There’s something unusual about the way that John’s gospel tells the story of the cleansing of the temple. Each of the four gospels tells some version of this event, and they are, for biblical accounts, surprisingly close in detail to one another. As usual, John is the outlier, but even he keeps to the regular format of the other three for most of the story. The kernel in common seems to be that Jesus entered the Jerusalem temple in the days preceding the Passover, drove out some people, probably overturned some tables, and made some kind of prophetic statement to explain his actions to the angry, astonished and frankly frightened bystanders.
John’s is the longest account, and the only one to mention sheep and cattle. In this retelling, Jesus unties the animals and makes of their tethered a kind of whip to drive them out. Contrary to some artistic illustrations, there is no need to infer that Jesus whipped the people. Still, this is a fiercer Jesus than we have seen elsewhere. Yet other aspects of John’s Jesus are gentler. Instead of upending the seats of the dove sellers, he simply tells them to take up their birds and leave. Doves were the sacrificial choice of the poorest people, those who couldn’t afford a lamb, let alone an ox; perhaps that is why Jesus pulled himself back from the brink of his rage and treated them kindly; the little people who were only doing the best that they could.[i]
In the other gospels, Jesus calls the temple a house of prayer for all nations, and the money changers robbers. In John, it is enough that they have made it into a house of trade, through a few innovations in the temple turned marketplace. Finally, as is typical for John, the whole incident becomes the basis for a theological explanation of just who Jesus is, and just what he has come to do.
But the most jarring difference between this account and the others has nothing to do with the details of the way the story is told, but when it is told. In the other three gospels, Jesus enters Jerusalem in the days leading up to the Passover just once, in the week before his death, and this exchange in the temple happens right after Palm Sunday, by our calendar. But this is only the second chapter of John’s gospel. Jesus has only just finished his first miracle, his first sign, as John calls it, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this outrage in the temple is the beginning of the end for Jesus. According to John, he is only just getting started.
Of course this is also the author who begins his gospel not with the nativity, but with the creation story, who writes his gospel against the backdrop of eternity. And really, his whole gospel is devoted to explaining just who Jesus is, and just what he has come to do.
In John’s gospel, Jesus goes to the Jerusalem Passover festival three times, and it is only at that third celebration that he meets death on the cross, at the same time that the lambs are being slaughtered for the Passover feast. John doesn’t have a Last Supper at this last Passover, because Jesus is the meal, the feast, the sacrifice, the celebration, the Lamb of God.
The whole of Jesus’ life of ministry, his death and resurrection, happen in this telling in the shadow of the Passover, the night of deliverance from death for the people of God. John Shelby Spong writes this:
“In the Jewish tradition it was the sacrifice of the paschal lamb that was said to have had the power to banish death from among the Jewish people on the night of their escape from Egypt and slavery. The death of Jesus was said to have lifted human life beyond the boundary that death had previously imposed.” [ii]
All of Jesus’ life, death, and ministry are written in the gospel of John in the context of the Passover, under the shadow of this first Passover in Jerusalem, where Jesus the sacrificial lamb drives out the sheep and the oxen. For John, and for his readers, this chaotic escape is the echo of the first Passover of the Jews, where death was suspended, outwitted, outrun, because of the realization that life is eternal, the life we live with God, with one another in the heart of God.
Of course, Jesus did not outrun death, lamb that he was he went to the slaughter; but death could not keep hold of him, because God that he was, he rose from the dead and demonstrated eternal life to the world.
Our Jewish brothers and sisters continue to celebrate Passover, year after year, just as we celebrate our own deliverance from death in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, year after year. It is not enough to leave it in the past. We need our Passover, our deliverance, our resurrection to live and be remembered and renewed year after year.
After Columbine, after Aurora, after Chardon, after Newtown we saw the Angel of Death pass over us, and we knew our need for the lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, to deliver us from our own deathwish.
I was struck this week by the coincidence of the fiftieth anniversary of the marches at Selma and the release of the Department of Justice report on the racist problems of the police force at Ferguson, Missouri, with its own similarities to the report we read about Cleveland last year; deliverance from racism, deliverance from oppression does not happen once and all is well. In his speech at Selma yesterday, President Obama recognized not only how far we have come, but how far is left to go: “Fifty years from Bloody Sunday, our march is not yet finished. But we are getting closer.” Still, we feel that need to remember what went before, in order to renew our commitment to the march towards love for one, another because we recognize that death still haunts the edges of our lives, and we need our Passover Lamb to help us to banish it from among us.
In our own little lives, our repeated fights and failings, bad habits and harmful patterns require the intervention of a spirit of sacrifice, forgiveness, resurrection over and over again. Day by day, we know our need for the grace of God, to pass over us, banish death from the heart of our lives.
Perhaps that is why John had Jesus go up to Jerusalem not once but three times for the Passover, because he knew our need for repeated deliverance, and he knew that Jesus had promised to be with us not once, but to the end of the age, so that whenever we remember the Lamb of God, Christ our Passover, sacrificed for us; whenever we do this in remembrance of him, we will know that he has already given himself for us, marked us for the Passover, delivered us from death into eternal life. So that we, with him, by him, through him might drive out death from the heart of the temple, and renew a right spirit within.
[i] Derek Tovey, Narrative Art and Act in the Fourth Gospel (Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 249
[ii] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (HarperOne, 2013), 180-1