Eucharist Sermon - 7 March 2021

The Third Sunday of Lent
1 Corinthians 1:18-25, John 2:13-22
The Revd Charlotte Bannister-Parker, Interim Cathedral Chaplain

Some of you may know the Papal Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Umbria. It’s high up on a hill, the most impressive of buildings emerging from the Italian landscape and one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe.

Before being ordained, I had the privilege to visit this pilgrimage site and sacred space – this House of God with its magnificent altar frescos, attributed to Giotto; the 28 scenes of the Life of St Francis and his tomb nestled into the cool, quiet darkness of the crypt. Steeped in majesty, the Basilica acts like a classroom, giving the visitor a sense of the St Francis’s love of nature and humanity. Visiting and praying in Assisi was one of those deeply significant and moving experiences that nudged me to feel called to ministry. It was where I felt the thin veil between heaven and earth being lifted: Something had shifted. It was both a physical and spiritual experience bringing me closer to hearing God’s call and following His path. Of course, my experience is not unique  nor limited to that great Basilica. Many of us have had similar religious experiences. But what it helped make clear to me is that Assisi, pilgrim sites, and churches are scared spaces that matter. The House of God is The House of God.

I mention this experience because the Covid-19 pandemic has deprived millions Christian around the world of access to their sacred spaces - where normally we can come together to sing, to pray and to be part of a sustaining spiritual community. Lacking access to physical buildings means that this year we perhaps had to look for a connection to God in other spaces - such as in nature. With daily walks permitted, many of us have turned to the great outdoors. We sense God through creation, seeing the divine through the beauty of nature. As Calvin wrote, “Creation is quite like a spacious and splendid house, provided and filled with the most exquisite furnishing. Everything in it tells us of God.”

But during the last year, even our connection with nature has been challenged, since we have had to experience the great outdoors on our own or in a small family group. There has been no sense of collective worship, nor perhaps the concentrated and heightened chance for a spiritual connection that occurs in the House of the Lord. This has been tragic but understandable.

But as you know, there is good news: we are returning to in person worship soon.

However, I challenge you to imagine; if, on your return here in two weeks’ time, you struggled to enter the cathedral because there was a combination of a farmers market and trading floor cum stock exchange clogging up the nave and spilling out in the quod. What would you feel?

No wonder Jesus was angry as he approached His Father’s house. He had travelled there from Capernaum like so many in pilgrims in Passover and would have approached the temple with reverence. It was an imposing structure on a hill overlooking the city, on the site where Solomon had built the first temple almost 1000 years earlier. The apostle Mark refers to it as the ‘House of prayer for all nations’ (Mark 11:17). Yet it was being defiled. Jesus is angry and his anger was justified and righteous.

There are two artistic depictions of this scene which resonate with me. One is a black and white etching by Rembrandt and the other a colourful oil by twentieth-century artist Stanley Spencer. Though painted some 400 hundred years apart, they both help us to understand this important event in Jesus’s ministry.

Picture of Rembrandt’s Christ driving the money changers from the Temple, 1635, Rijks Museum, Amsterdam.Firstly, in Rembrandt’s Christ driving the money changers from the temple painted in 1635 chaos reigns. Wide eyed oxon are being pulled back, barrels are crashing down, tables are overturned, money scattered and Jesus in the centre with a whip in hand, about to pound out his frustration and anger. A far cry from the familiar image of the Prince of Peace. Merchants look up with a combination of fear and indignation in their eyes. One can almost smell the dung, hear the noise of the mooing cows, the flapping of wings of the doves and the hustling of an exchange. In our text, however, John does not focus so much on the way in which these merchandisers go about their business, but rather on where they are conducting their business—in the temple courts. The court of the gentiles. It was a normal practice that animals were sold for sacrifice and that money needed to be exchanged to pay for the temple tax. However, Jesus’s anger and objection came from the place where this activity was being conducted, for His Father’s House was being turned into a market place a place of profit.

