Ok, so he didn’t get to Rome. That was left to Paul. But in response to my post The Bible for Losers a number of people have expressed concern that I am advocating a defeatist attitude when it comes to how we deal with the wider culture. There is a tone – explicit and implicit in the responses – that indicate I am almost throwing up my hands at the drift away from the Christian worldview and saying “Meh, what can you do?” The names Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer have been bandied around as examples of those who did not cave in, and in fact, spoke out against the prevailing tide of opinion in their own peculiar settings.
One particular respondent reminded me that Jesus, faced with the outrage in the temple, in which the Gentiles were unable to access its outer court due to the indifference toward them of those exchanging money and selling sacrificial animals, cleansed the temple. (John 2:13-22 records this at the start of his public ministry, the Synoptics at the conclusion, though there may have been two instances). Shouldn’t we express the same outrage in our nation? But it is the OT quote that the disciples recall later that is most striking in John’s account:
His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.
This is a direct quote from Psalm 69, which is a call for God to save the Psalmist, who is being sorely tested due to his righteousness. It is interesting how Psalm 69 concludes:
Let heaven and earth praise him,
the seas and all that move in them,
35 for God will save Zion
and rebuild the cities of Judah.
Then people will settle there and possess it;
36 the children of his servants will inherit it,
and those who love his name will dwell there.
There is a direct focus on the people of God and their broken down cities. These are a people under great oppression. The Promised Land is threatened, but the Psalmist is confident that God’s people will be restored. And how will the cosmos respond to the restoration of the people of God in the land of God? They will give God the praise due his name.
So what’s my point? What does it have to do with Jesus clearing the temple and not the Colosseum? Exactly this: Just as in Psalm 69 it is the restoration and wholeness of the people of God that will usher in praise from the cosmos. God will be glorified in the world when the church, the new temple of God, is restored to its proper role and function as a people who showcase God’s grace, love and mercy to undeserving people. The Israel equivalent is the church not the nation. Get that wrong, and you can get a lot else wrong too. Zeal for “the house” did indeed consume Jesus, because it was primarily his open defiance of the religious leaders, centred around the temple as the place of power, that led him to the cross. Jesus was not defying the temple. No, he was calling for the temple to be showcased for what it was: the place that allowed the nations to access the one true God who, whilst he was Israel’s God, was their God for the sake of the nations (Genesis 12:1-3 etc).
What do I conclude from this in the ongoing debate about whether my comments amount to me being defeatist in the culture? I would say this:
The church’s primary problem is not that it has taken a defeatist attitude to the culture, but that it has taken a defeatist attitude to itself.
How so? Well let me provide some examples where we accept defeat in the church rather than demonstrate the zeal that Jesus died for:
1. In a culture of individualism we no longer expect the church to champion and exhibit “thick” and costly community. Our major decisions in life are all made prior to what we do about church. Job first, then school, then house, then whatever is our “thing”…and then, finally, way down the list, we look around and see what churches are on offer within twenty minutes drive. Our default is that the “individual” rules, so don’t expect anything but short shrift if you call Christians to account or attempt to practice godly discipline in the community.
2. We have started to reflect the contract-oriented nature of our culture and not the covenant-oriented nature of our God within relationships, especially our marriages. The trends in Christian marriages is probably only a decade or so behind the trends in the culture. In all of the kerfuffle over same-sex marriage the church in the West needs to ask whether it is a good example of covenant faithfulness and covenant-keeping in its own marriages. Do Christian marriages in general exhibit something better than a quid-pro-quo approach to marriage? And as for people making a “covenant with their eyes”, well, the less said about internet porn addiction in the church, the better.
3. Prayer. Jesus called God’s house a “house of prayer”. It’s pretty much fallen off the map in our corporate gatherings, i.e the “household of God”. Much of it has descended to the level of what we used to refer to as the “uni student prayer” – “Dear God, we just really honestly want to say Amen.” With such a tight schedule to get through on a Sunday morning prayer seems to be the last on the list and first off it, expendable and nowhere near as important as singing, for example. (Stop-watch the length of singing this Sunday and then stop-watch the length of the prayers. Go on! Dare ya!)
That’s just a small, representative list, and it’s not there to say “Look how bad the church is!”, but it is there to point out that when it comes to church we probably don’t have very high expectations of what God’s community could be like. If not defeated, then certainly not winning either! Now I am aware that mis-directed zealotry can get you into all sorts of trouble, and I have belonged to a group whose zeal burned people up, and resulted in first-tier versus second-tier Christians. But still, there was a glimpse in there, that making the gathered people of God your primary focus wasn’t actually a bad thing! It did indeed result in a lot of good. It also resulted in a world that looked on, not in scorn or mockery, nor indeed looked away in disinterest, but one that looked on with curiosity as it witnessed otherwise seemingly normal Westerners living such radically different lives together.
I am grateful to be experiencing church that way in my current congregation. We’re not planning on placarding Parliament about anything anytime soon, but in small grassroots ways we are living lives in such a way that those looking on are tempted to praise God. And you know what? Rather than the foul odour of defeat, it’s started to produce the sweet bouquet of victory.