A Muscular Jesus: A Lenten Sermon

101_1628Photo taken by me, in the Naval Air Station Oceania “Chapel of the Good Shepherd,” during our gutting & reconstruction process.  It is the underside of one of the pews, after it had been disassembled, showing one of over 1,000 wads of gum counted stuck to the pews’ undersides.  December 2, 2011.

John 2:13-25 (New Revised Standard Version)

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.  23 When he was in Jerusalem during t he Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
*Sermon preached on Sunday, March 4, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), the third in a Lenten series drawing upon aspects of the “12-Steps” that form the basis for spiritual recovery.  In this case, Step 5.  If something resonates and deserves a private conversation, I am always available.  -Vinson



Jesus had kicked off his ministry by performing his first public miracle, at the wedding at Cana and on its heels, Jesus and his disciples now head to Jerusalem for the Passover.  Well familiar with the Temple Mount, this would be a different encounter than others recorded in the gospels.  Unlike when he was 12 and had been found by his parents among a group of rabbis, impressing them with questions and insights, today will be different.

Focused and overflowing with zeal for the house of God, Jesus was rather muscular in his approach.  Righteous anger, the kind Paul would write of saying “Be angry, but sin not” [Ephesians 4:26, KJV], rippled through him as to the injustice and irreverence he came upon.

In the Old Testament reading for the day, Moses received the 10 precepts of living in communal relationships, to bring about a radical transformation – the short-term mission to help people get along with one another and the long-term mission being to transform a ragtag group of refugees into a unified people in relationship with God.  But among the crowds on the Temple Mount, seeing people cheated of their money and even their place to worship is infuriating to Jesus, the spirit of that earlier activity of God not apparent in the dealings he witnessed.  God’s mission of peace – living together and of one accord – was being almost gleefully flouted by greed and the disregard for human rights and dignity.  Jesus got their attention.  Flipping tables, driving animals out of the way, fashioning a whip of cords in righteous anger, Jesus got their attention.


This jarring act, referred to as the cleansing of the Temple, stands as a powerful witness to the identity of Jesus and his call to align our lives to the values of God’s kingdom.


What I’ve noticed is that most commentators on this passage tend toward Jesus taking a stand “against” – either protesting financial transactions in the temple, making a statement against the Jewish sacrificial cult by driving out the animals, or against the physical manifestation of the temple vice the spiritual manifestation within Jesus’ body (and even ours) replacing this vaunted palace of stone.  I would submit that the negatives as to the temple’s economic activity, religious indiscretions, or the estimated elevation of the edifice itself only have meaning when set in contrast to the positive statement about Jesus’ identity and role in the Fourth Gospel.  Put simply, Jesus arrives on the Temple Mount less “against” anything and more specifically about being “for” the authority he was sent to represent and to reveal the true God of the temple, one whom he knows intimately as his Father, and under whose authority he now acts.

Yet, I have found myself the past days thinking a lot about a post I read of someone I served with long ago.  His life is rife with PTSD; his body is trashed with pain from injuries; and he is an atheist with a lot of anger – toward those who wear the identity of Christian.  As he put it to me recently, in a reflective post on an ethics issue of a prominent self-identified Christian and his minions: “They really are making Christians look bad.  I’m not religious but one does wonder what would Jesus do…”  The messengers are seen as the message, which has a lot to do with why he walked away.

I get his anger, sadly.

I get it when I see a seriously self-professed Christian use his position to advocate for the elimination of federal heat subsidies for those on fixed incomes – the poor, the disabled, the retired.

I get it when I see professed Christian politicians using health care for children as a bargaining chip to get their pet issues addressed in the budget.

I get it when I see chest pounding ostensible Christians behave badly and then blame their victims in the age of #metoo.

And while the tables could use a good turning on those compassionless actions, if we are to have the integrity needed to tackle these wounds to our society and with and for our fellow human beings, there is likewise the need to take a look at which table could use a good turning over within the temples of our own lives [see I Corinthians 3:16-17].  If we are to take seriously the identity of Jesus, there’s no better time than Lent for a good temple cleansing – realigning ourselves with the hope of God. The whole package, just like the 10 Commandments – our relationship with one another, ourselves, and our God.