Secondly, Jesus was also angry because of the audacity of the merchants. Some were exploiting the weakest, the poorest. The most marginal were being charged over the odds for animals to sacrifice. Worshippers could not bring their animals with them from afar so had to buy them on the spot. We have all experienced that effect of monopoly pricing based on location. Motor service stations QED. This grotesque commercialism, exploitation and consumerism had overtaken the reverence and awe that should accompany temple worship. Temptation to seek profit has slipped in. The Dean of King’s College Cambridge Stephen Cherry in his brilliant Lent book Thy will be done, unpacks what temptation is: In the Lord’s prayer we ask God to “lead us not” into temptation. Cherry says that we pray not “so much that we will be able to avoid all temptation, but that we will sometimes, at least, not succumb to it.” The merchants and money changers had certainly succumbed.

Picture of Stanley Spencer, Christ overturing the money changer’s tables, 1921 Stanley Spencer Gallery, CookhamThirdly, and perhaps most importantly, in this event, Jesus turning over the tables signifies Jesus declaring his authority. In the synoptic gospels, the cleansing of the temple is reported at the end of Jesus’s ministry – as part of the road to Jesus’s arrest, trial and crucifixion. (Some scholars believe there could have been two occasions on which this happened.) But John puts this event at the bringing of his gospel: This demonstrates the importance the apostle places on the event as a message about the identity of Christ. John’s focus is on Jesus, as the Son of God, breaking into this world with all his authority, majesty and power. It is here that Stanley Spencer’s 1921 painting, Christ overturning the money changers table helps. Spencer’s depiction deeply resonates as it is the opposite of Rembrandt’s. There is little in the painting. It is austere. Nothing but a table and Jesus in a white robe, head turned from us, arms wide open, hoisting up a red table: Jesus is pushing over the old ways of being and seeing and bringing in the new. The picture is stark and bold. And Jesus’s authority is undeniable. No animals, no merchants, nor priests, no whip. Just His own power, strength and authority. The scene cries out. This man has the authority to correct the evils performed in the temple. Not only to overturn tables, but to overturn the world. He has come as God for in John 1:14 we are told that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

However, Jesus does not expect to be identified nor understood, as the Gospel passage reveals, when he speaks of breaking down the temple and raising it up in three days. The Jews and the disciples could only think of a physical building not of a spiritual revolution to usher in a new order and a new way to connect with God.

And of course St Paul is also angry at the blindness of some in the early church in Corinth. Responding to a letter from Chloe’s household alerting him to their misconduct, arguments and division, Paul attacks a similar blindness (as the merchants) as found in the Corinthians. The theologian Karen Armstrong says that Paul writes to remind the Corinthians that “the conventional ideas of the divine and of human achievement have been turned upside down”. Just as Jesus turned upside down the tables in the temple, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians tries to remind them that Christ’s coming turns upside down human understanding of our priorities.

Finally, however as we return this Lent to our houses of worship, be they cathedrals or parish churches, perhaps we can ponder on how we relate in our House of God. This cathedral, this space is as beautiful, sacred and momentous a space as the Assisi Basilica that moved me so many years ago. (And both have Saints to guide us.) So, let us be especially aware, after our lockdown, of the great privilege we have to pray and worship here. And let us think about a final point that Stephen Cherry makes. He says prayer in sacred spaces should be prayer for God’s will to be done – not ours. Cherry says our calling is to, “Take Jesus’s perspective to heart so thoroughly that we find ourselves living on His terms not ours.” Amen.

Rembrandt’s Christ driving the money changers from the Temple, 1635, Rijks Museum, Amsterdam.
Stanley Spencer, Christ overturing the money changer’s tables, 1921 Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham.
Karen Armstrong, St Paul, The Misunderstood Apostle. (London: Atlantic Books, 2015).
Stephen Cherry, Thy Will be Done (London: Bloomsbury, 2020).