I was born in 1981. Save yourself from the math; I’m 36 years old. And yes, older than I look. I say this because I have recently learned that my generation has a new name. Sandwiched between Generation X, those slightly older than us, and the Millennials, those slightly younger than us, those of us born between the years of 1977 and 1983 are now known as the Xennials, a clever combination of the two. We’re young enough to have grown up, mostly, with the internet, but we’re old enough to remember the Apple IIe computer, with its green-on-black screen and dial-up modems.
Maybe some of you remember those, too–that grating noise as your computer connected to the internet over the phone lines and being told to get off the computer when someone else wanted to use the phone. The dial-up modem recalls the day when connection was not so instantaneous. We’ve come a long way since then.
Likewise, the episode in the temple, when Jesus fashioned a whip out of cords and overturned the money-changers’ tables reminds us of just how far we’ve come as well, for it recalls a time when our connection to God was also not so instantaneous. Like the dial-up modem, there was a barrier to connecting to God and that barrier was what those money-changers represented.
You see, the temple was the holy place where God was said to abide. To enter that holy space required a sacrifice, and, in ancient times, sacrifices–burnt offerings–were meant to make–and keep–the gods happy, a gift rising up to them in smoke. Leviticus even talks about making the odor of the burnt offerings pleasing to the Lord. If you wanted to be in good standing with God, this was what was required.
Well, sacrifice required animals and animals required money to pay for those animals, and money to pay for those animals required money changers because people were coming to the temple from all over, especially for Passover, and they couldn’t buy the animals with foreign currency. And money changers required tables. So when Jesus turns over those tables, he’s really taking a stab a whole system that’s based on what is required of human beings to connect with God–and that requirement was a barrier. Perhaps he’s angry that the people right in front of him are trying to connect with God by all these sacrifices and burnt offerings while they’re missing the fact that God, present in Jesus, is standing right before them. Some liken this action to performance art–the act of turning over the tables was symbolic of something much larger going on.
Of course that “something larger” has a lot to do with Jesus standing right there in front of them, but also with Jesus’ death and resurrection, since John tells us that when Jesus makes that comment about the temple, he was, in fact, “speaking of the temple of his body.” And it’s true, Jesus’ death and resurrection wiped out the system of requirements, for it showed us that we are connected to God primarily because God loves us and chooses such a connection. And if a connection is based on God rather than me, I know it’s going to be stronger. It’s the immediate jump from dial-up internet to WiFi and 5G.
In Jesus, the smoke from burnt offerings has no meaning, because God is not up in the sky somewhere, but in Jesus, God has come down. But not only does God come down in the presence of Jesus, God comes down and that which is holy spills over the rim of all that tries to keep that holiness contained.
The temple was where God was said to abide. But within that temple was a place called the “holy of holies”–the exact location of God’s presence. It was separated from the rest of the temple by a curtain and only the high priest could enter. In Matthew’s Gospel and in Mark’s Gospel, we’re told that as Jesus hung from the cross, the temple curtain was torn in two, signifying the end of that loose connection between God and God’s people–and the beginning of an era in which there is nothing that exists beyond the realm of what is not considered holy. The barrier between God and humans, holy and unholy, sacred and secular has been lifted.
This is good news. For while we cannot box God in, neither can anyone else. That which is holy is accessible to all people.
Celtic spirituality has a concept called “thin places.” There’s a celtic saying that says that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but even closer than that in the so-called thin places. These are places where people have felt particularly close to the divine, where the connection feels especially strong–where that curtain separating the sacred from the divine seems to disappear, or where the tables have completely turned, getting rid of all barriers to the divine. You can actually take a “Thin Places Tour” through Ireland and Scotland, which takes you by places people have marked as holy ground long before us–ruins of old monasteries, particularly beautiful scenery, and places like the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland where St. Columba was said to have established Christianity in Scotland.
But you don’t have to travel to Scotland or Ireland to find a thin place. That’s what Jesus teaches us. And, in fact, I think that’s the point of the thin places. If the barrier separating us from God is indeed gone, if our connection is totally dependent on God alone, if that which is holy teems over the rim of all our attempts to contain it, then God permeates every place. There is not one place in this world that cannot be labeled thin.
Just think about the places where you feel particularly close to God. For me, it’s the ocean that reminds of God’s vastness, or the mountains that leave me in awe of God’s creation. But it’s also the Urban Ministry Center uptown that seems holy in the dignity it offers our homeless neighbors. It’s among a bunch of college students who spend their spring break building homes for Habitat instead of partying at the beach. It’s in coffee shops and hospital rooms, where I hear stories of people’s hopes and fears. It’s at joyful get-togethers marked by laughter and shared meals around a table. And even though it was not my favorite thing, it was in the middle of the night when my son would wake me up when he was a baby, and where I would rock him back to sleep.
You see? Holiness encircles us.
Some people, I imagine, come to church because they say they want a taste of the holy, and an experience of God, which is a very good reason to come to church, for God certainly promises to be here. But God’s coming to us in the bread and wine of communion and in the waters of baptism–the ordinary “stuff” of our world–remind us that the holy can be found everywhere and that God really does turn over tables and break through barriers.
What that means is that I regard all people, as difficult as that sometimes is, as if they are all holy individuals and it means that I try not to underestimate whatever holy ground I find my feet on on any particular day.
Nothing is required of us anymore to connect with God. God has broken through and is all around. Can we look for that presence among us in a way we haven’t before? Can we pay attention to wear our feet have placed us on any given day? Can we be grateful for thin places everywhere and for the strong connection brought to us by Jesus? Because I tell you: God draws near. So, so near.