The sentences from scripture used as a preface to the Prayer of Confession in the old Book of Common Prayer communion service are called the “Comfortable Words”. I would begin by saying, “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him.” There are indeed many comfortable words in scripture and especially in the Gospels, but in contrast, today’s story from John’s Gospel is decidedly uncomfortable. If someone came into the cathedral while I was on duty there and behaved like Jesus did that day in the Temple, I’d probably have called the police. What we title the cleansing of the temple is quite a violent episode. Jesus doesn’t mess about as he throws out the money changers, the dealers in pigeons, and all the rest of them.
Why did he do it? He was I think being deliberately provocative, and his actions were a fulfilment of what the Prophet Malachi had said God’s servant would do. But in fact Jesus was surely genuinely and deeply angry at what he found going on in his Father’s house. The pictures of Jesus in my old Sunday School Bible are very comfortable and comforting, but here’s a different picture of Jesus. A more difficult image of an angry Jesus, violently angry in fact, as he makes a whip of cords and physically drives the traders out. 'Zeal for my father's house has consumed me' was the Bible quote his disciples recalled. This is Jesus apparently consumed and overcome by anger: not a staged event, but an outpouring of passion.
Would Jesus be just as angry to see our Cathedral gift shop, or the notelets on sale at the back of church here? I hope not, and in fact I don’t think so. It wasn’t trading in the temple as such that he was opposed to. When I was at Minsterley we had a fair trade stall at the back of church, and I’m sure Jesus didn’t mind that at all: he surely liked us having a stall that promote justice and fairness. It was in fact the lack of justice and fairness in the temple that made Jesus so angry that day: the deliberate abuse and exploitation of poor pilgrims who’d maybe travelled miles to worship in the house of God within the city of God.
For this is the deal that faced a pilgrim arriving at the Temple. To offer sacrifice, you had to buy beasts from the temple farms. To pay tribute, you had to put a temple coin on the plate, so you’d need to exchange your everyday coinage for the Temple’s own money. So the temple had a monopoly, and they or their franchisees could charge whatever price they liked. And they did. Here under the arches of the house of the God of justice and righteousness, the people of God were being treated unjustly. No wonder Jesus was so angry.
What can we learn from this story? How might it apply to us? Well, the first thing I draw out of this story is this: every single person who passes through the door of this or any church, old or young, rich or poor, regular attender or occasional visitor - each one is precious to God. Everyone matters. Reading the story of the cleansing of the Temple, you can see there were insiders there and outsiders. Pilgrims - like Jesus himself - who’d travelled from places like Galilee up to the north were definitely outsiders, so there’d have been a lot to make them feel out of place. To be new or a visitor to any church can be difficult: you don't know the ropes, what to sing, when to stand, all of that. But it's the job of the insiders, if you like, to ease the way and provide a welcome. That wasn’t happening in the temple: the priestly insiders were in fact adding burdens and making things harder.
So I’m reminded that welcome is one area in which every church has to test itself. Does how we do what we do match up? Does the quality of our welcome witness to the welcome offered by our Lord? Does our concern for one another reflect his care for us? Or are we falling short of what could and should be as his people?
The second thing I draw from the story is that it could in fact happen anywhere. The temple was the holiest place, in which the finest Biblical scholars met and debated. I’m sure there was no deliberate policy to exploit the poor and make things tough for pilgrims. It had sort of just happened. That’s how that works, if we don’t take care. Over the years standards slip, abuses go uncorrected. Little things go unnoticed - a bit like that odd noise in your car engine that at first you ignore and then later you don’t even notice - until suddenly something blows up and it doesn't work any more.
So it’s always good to do some spring cleaning - now and again to really root about through the dark and dusty corners, and get below the surface. We might be surprised how much dirt and dust has built up. That’s what Lent is: spring cleaning time for Christians - both as individuals and as church communities. And the cleansing of the temple reminds me how even the holiest of places needs a good clean through from time to time - because you don't always notice how things get slack, and problems can build up where no-one notices.
So the third thing I take from this story is that while many of his words are comfortable words, Jesus can isn’t always a comfortable presence. In the Temple that day he was a decidedly uncomfortable presence. Jesus stirs things up and challenges complacency; Jesus stands against all that is unjust and unfair. For we know that Jesus is always the lover of people, and in any organisation, including churches, it can happen that people find themselves serving the system, when the system is supposed to be serving them.
Many years ago, a senior cleric speaking to a clergy conference I attended suggested to us that the choice before every church is between an uncomfortable life and a comfortable death. Those words have stayed with me. An uncomfortable life, versus a comfortable death. Bob Jackson, who was Archdeacon of Walsall. He told us that in his experience it’s the uncomfortable churches that are growing. These are churches that are looking forward, open to what’s new, open to change. It’s uncomfortable when new people come in, with different ideas, different needs. But when a church opts for comfort rather than change it may also be opting to fade away and die; that’s tough but it’s true. Living things are always changing.
Now Lent is by tradition a time when we accept a bit of discomfort. We may well have given up some of the things that comfort us (in my case, cakes). But as we know, there’s more to Lent than giving things up, there’s stuff we get on with too; spring cleaning, throwing out the bad stuff. Now’s the time to check the scruffy corners of our lives, to get the rubbish cleared, and as we do this to be looking outwards rather than inwards, and forwards rather than backwards - and that’s challenging and uncomfortable, but it is where Jesus is calling us to be. He wants disciples, people who learn from him and copy him and follow him: people who put into practice in our own lives what we have seen and learnt in him. Not just the comfortable words, but the uncomfortable and challenging too.