Lent 3 (2009) Year B RCL Principal
I have an excuse this morning to tell my favourite nun joke, the excuse being the readings for today, I hope you will make the connection, otherwise this is just a blatant excuse to tell a joke at the start of the sermon….
Two nuns are driving through Transylvania when a vampire jumps on the car. The nun whose driving turns to her companion and says ‘what do I do?’ the second nun says ‘show him your cross, sister’ so she hops out of the car and shouts at the vampire ‘get off my bonnet you stupid idiot’…
Now, at the risk of delving too deeply into my deeply odd sense of humour, one of the reasons I think I find this funny is because, in common with most people, I don’t think of nuns as angry people, in fact I guess most people think that nuns, monks and even (so I’m told) Clergy don’t get angry because they are ‘holy people’ and Christian’s – holy people- don’t get angry. Or aren’t meant to get angry!
But if we think about that for even just a moment we will realise how daft such a statement is. Of course we get angry – it’s a part of human nature. We are not religious robots who don’t feel what everyone else feels, we go through all the things that everybody else goes through – loss, hurt, happiness, heartbreak. Surely we feel what everyone else does.
There is an impression that people have of the Church being something to do with ‘unreality’ – that it is slightly detached from the day to day, divorced from the normal stuff of life, somehow unaffected by the world. Of course this is not true. Unfortunately we as Christians seem to have perpetuated this myth – there is a certain brand of ‘bloodless Christianity’ which seems to divorce our faith from the world we share. How often do we get angry for the gospel? Or weep for a world that is without God? Or laugh with the joy that God feels when he sees the beauty of his creation?
Anger seems a part, a sometimes regrettable but integral part, of human nature. And it often comes as a shock to see that even Jesus was involved in conflict, he could succumb to violent behaviour –as in our Gospel story for today.
Jesus today breaks from the inadequate ‘gentle, meek and mild’ mould that we have forced him into and challenges us to both look at who he is again and to look at our own expressions of faith.
At first sight, the Bible message seems to be very clear: at all costs, resolve your conflicts by peaceful means. "Blessed are the peace-makers," said Jesus in the sermon on the mount. And the idea of peace is at the heart of Christianity. "The peace of the Lord be always with you," we say in this communion service, and we exchange a sign of the peace. And many services end with: "The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord…" It seems peace, and especially God's peace is extremely important to us. So surely we who are made in his image should strive to emulate his ways in our lives, and seek above all else for peace with each other.
In Luke's version of today's gospel reading of the cleansing of the temple, we hear that when Jesus came in sight of Jerusalem, he wept over it and said: "If only you had known….the way that leads to peace!"
But his very next act, according to St. Luke, is one of considerable anger and even violence. Jesus went into the temple and began driving out the traders. He overturned the tables of the merchants, and according to today's reading from John's gospel, made a whip for the very purpose of driving out the money-changers. Considerable violence. No wonder they hated him and sought to crucify him. And this act, according to John – the version we heard today, took place at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, although all the other gospel writers place this incident much later, as the events which sparked off the first Easter.
So on the one hand we have a picture of Jesus, and a message in the gospels which seem to speak of peace. On the other hand we have an example of Jesus’ anger at the misuse of the temple and profiteering from faith in God.
How are we supposed to handle this contradiction?
Perhaps the answer is something to do with striving after peace whenever possible, but not peace at any cost. Integrity seems to be very important. There are occasions when we need to confront evil, even if it means being violent. Many people believe the policy of appeasement just prior to the second world war was wrong. And in the end, it seems violence was necessary to stop the terrible evil which occurred.
Perhaps as Christians we've become afraid of conflict because it's so difficult to handle. We've become "awfully nice" people, but maybe the price, to some extent, has been our integrity. The world speaks with a smooth tongue. And perhaps we in the Church have persuaded ourselves that polite niceness is Christianity.
But throughout history, God's prophets have been rarely smooth or comfortable. Like God himself, they've often been angry, and sometimes even violent in their confrontation of evil. Again, although Jesus is the Prince of Peace, he also said: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt. 10:34)
Faith and love are not ‘soft’ concepts. They are hard edged, powerful, dangerous. Christian faith is a faith that speaks out against injustice, against poverty, against oppression. It is a faith that often sides with the powerless against the powerful, a faith that demands action. And the love which we as Christians are called to exhibit and live by is not a soppy, romantic vision of love, but of a love which is bound up in God’s power, God’s absolute loathing of sin, God’s fierce gentleness. There are times when that love and that faith will cause us to resist wrongdoing, to act with strength and conviction, to follow the strong Christian Tradition which speaks of God’s refusal to stand by when injustice is perpetrated.
The Christian life is not easy, and should not be wishy-washy or mediocre, it is a life to be lived with energy, passion and an unwillingness to compromise, a life filled with the Holy Spirit who is described on the day of Pentecost as like tongues of fire and a rushing wind.
We are called to a passionate faith, one that doesn’t allow the evil of sin to flourish but combats it. A faith that is tied up with all it means to be human, anger, hope, fear, love, all the messy emotions of life. Jesus himself felt these things, from weeping at the fate of Jerusalem to the joy of friendship and of sharing God’s kingdom.
We too, like Christ, are called to live lives filled with passion and with the zeal for God which made him dangerous, and world changing.