A useful means of tackling this spiritual table turning can be found in “Step Five” of most successful recovery programs.  It’s about the tough work of admitting “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” after having done the searching and fearless moral inventory of Step Four.  It is to move through the prayer of Psalm 139:23, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts,” so we can put daylight onto our own.character defects.  But, like that stuff called Mercurochrome, which our moms put on our cuts and scrapes when we were kids that stung, but cured, it’s not something easy for us to embrace.  That’s often why the work isn’t tackled.  Yet the same God who inspired the words of the 23rd Psalm, “through the valley” still offers protection right alongside correction.  And aren’t we blessed that in everything there exists God’s steadfast love and mercy for each of us?

This pivotal step of table turning takes us beyond the regrets of wrongs committed, to — as the Big Book bluntly puts it – the letting go of our “terminal vagueness” of merely vowing to do better.  For, if we are to integrate new behavior into our lives that befits a closer walk with our Lord, it is to become completely clear about what exactly we did: when, where, and to whom in true confession if repentance is to have meaning.  It’s to embrace the hope of the Letter to the Hebrews [4:16], as those who “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find.[our] help in time of need.”

Called to “trust God and clean house” [Big Book, p. 98], table turning is to contemplate the list of the people and institutions we have harmed, while also addressing our own feelings of anger, hurt, and resentment.

For instance, like the speck of popcorn that gets under a gum and you feel like you need a tooth pulled, make no mistake – resentment takes an out-sized role and may well be our most difficult challenge in all of this.  I know it has been mine, as it was in writing my own master’s thesis exploring a trauma in my family of origin that allowed me to move on from 18 years of resentment.  Such honest confrontation of our own injury can equip us with newfound integrity, the freedom to express all the ways we feel we were wronged right alongside with the wrongs we have done others.  Everything.  The tables of self-rationalizations and self-justifications get tossed.

The table turning that is cleansing the temple of our hearts isn’t a one and done, if we are to truly embrace recovery of soul.  We invariably must cycle back through this process, for that is exactly what it is, much like how the scriptures speak of the dross skimmed off on the refining process, if the gold is to be purified.  I suspect that is the hidden wisdom in Lent.  It compels us once more back into the desert each year because there is always more work to be done.

Rev. Dr. Paul Bradley writes of his first pass through this table turning within, saying: “When I did my Fifth Step for the first time, I went through my pages of names… In three columns with the headers ‘I’M RESENTFUL AT…’ ‘THE CAUSE…’ and ‘AFFECTS ME…’ I listed everyone and everything that had caused my resentments, fears and anger.  In doing this, I revealed not only what I believed had been ‘done to me,’ but my own part in each situation.  I began to take responsibility for my actions.”  [“Step Five: Diving Into the Wreck, Admitting Our Wrongs,” Rev. Dr. Paul Bradley]

Amid this process, we aren’t alone.  Bradley speaks of God’s companionship equipping us in this process to be like the “deep-sea diver going into a shipwreck to discover what is submerged, metaphorically, within the diver’s own soul, both the deep truths and the false beliefs.  As we dive down past our denial into the hard truth of our behavior and its consequences, God invites us, like the diver, to expose and explore ‘the wreckage of our past.’  Diving into the wreck, we face our fears in order to understand them and, in so doing, we take away their power… “  Adding that God gives us, “just as He did His Son, the courage to go in(to) the dark places in our souls by assuring us that we will rise back up from the depths, from the wreck, newly strengthened to face whatever comes next… God is present with us through it all…”


God’s son, unblemished, and yet — as noted in Hebrews [12:1], “the pioneer and perfecter of OUR faith” – journeys side by side with us as we plumb the depths of our history to do our own work.  We have the confidence of knowing Christ’s journey – from his baptism, through his desert temptations, betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection.  In Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, Lent invites us to turn the tables over – whether it is that struggle that lies within our hearts and or in the moral failings in our society that need change.  Jesus set the example: we need to go forth and reclaim – with authority and in compassion — the GOOD name of “Christian.”  We can do so, but only by and through our love!


Note 1:  The "Big Book" is online at:  https://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/alcoholics-anonymous.

Note 2:  Our church also is blessed to be host to an "open" AA meeting on Wednesdays at 5 PM, with all the meetings in Hampton listed at:  https://aavirginia.org/meetings?d=any&c=Hampton&v=list.  Please note, some of the meeting information may not be accurate, so best to call ahead to the host facility to confirm date and time.


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