Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Lent (4 March 2018) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean
The Dean reflects on the day's gospel reading (John 2:13-22), stating that "Jesus also comes to cleanse us, you and me, to challenge each of us about the clutter and self-interest we accumulate in our own lives, the memorials we make to our own pride. Each of us is made for the glory of God, and yet we’re so often marred by our quest for the glory of us."
Wherever you’re sitting in the Cathedral building this morning, take a look around. What can you see? Soaring arches, huge enclosed space, beautiful mosaics, statues and memorials. And living people.
Across the arch at the front of what we call the Quire, above my head, are the Latin words Benedicite omnia opera Domini Domino, meaning Bless the Lord all works of the Lord. This building isn’t just a container for the worship that happens within it, or a place to pray in out of the cold – it’s an act of worship in itself, and it’s designed to point us to God, to help us pray and praise and to be caught upwards and given a glimpse in stone as in music and silence of the wonder of heaven and the glory of God.
But look more closely and see how the mixed messages of humanity have crept in. The mosaics on the Quire ceiling display the badges of those who sponsored them. The statues around you speak of the pride and achievements of men – and it is men, not women, and white men at that, the white men who built and patronised this cathedral. Many of us the living people here this morning are not obviously represented in the building around us.
And yet we have come; we have come over the centuries into the Cathedral; we bring with us our hopes and fears, our ambitions and our vanities, our uncertainties and insecurities, and as we go we leave behind over the centuries the marks of our pride on this place.
This cathedral is not a temple. Temples are places where a god has a special place on earth, such as the Temple in Jerusalem which Jesus cleansed in our gospel reading this morning. The Jerusalem Temple was built to be the house of the true God, where sacrifice was offered by his people. Jerusalem wasn’t a rich city, but because people came from all over Israel to worship on special festivals like the Passover, the Temple was the main centre of economic activity in the city, and it made money from its worship.
There was quite an industry in sacrificing animals in Jerusalem. It was much easier for people not to walk their own sheep for 70 miles from Galilee, but to just buy one at the Temple when they needed it, one which was guaranteed to be fit and whole for sacrifice. And the Temple had other rituals and rules which could make money – so the coins used in the Temple had to be special old currency which required money-changing tables, making money out of worshippers.
At St Paul’s we have to charge for sightseeing to keep the building open, but you don’t pay anything to pray and worship. But imagine if you’d come this morning, and at the door you had to buy a couple of pigeons or a sheep to bring in with you to give to the clergy, and you had to change your money for the collection from pounds into St Paul’s shekels; and you couldn’t come in to worship at all if you had a disease or were blind or crippled or were a child or a woman.
The Jerusalem Temple was built as the house of God, but excluded people from worship or made them pay. The pride and insecurity of humanity had left its mark on the Temple; and Jesus was determined to recall it back to being a place of encounter with God, and not the source of income for the ruling priests in Jerusalem.
And so Jesus attacks the lack of inclusion at the Temple. He blows apart the restrictive rules of the priests, and opens the place up for all to come, as they are, to pray and find God. And Jesus proclaims himself as the true Temple, the Messiah of God, through whom true worship is offered – the sacrifice to end all animal sacrifices, the Temple which will rise again in three days; Jesus, not the building, brings us to the God who he knows and shares with us as our loving Father.
St Paul’s Cathedral isn’t a temple: it’s not the place where God lives, but a place where we come to worship the God who is always alongside us; a cathedral which inspires us with a foretaste of heaven; where we come to worship and then go away from, with God in our hearts, to take the vision of heaven into the week ahead and into the lives of those around us.
The Cathedral speaks of God’s glory; and it also speaks to us the living people here, to include all of us, whatever our background or gender or faith; and we can find ourselves in the building, if we look closely.
From your seat you may be able to see the central window of the crucifixion at the East End; you can’t see on either side, but to its right is a window about burial and resurrection, and to the left is a window with three incidents in Jesus’ life which acknowledge him as the suffering Son of God. There are the three kings, one of whom is a black man, coming to adore the Christ-child; there’s the foot-washing of the disciples at the Last Supper; and also a stained glass panel depicting the cleansing of the Temple, today’s gospel reading, the incident which provoked the priests to get Jesus arrested and crucified for challenging their power – a reminder to us at St Paul’s of what we’re truly called to be.
And there are other memorials too which speak, not of military glory, but of our suffering Messiah. High up above the Whispering Gallery is one of 8 statues of early church leaders, which you can see from the middle of the Dome – it’s the one to the left of the main arch, above the mosaic of St Matthew the gospel writer.
It’s a statue of an Eastern bishop called John Chrysostom. He was no great spiritual hero but someone like us: a Middle-Eastern man, more brown than white; a man who held the prejudices of his age against Jewish people and women, a man with ambition for himself as well as God. He was a great preacher, appointed against his will by the Roman Emperor in Constantinople to preach to the imperial court around the year 400AD; and he was eventually exiled and starved to death for daring to denounce the obscene wealth and conspicuous consumption of the imperial Roman court, set alongside the exploitation of those living in desperate poverty; and for confronting a Christian church which was more concerned for its own wealth than with challenging the rich to give to the poor, in a way which was seen to threaten the power of the governing elite. Imagine how the imperial court would have felt on hearing these words from him:
‘Not sharing our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.’
The imperial court and other bishops were pretty uncomfortable with that. So they got rid of John Chrysostom, rather than listen to him and be changed by God.
They should be uncomfortable words for us too. For Jesus comes, not only to challenge and transform institutions like the Cathedral – where we keep working, however inadequately, to find what it means for St Paul’s to serve Jesus Christ and be changed.
Jesus also comes to cleanse us, you and me, to challenge each of us about the clutter and self-interest we accumulate in our own lives, the memorials we make to our own pride. Each of us is made for the glory of God, and yet we’re so often marred by our quest for the glory of us.
We come here today to look, to worship, to be inspired, to be changed. And if this Cathedral building has done its job this morning, we will go from here with Christ in us to find Christ in all those we meet. As John Chrysostom said:
‘We pray, not to inform God or to instruct him, but to become intimate with him.’
‘Do not adorn the church and neglect your afflicted brother or sister: for they are the most precious temple of all.’