There’s a meme that made the rounds not long ago that features the line, “I promise not to get into any religious arguments.” Below that, it reads: “Three Drinks Later…” with a painting of Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church. Three drinks later, I think I’m Martin Luther, telling the Church exactly what I think of this.
It has several less funny, more partisan political cousins, but this meme has stuck with me because I think it reveals something.
The “three drinks later” joke is funny to us because it’s a snide acknowledgement that the current institutions are not serving us well, but if we said what we really think (perhaps with the help of some liquid courage), we’d admit that everything needs to change.
That’s why I think it’s funny that this Jesus story we read today — the one where Jesus goes flipping tables over in the temple right in front of the religious leaders — happens right after Jesus changes water into the good wine at the wedding at Cana.
Jesus promises the disciples, “I won’t get into any arguments with the Pharisees.”
Three drinks later, tables flip.
(Note: It doesn’t really happen immediately after. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus goes down to Capernaum with his family and his disciples for a few days. But it’s fun to imagine anyhow.)
This is a story that must be important, because it appears in all four Gospels. If no one’s ever told you, now’s the time: there are distinct differences in the Gospels. If you tried to compile four accounts of your grandmother from four different family members, you’d understand. The order changes, quotes are slightly different, you’d borrow from one another. Things like that.
One significant difference is that this story appears in two different places in the four Gospels. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it’s the final straw that convinces the religious leaders to have Jesus killed. In those Gospels, he flips over the tables and he’s dead within a week.
But in John, as you see, it’s in chapter 2. In John, this story is only the beginning, days after the Cana wedding and only days after Jesus recruits the disciples.
Sometime soon, we really should have a conversation about John’s Gospel.
It’s my favorite, and not only because it tends to shake up our expectations and assumptions about what things happened when and why.
It’s because John’s Jesus is, to me, the realest, earthiest, most relatable Jesus available, but John gets a bad rap because almost all of the overly pious Jesus quotes that people pull out of the Bible at annoying moments come from John. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” quoted by your fundamentalist relative when you mention other faiths? John. “For God so loved the world,” appearing on the signs of street preachers everywhere? John. 3:16, of course, to be specific. “Living water?” John. “I am the Good Shepherd?” John. “I am the light of the world?” John again. “Take heart, I have overcome the world,” the citation once written on Tim Tebow’s eye black? Also John.
I could go on.
Still, I hold that John is still the most scandalous, messily human Gospel we have.
Indeed, sometime soon, we really should have a conversation about John’s Gospel.
For today, though, let’s just talk about Jesus making whips out of cords driving the livestock out of the temple, pouring out the moneychangers’ money in front of them, and flipping over their tables.
After their new rabbi turning water into wine, this the disciples’ second clue that they have signed up for a wild ride. Years ago, in my internship church, my mentor set up various scenes from Jesus’ last days (according, again, to the first 3 Gospels), and one of them was a table that people were encouraged to flip over. It was hilarious to watch people try to do it gently without making any noise. Finally, Mandy, the Methodist pastor who was my supervisor, explained, “Flip it! Make noise! You won’t break anything. It’s an IKEA table on a stone floor. It’s an Ektorp, for God’s sake. Don’t be gentle.”
I once read a tweet that said, “When asking “what would Jesus do,” consider that flipping over tables and throwing a hissy fit is a viable option.”
After Jesus causes a huge ruckus with what I can now only imagine as Ektorps banging against a stone floor, we have the disciples pondering what it all means (that whole “zeal for your house will consume me” thing, which is from a psalm), then the Jews coming to Jesus saying, in 21st century parlance, “WTF man? Why did you do that?” Essentially, “Show us how in the world you have the authority to do that and not get punished for it.”
Jesus’ answer comes quickly, even if it’s mysterious: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.”
The Jewish leaders aren’t crazy for thinking he means the temple that they’re standing in. If someone sitting here today said “Destroy this church, and in three days I’ll raise it up again,” only a moron would not assume they were talking about this building.
