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Covenant New: On this Rock

Scripture:  John 2:13-22

Wendy2With the turning of calendar from one year to the next often comes time for reflection on both the past and the future. A new year is a symbolic new beginning, and is a good opportunity to contemplate on what has been, and where one is headed.

It’s not a bad thing to do as a church, either. It’s no big surprise to anyone that the Church at large is in a season of change. Yes, the Church is always changing – or at least it should be – but right now the change feels more dramatic, seismic even. Something big is happening, but it is difficult to put our finger on. Church leaders, denominations, seminaries, and even sociologists have been looking at the changes facing the Church for years, and trying to figure out what to do about it.

A lot of hand-wringing has been going on; a lot of clinging to the past or grabbing hold of the first model for church renewal or growth that comes along. I think though that we need to hold this all lightly. It is better to loosen our grip on the Church and see what God is doing among us than to strive and strain and fret.

We have heard a lot of snippets of scripture in that scripture collage read earlier. To those verses about rocks and stones, I want to add a longer story from the gospel of John, 2:13-22.

Jesus Cleanses the Temple

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

This story is found in all four gospels. However, whereas the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all place this story right after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, John places it as one of the very first stories in his gospel. Biblical scholars pretty much agree that this is the same event, and that John uses creative license to move the confrontation to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a way of making a theological point.

It is helpful to know that John is writing his gospel around 90 AD, shortly after the fall of the temple. The destruction of the temple was devastating for both the Israelites and the early followers of Christ. Their central religious institution no longer exists and their religious traditions are in upheaval. By placing Jesus’ cleansing of the temple at the beginning of the Gospel, John transforms the meaning of both temple and faith traditions. The temple may be no more, but the glory of God’s presence still dwells among the people. Jesus is the temple – the living temple.

The people need not worry about rebuilding the temple: Jesus both fulfills and transforms what the temple represented among the Israelites. Worship is no longer possible only in the temple. God now dwells among God’s people through Jesus’ incarnation. To help communicate this, John uses the story of the cleansing of the temple to show that a seismic shift is taking place with Jesus. Jesus is transforming Jewish practices, and confronts the misuse of the temple as a prophetic action that symbolizes the immanent end of the temple. Through his incarnation, death, and resurrection, Jesus is the new temple, “not made with human hands.” Jesus is the new divine dwelling place, the place where the divine and human meet.

Perhaps some of us feel as though we are living in a similar time of religious upheaval to the one in which John was writing. As individuals turn away from organized religion in growing numbers, as denominations split or restructure, as some congregations close their doors while others turn into mega churches, those of us in the church are left sifting through some of the rubble and wondering what of value is left?

Jesus is left. Jesus prophetically proposes in this story that the Temple could crumble – it could pass away and its collapse wouldn’t be the end of the world. In fact, it would be a new beginning! Through the person of Jesus, God infiltrated our world and became a living replacement for what so many believed was irreplaceable.  The people of Jerusalem did not have the imagination to see what their faith might look like without the Temple. But in his ministry and teaching Jesus began to show what a living faith means, offering a loving, embodied way of relating to God, neighbour, and all of creation. In his death and resurrection we are offered a generous and extravagant grace available to all.

Brian McLaren writes of this story: “John’s Temple story tells the truth: even if the worst imaginable thing happens, even if our traditional religious architecture crumbles—physically or conceptually—even then God can raise something beautiful from the rubble. The end is not the end. It’s actually the doorway to a new beginning.”

Jesus was, of course, an agent of change. He drew on the history of a long line of biblical prophets, and became himself the living temple, the heart and foundation of a new faith movement that grew into the global Christian Church. From Jesus, the story continued on through the work of Paul and then on through the centuries to today. Over the years it renewed and reinvented itself through ebbs and flows, through times of crisis and wandering in the desert to times of rich growth characterised by fruitful, vibrant, joyful and peace-filled communities of faith.

