The cleansing of the church

Lent 3 (B)
Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
4 March 2018

The lectionary today switches us across to a series of readings from the Gospel of John. For the next three Sundays our gospel readings will come from John even though we are in the year of Mark.

The Gospel of John offers us a different take on Jesus.

John sees Jesus very differently from the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

One of the differences concerns the identity of Jesus’ opponents.

In the synoptic gospels the opponents are various political and religious groups within Second Temple Judaism: Herodians, Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes. But in the Gospel of John the opponents of Jesus are routinely described as “the Jews”.

We see that very easily in today’s gospel message, which begins with the statement that “the Passover of the Jews” was happening followed by repeated references to the Jews as the opponents of Jesus.

Quite apart from this explicit labelling of the opponents of Jesus as being the Jews, a story such as this week’s text represents Jesus in profound conflict with the Temple hierarchy, and thus in conflict with the central institution of Jewish life at the time.

This is exacerbated by the way the story is moved from later in the life of Jesus and placed by John directly after the miracle of the water being turned into wine at Kfar Kana, Cana.

It is of the very essence of that story—as told by the gospel of John—that the ‘water’ of the Jewish religion is being replaced by the ‘wine’ the Jesus religion.

This is a clear and unambiguous anti-Semitic statement.



Anti-Semitism is one of the worst stains on the conscience of Christianity. It ranks right up there with child abuse and cover-up, but is even worse; hard though it is these days to imagine anything worse child abuse and cover-up.

Anti-Semitism has been a feature of Christian life from the time that Christians first gained political power after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. However, its roots run much deeper into the text of the New Testament itself as we can clearly see in the Gospel of John.

In case we missed his point, John moves the episode of Jesus creating a scene in the temple from the end of the story back to the beginning of his account of Jesus’ public activity.

For the author of John’s gospel, this scene sets the tone for the ministry of Jesus. For John, that tone is deeply anti-Semitic.

It would have been comfortable for me this morning to focus on the first reading from the book of Exodus or even second reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, but it is impossible to remain silent when such an anti-Semitic text read out loud in the Cathedral.

Silence suggests consent.

Worse still, silence allows hateful attitudes towards Jews to become embedded in our spiritual DNA as Christians.

This animus is even found in First Corinthians 1, although it is not quite as virulent as we see in John’s gospel. Paul is writing to the Corinthians and “the Jews” are listed as one of the groups of opponents of the gospel who persist in asking wrong questions because they do not wish to believe.

Although Paul — like all the early Christian leaders — was Jewish, his letter betrays a profound level of antagonism between his mission and the religious leadership of Jewish society.


The Decalogue

Such a nasty turn in the rhetoric between the followers of Jesus and the adherents of Moses is all the more remarkable today when our first reading is from the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments.

These ancient laws are Jewish laws.

They summarise our fundamental duties in human life:

duties to God
duties to parents/family
duties to other people

 These laws derive from the heart of the foundational Jewish story: the account of the exodus as God rescues the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. This is not a marginal Jewish tradition, but something which is very close to the very heart of Jewish identity.


Wisdom for faithful living

This insidious poison of Christian anti-Semitism which we find in the new Testament and throughout church history, must be opposed and denounced at every turn.

This is also true of its modern twin Islamophobia.

Fear of the other has no place in the Christian faith.

Hatred towards those who are different has no place in the Christian faith.

Arrogance which assumes we are better than others has no place in the Christian faith.

So where is the heart of the gospel in all this and what are we to make of the memory of that scene in the Temple all these years ago?

It seems best to understand the incident in the Temple as a symbolic prophetic act by Jesus.

He was not seeking to storm the Temple or to make it the base for a revolt. That would happen around 40 years later, but had nothing to do with Jesus.

Rather, acting in typical Jewish fashion—and in perfect consistency with the examples of the Jewish prophets in the Scriptures that we still share with Judaism—Jesus was making a vivid prophetic denunciation of the way that the Temple was serving the interests of the rich and powerful.

This is not an anti-Semitic act.

Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and so was this act.

He was calling the Temple hierarchy to account for their failure to live by the covenant for which the Ten Commandments constitute a summary of basic principles.

We should recall that Jesus himself summarised the law in a similar way to other Jewish teachers in his own time: love God, and love your neighbour.

This is the heart of the covenant with God: for Jews, and Christians, and Muslims.

On this spiritual wisdom we all agree.

As Jesus saw it, the corruption at the Temple was failing to honour God and was also exploiting the poor.

No love of God here, and no compassion for other people.

By the time the Gospel of John is composed, a bitter divide has happened between followers of Jesus and their Torah-observant Jewish peers.

The vitriol was extreme, as we see consistently through the Gospel of John.

John and his first readers had no extremist agenda to attack Jews. But his language would feed later generations of anti-Semitic thinking and actions within the Church at times when Christians had both the capacity and the desire to harm Jews.

For this we hang our heads in shame.

What must we give up this Lent?

Anti-Semitism for sure!

So we stand alongside Jesus, the Jewish prophet from Galilee as we call on our religious institutions to walk the talk, to serve always the mission of God in the world (rather than their own self-preservation), and to protect the vulnerable and the weak.

In this Cathedral there can be no anti-Semitism. Ever.

Passionate as I am about Palestinian rights to justice and self-determination, there is no excuse for anti-Semitism as we stand in solidarity with people who have lost land, family, homes and hope.

Similarly, there is no place for Islamophobia here.

This Cathedral—like the Temple in Jerusalem—is a house of prayer for all God’s children, and we welcome our Jewish and Muslim friends to find here a place of pilgrimage and prayer.

If you love God, you are welcome here.

If you love your neighbour, you are welcome here.









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  1. Dear Greg, I am very glad to have this sermon. Thank you for good scholarship and pastoral care.Blessings, Sue

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