Our First Readings this Lenten season have moved chronologically through the covenants God made with us. The gospels set the themes—so we started with temptation, moved to solidarity, and today it is Jesus and the Temple—but the First Readings dealt with covenants—so we started with Noah, then Abraham, and today have Moses at Sinai, the giving of the Law. Christians in general and Lutherans in particular have a strained relationship with the Law. On the one hand, we are justified by the faith of Christ and not by works of the Law. On the other hand, much is required of us as disciples. How are these two maxims not mutually exclusive?
What does the Law do? Last week we heard Paul say, “Where there is no Law, there is no transgression.” Once there is a law—Hebrew, Roman, whatever—that signifies awareness that something is broken and sinful. The Law gives a name to what is wrong, like a diagnosis. The individual law may not be the best it could. It was once illegal for interracial couples to marry. That law indicated a problem. The problem was not interracial couples; the problem was racism. The particular law did not address the problem, but it was a symptom that something was broken and we knew it. Sometimes we have to change the law to get it right. I will say more about that. For now, though, this is what Lutherans call the First Use of the Law. It is designed to curb sin and protect us. For Paul as for Jesus, the Law regulated life in the Temple and in the world. It protected people and gave them recourse when they sought justice.
The Law is not how you connected with God. Hebrews connected with God at the Temple. In the Gospel today, Jesus calls the Temple the house of his Father. It is the place where people live out and rectify their relationship with God. The Laws that regulate the Temple don’t connect the Hebrews to God; the Temple connects the Hebrews to God. Chiefly, God and the people connect through sacrifices. People could offer the lives of animals or plants, in thanksgiving, or freely, or to repay a vow, or to apologize to God for a violation or ritual pollution, and the High Priest could offer the life of an animal to cleanse the sanctuary from the sins of the world. You brought your animal or bought it outside the temple. Sales within the Temple would violate its purity. The Temple needed to be clean, pure, and holy, and functioning all day as a sort of sacred slaughterhouse and barbecue that connected everyone to God. The Temple connected, the Law protected.
Jesus shuts down the Temple. Why? Look at the charge he makes and countercharge the authorities make. Jesus says, “You have made the house of my father into a house of the market.” If a market in the Temple violates the Law, why is a market in the Temple? Apparently, Caiaphas, the High Priest, got into a dispute with the Sanhedrin, and wouldn’t let them meet in one of the Temple buildings. The men who sold sacrificial animals outside the Temple offered meeting space to the Sanhedrin. Caiaphas fought back and told the salespeople: get your animals off my lawn! Then, he invited their competitors to set up shot inside the Temple. No more having to get your sheep up those steps and through the gate; you can buy it practically where you kill it. It’s convenient for today’s devout Hebrew on the go. It’s not allowed—it violates Temple purity—and if an animal gets loose and runs into the Holy place, you’ve got to shut the whole Temple down and do a sin offering. But, they do it.
Jesus says, “You’ve made the House of my Father into a House of the Market.” The countercharge? “What sign can you show us for doing this?” The authorities do not respond with a good legal argument or theological justification…they have neither. The Law is clear. The proper procedure at the Temple is clear. Caiaphas and his allies are not following it. They’re acting like they are above the Law. Their only real challenge to Jesus is to test if he can prove he is above them. The Temple connected, the Law protected, but the Law was being ignored.
Jesus responds, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” John says he was talking about his body, and its death and resurrection. Jesus asserts himself as the real Temple. Jesus says that he is the locus of right relationship with God. No one comes to God the Father but by Jesus, God the Son. No Temple? No Problem! No one can cut you off from God. You have Jesus. And you always have Jesus. Later on in the Gospel of John, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet, and tell them, “I’m in charge; if the guy in charge has to wash feet, so do the rest of you. You will do this for each other, and in doing this for each other you will do it for me.” Jesus sets up service and welcome of one another as service and welcome of Jesus. Jesus puts you in right relationship with God, and tells you to experience that relationship and live into it by loving and serving your neighbors. Performing such deeds of love is not the same as trying to impress God by performing the works mandated by the Law.
I think we Lutherans struggle with the Law in part because we confuse the Law and Jesus. The Law protects, Jesus connects. The Law is rules. Jesus is our friend. We need both. A story. My best friend for most of my life is my college roommate. We met when we were ten. My family had moved to West Virginia and our house was not yet ready, so we lived for a month with a recently widowed member of the congregation who lived in a six-bedroom house. A daughter still lived locally, and she came over one night with her son, Jeremiah, who was my age. Both of us usually were awkward around new people; he and I clicked instantly.
We wound up going to college together and were assigned each other as roommates. There were rules to living together. If the Detroit Red Wings are on TV, I am watching them play. (This was a happier time for Red Wings fans.) If Jeremiah has a paper due the next day, he gets the computer (even though it is my computer), which is only fair, because his stereo is good and Van Halen is best appreciated at a volume that at least shakes you a little but where you can still hear the nuances of the tone. There were other regulations: don’t bring this into the room, don’t bring them into the room. If something went wrong, there were accepted procedures for figuring out how to get ourselves back to normal.
The Law didn’t put Jeremiah and me together. The Law didn’t cause us to love each other as friends. The Law didn’t keep us friends over the years. The Law protected us by giving us rules for how to interact. Those rules in themselves did nothing: we had to act on them, and had to mean it, but we could only mean it because we were already friends. Jesus is already our friend. Nothing can take that away. Nothing can add to that. It’s a little scary: we would like to think we can make Jesus love us more, but Jesus is the source of Jesus’ love for us.
The Law remains to protect us, and to ensure that no one keeps Jesus from anyone. That’s why sometimes the Law changes. I mentioned before the old ban on interracial marriage. Who was that protecting? How was that making sure people had access to Jesus? We don’t have good answers to those questions, so the law changes. The only reason we have the Law, the only reason Sinai happened, was that God loves us and wants to protect us and our access to God. When laws get in the way of Jesus, or are actually hurting someone, it’s time to reassess them. Likewise, when laws are being ignored, the way Caiaphas ignored the ban on selling in the Temple, we have to ask if someone is being hurt, or if someone’s access to Jesus is being threatened by this. If it is, chances are pretty good Jesus is going to show up with a whip of cords and start talking in weird building metaphors about himself.
Nothing overrules Jesus’ love for us. Nothing can. Not even the Law. Not even when we have to follow it and it hurts, which happens from time to time. The Law isn’t Jesus. The Law protects, Jesus connects. Jesus calls us into costly service that does nothing to impress him or improve our standing with him, but does everything to connect us to him and to his Father and the Holy Spirit. It’s why we spend six months a year housing some of God’s children who experience homelessness, why some of us feed and work with people recovering from opioid addictions, why some of us go to Gary airport to call attention to the humanity of those being deported, why some of us speak up for our silenced Palestinian sisters and brothers, and why we care for and walk with one another through illness and grief and loss and joy and love, to the font, to the table, to the grave, and to the resurrection: not to impress Jesus but to live connected with him.