Have we learned the lesson of John's Gospel? The COVID-19 pandemic gives us a clue...
This Sunday in our Gospel lesson here we hear a familiar story we often hear around Lent and Easter: the so-called Temple event, or you might know it as, the cleansing of the Temple. Except this year we are reading it from John's Gospel, pretty early on in Lent, and in John's Gospel the event happens at the beginning of the story instead of right before his death. It is sort of an odd situation we find ourselves in both in the lectionary and in the Gospel according to John.
This week I had the pleasure of reading several commentaries on this text, as our Wednesday Lent series happened to take on this passage, but in preparation for preaching, as well. One quotation stuck out for me:
"When people focus too much on a physical location, they miss out on God's glory standing right in front of them."
To understand this quote you have to know a little bit about the Gospel of John. I'm not a John scholar but I'll try to give you the lay of the land, so to speak. John's Gospel is the latest Gospel written, carrying with is memory passed down in the community from the Apostles, perhaps as tradition attributes to the Apostle John himself, with layers of editing and theological reflection until its composition or the final state we receive it in today sometime well after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In John's Gospel, the Father's glory is known, seen, and experienced in Jesus, the Son, the logos or Word of the Father. For John, you know the glory of God the Father by abiding in the Son. We'll see in chapter four when Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well that for John's Gospel, it doesn't matter whether you worship at the Temple or on another mountain, now is the time when true worshipers worship the Father in spirit and in truth.
All of this sets up the above quotation from the commentary, that if you focus too much on a physical location you miss out on God's glory standing right in front of you. Now, I do not think that John's Gospel is bemoaning Temple worship. The reality for the early Christians, as well as their Jewish counterparts, is that the Temple was gone. The devastation of the Temple must have had a tremendously traumatic effect on the psyche of Jews and early Christians alike. I think all the Gospels reflect theologically to make meaning out of the Temple's destruction.
John's Gospel, though, passes on a lesson to us. I wonder if we've learned that lesson. Our experiences with COVID-19 are certainly testing ground to whether we did. A lesson of John's Gospel is, now that we have Jesus, the presence of God is among us, the presence of God is in us. God's Spirit, the Advocate, is with the community of Jesus, the Body of Jesus, and therefore the glory of the Son and the Father, as well as the authority of both, reside in us, wherever we are if we abide in him. Abiding in the Son is not about place, it is about relationship. Knowing the Father is not about place, it is about relationship. Everything, the worshiping community, the covenants, the law, is understood now in the light of the Resurrection.
Have we learned the lesson of John's Gospel? If we're too attached to our building and see it as the essential place for "church" than we might have missed it. If instead we see our identity and our relationships as being fundamentally changed and the true heart of what it means to follow Jesus and abide in him, then everything else is trivial. What's important in John's Gospel? We see the kind of life we are called to when Jesus gets down on his knees and washes his disciples feet. The command he gives us is to love each other as he loved us. That's how we worship, that's how we abide in him, that's how we carry his authority of healing, liberation, and reconciliation into the world. And the whole New Testament witnesses that the presence and glory of God aren't locked away in some space. We find the face of Jesus in the poor, the orphan, the widow, the marginalized, those in need of healing and restoration to community. As we see in Acts, God's Spirit drives the community out of Jerusalem into new territory to carry a message of good news to everyone.
So can we learn the lesson of John's Gospel and the early Christians? It is not too late. The pandemic is an opportunity for us to remember this lesson that Christians learned so early in our history.
What do you think? Is the building we worship in important? How is it important, and how is it not? I'd love to know your thoughts and reflections in the comments below!