So, here we sit on the first Sunday of 2018, looking ahead to an uncertain future. None can predict what the year will hold for Canada, for the world, or for the Church. But in the midst of change and uncertainty, we can choose to keep faith. We can choose to trust in God who has remained faithful throughout aeons of change.

Christianity offers us a great spiritual journey – a faith on the move. Back on December 10th Mark preached a sermon on the theme of journeying. It really seemed to strike a nerve with folks, because our sharing time that morning was filled with people who connected what they were sharing with being on a journey. Our lives are not static – we are always on the move, growing and changing, facing difficulties and surmounting them. It is not a stretch then, to see how our faith is also a journey: it grows and changes with us, developing maturity and complexity like a good aged wine.

Because our institutions generally have a longer lifespan than people, it can be a bit harder for us to see and accept change in the Church. But if we remind ourselves that the Church is the Body of Christ, made up of living members, it is no surprise that the church also grows and changes. It should be seen and understood as a dynamic living organism, not an inanimate, unchaning institution.

The Church is at its best when it leads us forward, rather than holding us back. Unfortunately, too many people have experienced the Church doing just that. And at times of great societal turmoil, some churches try to turn back the clock to the “good old days” or to some golden age that in reality never really existed. It is exactly at these times of rapid change that what we need most is wise spiritual guidance and voices of change, hope and imagination, not anxious condemnation and critique. As the Church, we do not want to be change-averse, but adaptive and forward-leaning.

Christianity has a rich tradition of renewal and reimagining itself. Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutierrez is quoted as saying, “Conversion is a permanent process in which very often the obstacles we meet make us lose all we had gained and start anew.” Protestant theologian Karl Barth popularized the phrase, “the church must always be reformed,” emphasising the idea that the church is in need of constant reformation and re-imagination. Writer Phyllis Tickle outlined a historical pattern of major upheavals in the church every 500 years. Richard Rohr writes that “Every so often, religious institutions become rigid and need to be revived, reformed, and reborn. When churches become machines more than movements, it’s a sign that they must shake off the historical and cultural calcifications so they can continue evolving as a living movement.”

What do we take from all this? I find comfort and assurance in the understanding that the Church is a living body, modeled on the living Temple of Christ. Times of significant change bring about fear, but they also should be times of significant hope. We are standing in the midst of opportunity, when changes around us give rise to creativity, when endings offer new beginnings.

As we navigate our way through this, we will need to exercise patience, trust, and openness to where the Spirit is leading. We will do well to loosen our grip, rather than tightening our controls and certitude. I believe we will be better off if we are able to show unity and love for those who differ from us theologically or politically than if we divide ourselves further along ideological lines. Digging in our heels won’t help, but extending grace will. It will also help to ground ourselves through an active engagement with spiritual practices that keep us connected with God and allow our souls to listen at a deeper level. When our faith is grounded, we are less likely to jump to knee-jerk reactions when faced with chaos or change. 

I do believe we are in the midst of a great shift in the Church, what some are calling a great Spiritual Awakening. Mennonite Church Canada named conference that introduced their significant shift in structure “Covenant New” as a way of recognizing that what is new grows out of our faith tradition and an understanding that we are in an everlasting covenant with God who promises to be with us until the end of the age.

For this worship series we added the tagline: “The Journey Continues.” This may sound a bit like a corny Star Wars movie title, but it indicates both movement and continuity.  We are on the move, we are disciples following the living Christ. We don’t know what the future will look like – it might be radically different, it might not. But God is with us each step of the way, guiding, encouraging and equipping us for whatever God has in store. As we stand at the threshold of a New Year, facing changing times, let us look back with gratitude for what has been and where God has brought us, and look forward with hope as the journey continues.

I would like to invite us into a time of reflection. I have three options up on the screen, and will read through them. You are invited to choose one to reflect on during a time of silence during which Ian will provide some music.

Time for Reflection

  • Let the dramatic story of Jesus cleansing the temple replay in your mind. Imagine what it would have felt like to be there in the Temple and witness Jesus’ actions and words.

