This past week, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about and beginning to plan for our Holy Week and Easter services. We had a. productive meeting of interested people on Wednesday that generated lots of creative ideas as we imagined together how we might adapt our worship to the realities of social distancing and live-streaming. On Friday, I had a conversation with clergy friends from other denominations who were also asking those same questions and developing solutions based on their own worship styles and traditions.
As part of that planning, I took a look at the lectionary for the coming weeks. It’s surprising to me that after all these years of preaching, I still need to remind myself of where the lectionary is going. Oh, I know the big ones of course, and some of the ways the lectionary parcels out gospel texts in some parts of the year. For example, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the Gospel of John makes an appearance in Lent in all three years of the lectionary cycle, but I would be hard-pressed to tell you what those texts are from year to year.
Today, and for the remainder of the Sundays in Lent leading up to Palm Sunday, we are in John’s gospel. Today’s reading is not an obvious one for Lent. It’s John’s version of the cleansing of the temple, and in this context it is as confusing as it is problematic. Confusing, because we will hear or refer to Mark’s version of the cleansing of the temple in a few weeks, which in that gospel occurs in Holy Week, immediately following the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. John, on the other hand, puts the cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
It’s an important event in either case and it’s one that’s easily and often misinterpreted. We can see some of that already here in John’s version, where the complex diversity of first-century Palestinian Judaism is reduced to a single entity “the Jews” as will happen throughout the gospel, and especially in John’s depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. The temple was a political as well as religious institution, one of the central nodes in how Roman imperial power was distributed locally.
Second Temple Judaism, as it’s often called, retained the focus on the temple and on temple sacrifice. Pious Jews were obligated to visit the temple for major festivals and to offer certain sacrifices. That’s why the animals were there. It was much easier to purchase sheep or cattle there than to bring them from home. And the moneychangers were there because the temple had special currency, that didn’t bear the image of the emperor, so one would have to exchange for that currency before purchasing or making financial offerings.
Jesus’ actions here are often deployed in contemporary debates about the appropriate role of Christians in the public sphere. They are cited when Christians protest in the streets or make symbolic actions against institutions that are perceived to be oppressive. They are often even used to defend violent actions taken in the name of Christ.
Instead of trying to explicate the complexities of this story and of Jesus’ interactions with the temple establishment (remember, according to the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus spent much of his time in the last week of his life teaching and debating in the temple), I would like to shift our focus elsewhere.
One way of thinking about our lectionary readings this Lent is to see them as an exploration of the meaning of the cross, both in the New Testament and for us as 21stcentury followers of Jesus. Last week, we heard Jesus saying “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” In the next two weeks, we will hear two key passages from John’s gospel where the meaning of the cross takes central stage. On Palm Sunday, as we read Mark’s version of the passion narrative, we will confront his austere, enigmatic interpretation of the cross, with its themes of abandonment, weakness, and despair. Today, in the reading from I Corinthians, we hear elements of Paul’s understanding of the cross’s meaning, and his words speak powerfully to us and may help us reflect on the cleansing of the temple as well.
In his letters to the church at Corinth, Paul is engaged in an effort to defend his ministry against detractors and to articulate clearly and forcefully his understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ, the cross, and Christian community against opponents who seem to be trying to undermine everything for which he has worked.
He sounds his central theme in the verses from the beginning of I Corinthians we heard: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Paul here is alluding to a central paradox of the Christian faith, the paradox of the cross. In this horrific death by torture, a vivid demonstration of Roman power and ruthlessness, we see Jesus crushed and killed. There could be no starker display of his human weakness. Yet for Paul, on the cross we see the power and wisdom of God.
Elsewhere, in II Corinthians when Paul is talking about his own personal physical weakness and infirmity, he says that in response to his prayer, Christ said to him, “power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, the cross is a demonstration of Christ’s power, of God’s power. Yet, that power, an allusion to the vindication of Christ through the resurrection, that power never erases the fact of the cross. The cross still stands, Jesus’ suffering remains.
It’s a message that’s often overlooked and ignored by Christian triumphalism. We internalize and spiritualize the cross to rid it of its revolutionary message. We ignore the pain and suffering of the cross to focus on the joy of resurrection. When Christianity becomes enmeshed in power politics, in empire, nationalism, and white supremacy, the symbol of the cross often becomes a weapon wielded against the weak, the stranger and the alien, unbelievers, adherents of other religions.
One of our great challenges as Christians in this historical moment is to preach Christ crucified, folly and stumbling block, or literally, scandal. Our challenge is to see and to proclaim the cross as power made perfect in weakness, not to wield it as a weapon against others. In this day, when much of Christianity seems to have become another means by which people assert their own individual rights in a zero-sum game that results in the infringement of the rights of others, preaching Christ crucified, taking up our crosses, is a truly revolutionary message and way of being in the world. The Tuesday night group reading Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree are discovering a new way of thinking about the cross as it is shaped by the African American experience in the United States. I hope all of us in this season of Lent will meditate on Christ crucified and reflect on how the cross might reshape our lives in Christ’s image.