Church attendances, as we know, have declined over the last half a century or more- in fact they had been failing to keep pace with population growth since soon after 1900. The temptation for the Church is either to try to be “up-to-date” (forgetting that “if you marry the Spirit of the Age you become a widow in the next”), or to take up defensive positions away from the world’s challenges (something similar happened in the 17th century, as the hope of Diggers and others to change the world became Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to the next”).
Protestant theology since the Reformation has focussed mainly on the Letter to Romans – our relationship to a loving but just God. Paul was dealing there (and in Galatians) with how Jews and Gentiles can belong together in the Church through faith. But an exclusive emphasis on that can neglect a theology of God’s Reign/Kingdom in the world (in the Gospels), the “principalities and powers” (in Colossians and Ephesians), and Revelation’s confidence that oppressive and violent Empires will finally destroy themselves.
But how does that relate to events in the world today: Ukraine, Climate Change, levels of Taxation for public services in our own country? Most congregations find that a challenge that is too demanding. Can our First Thursday meetings make any contribution to filling that vacuum?
Our reading was from John chapter 2, the story of the Cleansing of the Temple, which John places at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry- perhaps with the implication that it has special significance for the whole story of the ministry of Jesus.
This has sometimes been interpreted in purely “religious” terms, teaching us that “spiritual” worship must be kept clear of “worldly” affairs such as buying and selling. But the Temple had a much greater significance for the Jewish people of the time of Jesus. It was the centre of their identity as a particular people, struggling to exist as they were under the political domination of the Roman Empire. In that sense it has parallels with the role of the Church in a number of places in modern times: in Ireland under British rule, in Poland under the Soviet system, and perhaps Ukrainian Orthodoxy today.
As in the days of Constantine’s Roman Empire, the opportunity (or even invitation) to embody and “save” the soul of a nation is one that is far too important to ignore- but it can also involve great temptations: to compromise the Gospel in order to meet the genuine needs and demands of the people.
In many ways that is precisely what had happened with the Temple and the whole system of contemporary worship and religious organisation, affecting even the smallest and most remote local synagogue. Those who attempt to break the stranglehold of national religiosity and recall the people to the basic principles of God’s Covenant with them are easily labelled “traitors”. And the fate of traitors has been well known throughout human history.