Jesus and the End of Religion

Humans seem to be an inherently religious species. No human culture has ever existed without some form of religious expression. And yet it’s difficult to define what exactly the word ‘religion’ means; it’s one of those words whose meaning seems to be best thought of as “I know it when I see it.” Of the many, largely unsuccessful, attempts at defining religion that I’ve come across, the one that seems to have the most going for it says that a religion is a system designed to unite fundamental divisions, whether we envision those divisions being between the visible and invisible, the earthly and heavenly, the material and the spiritual, the immanent and the transcendent, or the created and the Creator. These systems help give meaning to the world and our experience of it. And yet, they have their limits. And in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus runs up against them in explosive ways.

For Jesus, the flash point was the Temple, and specifically the commercial activity taking place within the Temple grounds. Looking at it objectively, this was simply the way temples at major pilgrimage sites functioned in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world: There were animals to be bought and sold for the sacrifices, money to be exchanged from foreign pilgrims, and certain monetary offerings and taxes that could only be paid in specific currencies. And of course, within all this, there were profits to be made. In this way, the commerce within the Temple courts was totally understandable. But at the same time, all of this commercial activity turned the Temple — the sacred place of God’s dwelling with God’s people — into a marketplace, and the original symbolic action, of offering the best of your own livestock back to God, into a crass financial transaction. In “cleansing the Temple” of the money-changers and profiteers, Jesus wasn’t attacking the Temple and the sacrificial system per se, but, rather the “Temple Industrial Complex,” which had come to underpin and tacitly define the whole system. But this doesn’t make the Temple look good. So intertwined had the Temple become with commerce that Jesus’ disruption of the livestock and currency markets within its walls effectively stopped the religious heartbeat of the people of God. The Temple system was thereby revealed to be a shell game. At some point it had ceased being about doing your business with God but simply about doing business as usual.

But Jesus doesn’t simply attack the Temple and go on his way. Rather, in its place, Jesus offers himself. When the authorities ask him for some heavenly sign to justify his action, he said “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” The text adds the explanatory comment, He was speaking of the Temple of his body. What does it mean for Jesus to identify as the Temple in this way?

The Temple was first and foremost the House of God, the place where God’s Spirit dwelt with God’s people. So, Jesus is saying that he — in his body — is the place where God’s Spirit dwells, the physical embodiment of God’s presence. Secondly, the Temple was the place of offering and sacrifice. And so, in identifying with the Temple, Jesus is saying that he too is a place of sacrifice: not the offering of grain and livestock as a symbol of one’s devotion and gratitude to God, but the humble offering of one’s own life itself in service to God. Sacrifice is no longer about the symbol but the thing itself. This is a move that ends with Jesus offering up that life on the cross, betrayed by religion in the name of Empire.

As much as we Christians see in all this something of Jesus’ uniqueness and divinity, as we saw at the start of the year, Jesus is also the prototypical human, the True Human, and so what is true of him is, by extension and by grace, also true of us. And so in saying that he is the Temple, the place where God dwells and a place of sacrifice and offering, he is also pointing to a new way for all of us. St. Paul put it in as many words: “You are God’s temple and … God’s Spirit dwells in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16).

If we go back to the definition of religion as a system uniting fundamental divisions, what Jesus is doing here is effectively marking the end of religion. For he is saying that we don’t need to look outside ourselves to bridge heaven and earth. In fact, there is no need for there to be any division at all. The eternal is present within the temporal, the heavenly within the earthly, the spiritual in the material: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” (Luke 17.21). And so, while ritual sacrifice can be a powerful symbolic expression of offering oneself to God, but the symbol is not the thing itself. It is the offering of our own life — “our selves, our souls, and bodies” in the old words of the Book of Common Prayer— to God that truly matters.

Of course this is easier said than done. We don’t really know what “taking up our cross” to follow Jesus will look like in our own life and times. All we can do in our offering is to be open to what God is doing and to what faithfulness demands in the moment.

This is a powerful message for us today, if we choose to hear it. God is calling us out of ‘religion’ as we know it, out of life as we know it, and into a new way of being in the world — a way that is as ‘new’ and shocking as it was two thousand years ago. (I’ll share some further thoughts on all this tomorrow.)

May we all, the living temples of God, take up this Gospel challenge.

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