These are extraordinary times for the church in America. In almost 39 years of ministry, I have never recalled a time when the voice and witness of the church have been so threatened than it has in these recent times. Numerous books and research have been published about how the church in this country has lost touch with at least two of the youngest generations of our society. We have witnessed recent ubiquitous sequels (cf. Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church, and James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel) of pastoral sexual scandals, abuse of power, and financial corruption. We have witnessed recently the massive child sexual abuse scandals sapping the life out of the Catholic church. We have witnessed church leaders abrogating their prophetic voice in society by ingratiating themselves to power and partisan ideology. We have witnessed recent denominational divisions and schisms over single theological issues (whether it is over the ordination of women or LGBTQ persons). To paraphrase Charles Dickens, these are the best of times and the worst of times, the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness, the season of light and the season of darkness.
It is Tuesday, April 16, 2019 of Holy Week, as I write this blog. I am reminded today of the report of the gospels that the first act of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on this final week of his ministry on earth was to enter the Temple. When he did, he found it in a shocking state of affairs. It is the only one recorded incident in the entire gospels where Jesus is clearly reported to be angry and indignant. One of the most enduring images in the gospels of this account is one of Jesus purging the temple in Jerusalem, driving out loan sharks, pawn brokers, overturning the tables of money changers, and the seats of concessionaires selling doves for purity sacrifices. It is helpful to look a little deeper, past the image of an angry Jesus holding a whip, to the background behind the scriptural narrative in order for us to understand better what caused all that anger in Jesus. In doing so, my hope is that we will see a better picture of what it was that Jesus saw that made him rise in indignation.
A central figure in that story is a man named Ananias. It is important to note at the outset that there are three people in the apostolic church who are known by the name of Ananias. There is the faithful Ananias, who in Acts 9 is recorded as a Jewish Christian at Damascus known for his exemplary character. In Acts 22 we read of Paul giving tribute to this Ananias as a devout man of the law. Then there is Ananias, husband to Saphira. In Acts 5 we are told in detail about their deceit. At a time when wealthier Christians were contributing funds for the relief of the poor and as a token of a shared common life, Ananias and Saphira deceived both the apostles and God.
Then there is the the third Ananias, the Sadducean high priest of Acts 23 fame. He was also the presiding officer of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, from A.D. 47-58. He was ill-reputed on account of his greed and was disliked for his pro Roman sympathies. He and his son-in-law were running a percentage scheme in the temple through the many business “concession stands” they allowed on the temple premises. The father and son-in-law corporation of Ananias took in a percentage of the profit so these merchants. Ananias landed this deal, this pork barrel, through a compromise with the Roman government provided that the temple prayed for the health and the welfare of the emperor.
But underneath this compromise was another grievous slander to God’s temple. The temple officials also agreed to use the catacombs beneath the temple as storage place for all the stolen titles of the land of people who were dispossessed by the powerful and the wealthy. And so the temple that Jesus entered not only has degraded into a pavilion of merchants and predatory profiteers, but also became the depository of the spoils of theft from the indentured enslavement of poor farmers. Understand that at the heart of the understanding of the symbolism of the temple in Jewish piety is that the temple represented and guaranteed the “presence” of God in that place. What Jesus saw of what had become of the temple was fundamentally antithetical to that core proclamation.
Now we have the backdrop behind the indignation of Jesus. In seeking the ordination of the empire, Jesus saw the temple, the church, compromising its very essence, pursuing what was trivial. Its pursuits trivialized its purpose. Instead of being a sign on earth of the heavenly kingdom, it became a sign of human kingdoms. It became an image of the empire. This is one of the threats that Jesus warned his disciples about – that the principalities and powers that seek to obstruct the work of the church does not only come from the outside, but also comes from within itself.
When the church only becomes a mirror image of what is, the ordinary, the status quo, the same old-same old, then the church becomes exactly like that – just a piece of the ordinary. But the church as a sign of the kingdom cannot just be an ordinary sign of the common. The people of God are to be a sign of the kingdom on earth. It is its mission and its task. The church, as a sign of the kingdom on earth, is called to be an extraordinary sign.
