I don’t know about you, but when Jesus shows up and starts flipping tables, I get nervous. It’s not that I disagree that some tables need to be flipped, but I get nervous about expressing religious zeal that way.
What could get Jesus so worked up that he enters the temple and upsets the system? Is he speaking out against the whole religious system itself, or against religious sacrifice, or against the way the animals are bought and sold?
New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine cautions readers against caricaturing Judaism to fit our current-day narrative. If Jesus truly had no respect for the temple as a holy space, it just doesn’t make sense that there would be so many stories of Jesus entering the temple to teach and to worship. If Jesus had a problem with sacrifice, it doesn’t make sense that he wouldn’t speak plainly about it—Jesus doesn’t have a problem speaking plainly about anything else.
To Jesus, the temple wasn’t a domination system but the house of God. When Jesus entered and saw people selling animals and changing coins in the temple, the problem wasn’t an exploitative religious system but the act of doing business itself.
Jesus cares deeply about opening the way between people and God, not allowing barriers to remain. Jesus loves the temple so much that he’ll speak up. He won’t allow the temple to become an idol, an object of worship, and he isn’t afraid to overturn a few tables in the interest of helping people notice what’s really important—zeal for God.
By the time the gospel-writer John is gathering these stories to write down and save them, the people for whom he is writing have seen the destruction of the temple. For John’s community, the temple is gone. So does that mean God is also gone?
Jesus suggests that the temple can be destroyed and rebuilt in three days, but he’s really talking about his own body. Jesus won’t allow himself to be made into an idol, either. We can’t worship and grab onto the body that will die. If we as Jesus’s followers wanted to cling to his human body for our certainty, Jesus flips that table, too: there will be death, and there will be resurrection.
We are always looking for a shortcut to God, to bypass the difficulty, the pain, or to catapult ourselves to righteousness—just keep the commandments and you’ll be good! But here comes Jesus to flip our assumptions and re-center our hearts: worship is not a transaction, it’s a relationship.
As people who have been utterly changed by the experience of living through a pandemic, we can certainly imagine what it’s like to have our world turned upside down.
It isn’t Jesus who brought Covid and made some people die and made some get sick and made all of our lives difficult. Jesus didn’t do that. But we can certainly trust that Jesus can bring healing, even now. Healing for people who have been sick, healing for those broken places in our society that this pandemic has made even more obvious, healing for communities, maybe even churches.
We just can’t do things the way we used to—show up in the church building on Sundays and on holidays, greet some people, eat food and socialize, study together and have activities for kids. We hope to do those things again someday, but for now, we have to pay careful attention to what is safe.
And it wouldn’t hurt for us to pay attention to what we really value—is God drawing your attention to some aspect of community life that you took for granted in the past? What would happen if you explore that feeling and consider how God may be calling you toward growth?
Churches haven’t always done the best job at proclaiming the reign of God. There was a moment in history when churches existed as places for worship but also as community centers, where people gathered for fellowship and meals and parties and also some charity. In the mid-1950s, here in the United States, churches were adding large kitchens for their church meals, and some large congregations even hired cooks for weekly fellowship meals.
Was that necessary for spiritual life? Did a fancy dinner become holier because it was served in the same building where people met for worship? Were these dinners about socializing for the sake of fun and maybe making business contacts, or were they truly about building a stronger relationship with God?
There were critics of these church practices. Church historian Martin Marty wasn’t flipping tables, but he wrote in 1958 that “laymen can become so organized and their activities so routine that the machinery of church life, smoothly oiled, takes the place of the deity in many a hierarchy of values.”
Is it really possible to worship a pleasant system more than we worship God? Is it worshipping an ideal from the past, as so many congregations do when they dream about the days when the pews were full and the Sunday School classes were overflowing with children, when the church occupied a higher place in society?
The church itself must not become an idol. If it wasn’t clear before a pandemic upended our lives, let it be clear now, now that the machinery of church life is no longer running smoothly. Let us consider our habits and decide what is worth keeping. Let us look honestly at our past and consider who was left out of the story. Let us connect with those people who would be unlikely to ever enter a church building, and let’s find out what God is up to among them. Let us continue to proclaim the reign of God, the expansive nature of God’s grace, the continual revealing of God’s justice. Let us advocate and lift our voices for those without a voice. Worship is not a transaction but a relationship with God.
If we could witness this story of Jesus overturning the tables, where are we standing after the coins have hit the floor and the doves are madly flapping their wings and the animals are running about? How do we begin to clean this up?
Let’s start with repentance. This is what we do during the weeks of Lent: we repent and turn our hearts to God. Our sins are no surprise to God, so it won’t shock God to hear us name what’s wrong. We confess that we’ve not cared for our neighbors as well as we’ve cared for ourselves. We confess that we’ve excluded people from worship. We confess that we’ve erected barriers after Jesus tore them down.
Repenting doesn’t mean wallowing in our sins and brokenness. We also receive God’s forgiveness. Repentance is a way to repair a relationship, and we seek strength in our relationship with God. The way to union with God is not about doing all the things and getting them correct. We listen carefully to Scripture; we care about the things that God cares about.
And we trust that God loves and forgives us. God is not trying to get us and catch us when we mess up. God loves us as we are, where we are, and God keeps calling us to become the people God originally created us to be. And God created us for loving union.
These are things to consider as we look to a future, possibly soon, where we may again gather for worship in-person. As more people get vaccines for Covid, as it becomes safer to gather, let us consider: what have we learned from this past year? What church traditions can be left behind in the past, and also what do we want to keep as we move forward into the future God prepares for us?
As a minister of Word and Sacrament, I have to confess to you: it feels weird to talk this much about food while we’re still not yet celebrating Holy Communion as part of our regular weekly worship. But that’s a sermon for another time. Trust that the feast is on the way.
Pr. Cheryl Walenta Gorvie
 Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, page 152.  Martin E. Marty, The New Shape of American Religion, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958, page 135.