Today’s gospel lesson is one of those lessons in Scripture that is so vivid we find looking away difficult. All four of the gospels have this story, and three of the gospels use this story to convey Jesus’ righteous anger about how the practice around temple worship and obligatory sacrifice has led to monetary abuses. Matthew and Luke even have Jesus calling the whole enterprise a den of robbers. The story evokes images of Jesus flipping tables, or in today’s version, swinging around a whip like Indiana Jones. We often recall this text when looking for evidence of Jesus’ righteous anger at injustice. We are so familiar with this text we can almost hear the sermon about a call to justice in our heads.
But this week, the gospel has been speaking a different sermon to me. You see, John’s version of this story is a bit different from the other three gospels. First, John places this story in a very different place in his narrative.[i] Unlike the other gospels who place this story toward the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, John places this incident in the second chapter, right after the miracle in Cana. And in John’s version, Jesus does not lay into the moneychangers in quite the same way. Instead of financial injustice, Jesus seems more concerned that those gathered have missed something critical – in the obligatory administering of sacrifices at the physical temple, they have missed the fact that God is no longer tied to the location of the temple – and instead is found in the temple of Jesus’ body. For John, the incarnation, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, is central to the entirety of the good news and in this story specifically.
I realized this week that when I think about the Incarnation, I immediately think of the baby Jesus. Somehow, like a child you do not see for a few years, my image of Jesus incarnate gets stuck in the manger. And because the adult Jesus sometimes feels so superhuman, I forget about the earthy, gritty flesh of his body – the body that touches to heal, stoops down to wash feet, eats and drinks with others, cries wet tears, and breathes a last breath of the cross. In coming to know the Messiah who heals, teaches, brings about justice, and is transfigured before the disciples, I forget the enfleshed Jesus – the human body in which God dwells – the only temple we need to draw nearer to our God.
We are in a season of flesh. Lent is that season when we experience Jesus in deeply enfleshed ways. What our disciplines or our practices do for us in Lent is help us remember that we are a people of flesh and our God was willing to take on that flesh to transform our lives. We do not often talk about the profound reality of an enfleshed God, but I stumbled on a hymn this week that opened up the reality. Brian Wren’s hymn Good is the Flesh says, “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.” The hymn goes on to say, “Good is the body, from cradle to grave, growing and aging, arousing, impaired, happy in clothing, or lovingly bared, good is the pleasure of God in our flesh, Good is the flesh that the Word has become.”[ii] Now I do not know about your own spiritual journey, but I do not think I have ever heard Jesus’ flesh being described so vividly. The closest I have come has been in imagining the vulnerability of that enfleshed body in the cradle. But capturing what being enfleshed means for all of life – from cradle to grave – somehow opened up John’s words about the temple of Jesus’ body. God takes something we often associate with sinfulness – and transforms that flesh into something good. “Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,” are powerful words that shift how we experience the fullness of Christ’s humanity.
Once we reconnect with the goodness of God’s flesh – the incarnation of Christ – then we begin to see all of Jesus’ ministry not stuck in a manger but immersed in the flesh of life. Karoline Lewis reminds us Jesus’ fleshy life was important, “Because a woman at a well, whose body was rejected for the barren body it was, experiences the truth of neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem; because a man ill for 38 years, his entire life to be exact, whose body has only known life on the ground, is now able to imagine his ascended life; because a man born blind, is then able to see, and to see himself as a sheep of Jesus’ own fold; because Lazarus, whose body was dead and starting to decay, found himself reclining on Jesus, eating and drinking, and with his sisters, sharing a meal once again.”[iii] Not only is Jesus’ incarnation good, making flesh good, Jesus’ ministry is about blessing, healing, and restoring physical bodies.
Once we connect with the goodness of God’s flesh, and the power of Jesus’ fleshy ministry, we are forced to see something we do not always feel comfortable with – the goodness of our own flesh. Now I do not know about you, but my experience in church has not been one in which the church tells me how good my body is. In fact, today’s inclusion of the ten commandments usually reminds me of the opposite – of the myriad ways my body is sinful: from the words that come out of my mouth, to the ways in which I hurt others and take things with my body, to the ways in which I covet things and other bodies. And those sins do not even touch the ways in which I learn the message that my body is imperfect – how my body is not the right height or shape or gender, how my body is not fit or strong enough, how my skin color, hair, or nails are not quite the ideal. But if God takes on flesh and says, “Good is the flesh,” and if that enfleshed God engages in a ministry of blessing flesh, then surely part of what we remember today is how good and blessed our own flesh is – how God made our flesh for good.
Now, here comes the tricky part. Once we realize “Good is the flesh,” that ministered to the flesh, that our flesh is beautiful and revered, then we are forced to make yet another leap – that the flesh of others is also beautiful. Those bodies we would like to subjugate, regulate, and decimate are no longer able to be separated from the goodness of God’s flesh or our own flesh. Barbara Brown Taylor argues in An Altar in the World, “‘One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.’ 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?”[iv]
This week, we enter that kind of work. As we welcome guests through the Winter Shelter, we affirm the goodness of all flesh – of God’s flesh, of our flesh, and especially the flesh of those who have no shelter, who work hard all day but cannot secure housing, who live lives of uncertainty, of insecurity, of scarcity. Once we recall the incarnation of Christ, the dignity of our own incarnation, our work immediately becomes to honor the incarnation of others. We certainly accomplish the work of honoring flesh this week through the Winter Shelter. But as we keep walking our Lenten journey, we will struggle with our bodies. Even our collect today says, “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.” But our invitation this Lent is to also struggle with claiming our body as good – and using the goodness of the flesh to bless other flesh. Our repentance this week is not just of the sinfulness of the flesh, but we repent this week of the ways in which we do not honor how “Good is the flesh that the Word has become.” Amen.
[i] Joseph D. Small, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 92.
[ii] I found this hymn in the commentary by Debie Thomas, “The Temple of His Body” February 28, 2018, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1675 as found on March 1, 2018.
[iii] Karoline Lewis, “Body Zeal,” February 26, 2018, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5071 as found on March 1, 2018.