“My house shall be called a house of prayer…
but you have made it a den of robbers.”
This week is the 6th in our series on the I Am Sayings of Jesus. and we are exploring the meaning of “I Am the Door,” or, as it is sometimes translated, “I Am the Gate.” The verse is found in John’s Gospel in the familiar passage about the Good Shepherd where Jesus calls himself the Door to the sheepfold. The ancient sheepfold was a simple stone enclosure with an opening through which the shepherd would gather his flock, and then the shepherd would lay himself down across the opening to guard the flock from thieves or predators, as if to say: if you want to get to them, you have to get to me first, if you want to hurt them, you have to hurt me first–no one comes through here except by way of me. He was, literally, the door–in other words, the One who decides who is in, who is out. He literally lays down his life for the flock.
I cannot help but ask: what if Jesus is the door to the church?–not the bishop, not me, not you, not the church council. What if he were the One who decided who can get married here and who can’t, who can come to communion and who can’t, whose children can be baptized, and who can’t? We, who love to be the gatekeepers, we, who love to make those kinds of judgments, would do well to remember, we are not the door: Jesus is the door.
Let me push the question further: what if he were the door to the temple in Jerusalem? That’s what this story, at least in part, is about. Let’s roll back the clock and go back to that unforgettable day so long ago, that day on which Jesus did not look so much like Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild, but rather so much more like Indiana Jones, (John tells us he had a whip!), overturning tables, setting free the animals, kicking out the vendors, coins clattering across the stone floors. Some have called this a tantrum, a righteous, religious tantrum. Did Jesus just blow a fuse?
No. Most scholars believe it was a premeditated action that put him squarely in the same tradition of the prophets who had gone before him. This is how the prophets so often made their point, not using words, but strong symbolic actions: Isaiah preaching naked, Jeremiah shattering the clay vessel, Ezekiel taking a scroll, putting it in his mouth, chewing it up, and swallowing it, Hosea marrying a prostitute. St. Francis once said, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” Flannery O’Connor said, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” On that day in the temple, people saw the sermon in large, startling figures, and they never forgot it. What was that sermon about? Why did he make such a scene?
Was it because the temple had become such a marketplace, with buying and selling of thousands of animals, birds, goats, sheep, cattle for sacrifice, a “religious rodeo,” as one scholar called it–in a “house of prayer”? as Jesus called it. Was it because of the money changers exchanging Roman coins for the paying of the exorbitant temple tax? Was it because of the price-gouging that was turning the temple into a den of thieves and predators? Was it because of the way the temple authorities collaborated with the Romans in their oppression of the poor? Was it because of the way the temple system had of segregating the rich from poor, Jew from Gentile, male from female, in crowd and outcast? Was it because of the way the religious establishment had become something more of a barrier to the presence of God rather than a door into the presence of God?
Does that ever happen here? When we get so focused upon the institution, the structure, the organization, the numbers and the dollars, the inch high reports, rather the people we are called to serve. I think of the words of Anne Lamott: “God is not a banker or a bean counter!” I wonder what Jesus would do if he could see the Annual Audit, the Charge Conference, Annual Conference, the Jurisdictional Conference, General Conference, Judicial Council, Council of Bishops, I think he just might turn over some tables, crack a whip, clean house! Oh, but wait a minute: this story is not about us! (Is it?)
Let’s go back to that temple. To be sure, it was an awe-inspiring place, as big as 40 football fields, its pillars almost 40 ft. high, divided into a series of strictly segregated courts. This story took place in the in the outermost court, the Court of the Gentiles where there were signs warning foreigners not to enter the temple building on pain of death. Just inside was the Court of the Women. Remember: in Jesus’ day women were not allowed to study scripture or to pray aloud. Still further inside was the Court of the Israelites, reserved only for the men, as long as they had no defect, disability, or disease. Then came the Court of the Priests where animal sacrifices took place on the altar, all day every day, 24/7. Finally, further inside, behind the altar, was a curtain 1 foot thick behind which was the Most Holy Place, symbolic of the presence of God. Only 1 priest could enter this Most Holy Place and only once a year.
Picture Jesus standing all the way out in the court of the Gentiles with his disciples, one of whom was a tax collector, another a zealot, and several fishermen. Think the kind of people he had befriended—the blind, lame, broken, lepers, prostitutes, foreigners, outcasts, Gentiles, Samaritans, rejects, women. Where exactly do they fit in? Mark remembers that Jesus said, “My house shall be a place of prayer for all the nations.” I think this is why he did what he did that day–not just to overturn the furniture of the temple, but to overturn the system by which a relationship to God was a thing to be bought and sold, a system by which the love of God had to be earned and deserved, a system by which people were judged according to race, class, gender, and thus opening doors that had always been closed.
It would be one of the main things they would accuse him of when they arrested him: undermining the temple, overturning the system. In fact, in John’s Gospel, Jesus goes so far as to refer to himself as the temple—not just the door, the temple! In other words, he is the One through whom we can come close to God. Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel the story ends with this verse: “And the blind and lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.” If Jesus is the door—if he is the temple!—then who shall we turn away?
You think this is an ancient issue? Have you been able to keep pace with Pope Francis? Talk about overturning tables, cracking a whip, cleaning house at the Vatican Bank, boldly confronting corruption and abuses of power, telling a woman married to a divorced man that yes, she could receive communion, performing a wedding ceremony for 20 couples including a woman with a child out of wedlock and couples who had been co-habitating, and they all took communion, raising not just a few establishment eyebrows! I think Pope Francis knows who is the door!
Fred Craddock tells a story about a little aristocratic church he served when he was a student, a dying church in a changing community that refused to reach out to an influx of new neighbors because they were poor, because they lived in trailers and tents, with crying children with sticky fingers and muddy feet, because they just wouldn’t “fit in,” the people said. And thus the clannish congregation continued to dwindle. Years later, after his graduation, Craddock went back to show his wife that little church. It looked the same, except there were cars parked everywhere, and a big blinking sign outside: BARBEQUE. The church had closed, but now it was a restaurant! They went inside and all sorts of people sitting around the tables–rich, poor, black, white, Hispanic, men, women, and sticky fingered children everywhere! Craddock told his wife, “It’s a good thing this is not church anymore. These folks wouldn’t be welcome.”
What about us? Do we who call ourselves Methodist, the people of the so-called open hearts, open minds, open doors, do we know who is the door? At the next General Conference the issue will come up again, and I hope that some tables will overturn and we will, as the Presbyterians and Episcopalians have already done, open wide the door that has so long been closed. If Jesus is the door…
On the day Jesus was crucified, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that at the moment he breathed his last breath the massive curtain of the Most Holy Place was torn in two. Matthew and Mark give us this detail: it was torn from top to bottom, not from bottom to top, something only God could do. It was as if the Most Holy One was saying, Come! Into the presence! For he is the door. And it is open.