au Pair from Berlin, newly arrived in Norwich, who asked a puzzled citizen to be directed to the best opera house! Some who sneer at the shallow consumerism of our age choose instead to worship at Covent Garden.

All of which might lead you to think that I am going to talk about the incident in today's Gospel where Jesus drives out the traders from the Temple Courtyard. But come on, you know me better than that; I am not going to do anything so simple. You can get a very satisfying, cheap sermon out of a simplistic attack on materialism; but a better starting point might be to remember something Jesus said in the Temple: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's; and extend the idea to a proper balance between the physical and the spiritual: render to yourself those things that are rightly yours and to God those things which are rightly His. Put simply, that might mean, enjoy your dinner but don't worship it.

Neither am I going to embark on a trip down memory lane when all the churches were crammed full. Even when they were, it didn't mean that luxury goods shops or the art galleries were empty and it didn't mean that the world was a better place. Let me remind you of my two-part golden rule: it was never as good as they say it was; and it will never be as bad as they say it will.

The idea at the centre of today's Gospel is Jesus saying that His body is a temple which is not, of course, to say that we should worship His body. We do not worship a temple we worship in a temple; so we might say that we worship a retail park or an art gallery but what we really mean is that we worship what they contain, profiteroles or pictures. We worship in a temple because that is, according to Jewish tradition, the place where you find God. For the Jews this was very specific; they were aware of the presence of God in every place and in every human thought and action but in order to enable them to stay sane under the immense psychological pressure of worshipping one invisible God, they developed very definite ideas about the physical presence of Yahweh. He was in the ark during their wanderings in the desert and for centuries afterwards. As long as God's people were largely nomadic it was proper that the ark should be in a tent. But when sedentary agriculture, food storage and surplus wealth began to appear, people moved into houses and during the reign of King David the idea of a permanent grand temple was mooted but it was only completed by Solomon.

So when Jesus, standing in the Temple Court, having just ritually cleansed it of mammon, said that His body was a temple He was not making the kind of claim that we make now about God being within us. Christianity exploded across the Roman Empire and although it revered certain places like Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Rome where Patriarchs emerged, Christianity never had one, central focal point such as Jerusalem for the Jews and Mecca, to an extent not quite so great, for Muslims.

We as Christians developed a very strong sense of the local and in the Sacrament of the Eucharist we enjoy a very concrete, personal experience of God being within us; and we balance this with a very strong notion of the universal presence of the Holy Spirit. So for us as Christians, it is easy to fall into a rather commonplace notion of God being within us and also being everywhere.

For Jesus and his hearers the statement of God being within Him as a temple was scandalously radical. To turn the statement through 180 degrees, it was as radical as Archbishop Rowan putting our theology into reverse and saying that God is only really present in Canterbury Cathedral. Jesus was liberating God from the physical confines of the temple and placing Him firmly within Himself.

But of course, by extension, because we share the humanity of Jesus and are the heirs to his death and Resurrection, Jesus has placed Himself firmly within us as His temples. We are all dwelling places of the divine presence; beggars, slum dwellers, gay people, the outcast, the oppressed, the under valued - chose your own particular category of person - all people are not only the creatures of the Creator, they are also the home of our Redeemer and the agents of the Sanctifier.

Lent is a good time for us to undertake a little Spring cleaning. If we take the narrow view of our status as temples, we might want to force ourselves to turn away from the worst excesses of consumerism, to enjoy God's gifts but to worship God; and we might delude ourselves into thinking we are pleasing God by trying to lose a bit of weight before we buy our Summer clothes; but the real Spring cleaning must be in moving all our mental furniture, giving everything a close examination and then re-arranging it properly so that the things that are God's live in the centre of our space and the things that are physical, that are god's gifts, modestly surround Him.

But John goes further than recording the description by Jesus of Himself as a Temple, he points forward to what this really meant; that the temple at Jerusalem would be destroyed but that the temple of the body of Jesus would rise from the dead. Lent is preparation for our celebration of that Resurrection; we will only complete our Spring cleaning when we all meet at the Easter Vigil.