  • Reflect on the image of rock. What do you like or dislike about it as a metaphor?

  • When you stop to think about the shifts happening in our culture and in the Church, what emotions do you feel? Where do you see God in the midst of change?

 

Reader’s Theatre – ‘On this Rock I will build my Church’

HWB#343 My Hope is built on nothing less

(Voices 1 and 2 stand behind communion table with pile of rocks. Voices 3 and 4 speak from another mic stand – perhaps behind pulpit) 

(Voice 1 picks up stones on communion table)

Voice 1: What’s with all these stones? Why do we keep hearing about rocks? Why does the Bible keep using this image?

Voice 2: Rocks are so solid, long lasting, firm. And yet, they can be moved around and set up in different ways. They can shift over time and even break open.

Voice 1: Rocks and stones come in such different shapes and sizes, colours and contours, textures and weights.

Voice 2: You can build them into almost anything. They are a foundational material, like bedrock, but we can use them to make different structures and shapes.               

Voice 1: What do these stones mean?

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Voice 3: Laban answered Jacob, Come, you and I, let us make a covenant. So Jacob gathered up a heap of stones and set them up as a pillar. (Gen 31:43-46).

Voice 4: Then Samuel took a stone and named it Ebenezer, for the Lord has helped us (1 Samuel 7:12)

Voice 3: When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, take 12 stones from the middle and lay them down where you camp. When your children ask in times to come, ‘what do these stones mean?’ you shall tell them that the waters were cut off in front of the Ark of the Covenant. These stones shall be a memorial forever. (Joshua 4:1-7)                                                                                                                                                                       

Voice 4: The Lord is my Rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge... There is no Rock like our God. (2 Samuel 22:2-3; 1 Samuel 2:2)

Voice 3: The wise one built their house upon the rock. The winds blew, but it did not fall. (Matthew 7:24-25)

Voice 4: Like a skilled master builder I laid the foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder much choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:10-11)

Voice 3 and 4: On this Rock I will build my Church (Matthew 16:18)

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Voice 1: There we go. Those all sound good. Case closed.

Voice 2: The solid rock upon which the Church and our very lives are built!

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Voice 3: You deserted the Rock, the God who gave you birth (Deuteronomy 32:18)

Voice 4: They will destroy the walls and pull down her towers; I will scrape away her rubble and make her a bare rock. (Ezekiel 26:4)

Voice 3: Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jeremiah 23:29)

Voice 4: Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly... and withered away. (Matthew 13:5-6)

Voice 3: A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall. (1 Peter 2:8)

Voice 4: We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block. (1 Corinthians 1:23)

Both: On this Rock I will build my Church

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Voice 1: Case re-opened. The image is not so solid.

Voice 2: It seems flexible, open-ended, contradictory. Is this what the Church is built on? Now I am stumbling.

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Voice 3: Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water. (Psalm 114: 7-8)

Voice 4: God splits rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. God makes streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers. (Psalm 78:15-16)

Voice 3: I tell you, if these were silent, the stones themselves would shout out! (Luke 19:40)

Voice 4: Come to Christ, a living stone, chosen and precious in God’s sight. Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood. See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious. The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner. (1 Peter 2: 4-7) 

Both: On this Rock I will build my Church

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Voice 1: Maybe it’s more of a living image?

Voice 2: An image for our day when nothing seems solid anymore, when the Church is in flux, when everything seems up for grabs. A living image for a living Church.

Voice 1: It was, after all, to a failing struggling disciple – Peter - that Jesus said, ’On this Rock’.

Voice 2: And so we build, we tear down, we rebuild, we look to foundations, we wonder what might yet emerge.

Voice 1 (picking up some stones) What will these stones mean?

All 4 Voices: On this Rock I will build my Church

Prayer and Candlelighting

Sing and Rejoice #60 - Living Stones (Words projected on the screen)