Jesus hardly sent the disciples to pursue trivial things. Jesus gave his disciples the power to cast out demons. He assured them that he himself is protecting the church, even giving them the keys to the kingdom, and declaring that even the gates of hell shall not prevail against it – all these was to release his disciples to give of themselves to God’s work on earth, now seen in his own life and ministry.
The world needs to hear the church’s indignation. It needs to make a visible struggle against Darfur in the Sudan, against the abject poverty of tens of thousands of children in Trenton. The church needs to make an audible anguish over ethnic hatred and violence, here and around the world. The church needs to rise up and offer a stronger voice for our young people who we are losing to the forces of materialism. Who has a more potent voice in society than the church to speak against the victimization of the weak? Who better to speak about peace and reconciliation against the violence in our cities and in the world than the church? Who better to speak against the cruelty of ripping children away from their migrant parents, and putting them in cages, than the church, whose Jesus lifted up children as our standard for entering the kingdom?
Are these not the weightier preoccupations for the church, contending against the principalities and powers of our day and time, resisting them in the name of the love of Christ?
If this is the destiny of the church, an important question for us to ponder as disciples of Jesus is, “How do I do my part in building the kingdom alongside other builders?” In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us vividly of our co-responsibility in the work of building the kingdom here on earth. And just as clearly and with powerful simplicity, he tells us how we can do this. He says that those who belong to the kingdom, the realm that was prepared for us even before the world was created, are those who gave him something to eat when he was hungry, gave him something to drink when he was thirsty, welcomed him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, cared for him when he was sick, and visited him when he was in jail.
We know that the puzzled “kingdom-builders” in the story asked, “When did we do all of this for you, Lord?” And Jesus answers in the story, “Whenever you did for my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did for me!” What did Jesus mean when he spoke of himself as the “Bread of Life?” Could hunger and thirst mean more than just lack of food and drink? Who are the naked and exposed in our cities, the humiliated, those robbed of the garments of self-dignity and honor? Who are the sick? Does being imprisoned only mean being behind prison bars? Are there not forces in life that shackle and enslave, and hold the souls of many captive? Who are the “least of these” in our neighborhoods, in our own families, and circle of friends?
“If you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.” The identity of the church was very important to Jesus – how it presents itself to the world, and how it testifies to the world. Just as important to Jesus was the behavior of his disciples. The word “church” comes from the Greek word, “ekklesia”, and it is mentioned only two times in the entire NT. It literally means, “the sent out.” The biblical understanding of church is not an edifice. It is the “sent out”, the people. And so being the church, how we “do” church, is at the heart of Jesus’ intense attention to the training of his disciples. What the disciples say and do speak louder than words ever can about who Jesus Christ is. What the temple of Jesus’ disciples does and becomes, announces a message to the community wherein it stands. Remember the indignation of Jesus with the temple of Jerusalem. The temple represents the presence of God in the community. And God’s presence proclaims the Good News that God entered history through the suffering love of a son. “For God so loved the world, that he gave an only son.” This is the simple truth that the gospel proclaims.
In I Timothy 3:15, Paul describes the church to Timothy as the “bulwark” of the truth. The word “bulwark” describes a fortification, a barricade against an attack. Paul speaks about the church of the living God as the “barricade” of truth, the protector of the truth or, conversely, the revealer of the truth.
A barricade protects us from attacks. But attacks come both from without and within. What Paul is saying is that unfaithfulness within the members of the church can cause an attack from within, and compromise the barricade and expose its truth to injury. When the church is the faithful church, it has power over the gates of hell. When the church is the church, it turns the world upside down because it has been given the keys to the kingdom. But those keys don’t turn by themselves. They are the keys that are turned by action, faithfulness, and obedience. And when the church turns these keys, what it binds on earth will be bound in heaven. We are called to be the church of the living God, the pillar and the bulwark of truth.
In Matthew 16: 24-25, Jesus tells his disciples “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” In the decades that I have been privileged to walk alongside people and churches in their spiritual journeys, I have learned in a very personal way this ancient truth: that the decline of the spiritual vitality and efficacy of a church or a denomination (not necessarily its numbers or its size) is directly proportional to the degree that it thinks only inwardly about itself and its institutional survival, and the accompanying erosion of its understanding that it has been summoned and sent for the sake of others.
Jesus says, “What you have seen and heard me do, go and do likewise.”