So John helps us out by telling us that he’s talking about his body.
The point of the whole thing seems, at least to me, to be that the Spirit of God isn’t in the institution, no matter how impressive that institution may currently have been. God isn’t in the building or the church organization or in the programs we create. No institution owns God.
As one slam poet so deftly put it, “The body of Christ be your body.” (1)
Right after the 2016 election, the Gospel passage was another one where the disciples are super impressed with the temple, and Jesus says, essentially, “Meh. It’ll all be destroyed in a little while.”
The message that I took from that passage in November of 2016 was that no matter what your political beliefs, you cannot trust institutions to save you. This is true of politics, religion, education, everything. Institutions can be helpful, but they will not save us. Only God, common sense, and community can do that.
The body of Christ be your body.
The Old Testament reading is about Moses getting the Ten Commandments. It’s where we get the phase, “brought down the mountain to,” which we use to mean information that normal people receive from some authority “on high.” We Protestants tend to think of both Jews and Catholics as being law-based, of never questioning the word that has been brought down to them from supposed authorities.
This week, I spent an hour and a half or so studying with other clergy from the area under the teaching of Mark Shapiro, who, before his recent retirement, served for some years as the rabbi at Sinai Temple in Springfield. Since his retirement, the rabbi has busied himself with several projects, one of them being a teaching gig at the Episcopal cathedral. On Wednesday we delved a little into rabbinic tradition, talking about how Jewish communities and leaders are steeped in the tradition of reading their scriptures and working things out for themselves via good old fashioned argument. As the saying goes, where you’ve got four rabbis, you’ve got at least five opinions. Jews work things out the only way anyone can: God, common sense, and community.
You see, we like to think of this whole thing as Old Testament law vs. New Testament grace. We also like to think that it’s the Catholics who are legalistic and us Protestants who are grace-focused.
The truth is that no institution, ours included, can save us. Only God, common sense, and community can do that, and to some degree, somebody in every major religious tradition has understood this.
The body of Christ be your body.
In an age where everyone seems to be worried about the futures of religious institutions of all shapes and sizes, this knowledge is freeing — and terrifying.
As Lutherans, we believe that the bread that we break is the body of Christ, meaning that it is a tangible way that Christ shares himself with us, and also how we, the body of Christ the Church, share ourselves with each other.
Because here’s what Jesus knew: temples, institutions, churches — they all come and go. They die hard deaths, usually fighting death the whole time, but they all eventually die. As yet, no religious institution has really stood the test of time for more than a couple thousand years.
What does last is tradition, and identity, which we mark with our bodies and imprint into our minds. Practices that link us to those who came before us, both people we knew and people who died long ago. Telling the stories that tell us who we are and what we’re doing in the world, and working it all out via God, common sense, and community.
“The body of Christ be your body.”
And that, dear beloved people, is my own “three drinks later” rant, written and delivered to you stone sober.
Our hymn of the day is one of Our Savior’s collective favorites, “Built on a Rock.” Among its best lines is “Surely, in temples made with hands, God the most high is not dwelling — high in the heavens God’s temple stands, all early temples excelling. Yet God who dwells in heaven above deigns to abide with us in love, making our bodies God’s temple.”
The body of Christ be your body. The body of Christ is us, and nothing can save us except God, common sense, and community. And when we die, the body of Christ will remain. Destroy this temple, and in three days, Christ will raise it up again. Not the Church we find ourselves in, but the community around Jesus Christ — the body of Christ.
The body of Christ be your body. Not an institution. Not a building or a set of programs, and certainly not a central office in Chicago.
The body of Christ is us together. Destroy it, and it’ll always be back. We’ve been responsible for a lot of ugly in the world, but even our own failures and irrelevance can’t destroy it forever.
In the meantime, just remember: when you ask the question “What would Jesus do?” just remember that flipping over tables and ranting – especially when an institution is not serving its purpose – is always an option.
Three drinks later, indeed. Amen.
1. That slam poet is George Watsky, and that poem is quite funny and insightful, and you can find it here.