Epiphany 2B Sermon (2024)

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: John 1:43-51;
1 Sam 3:1-20; 1 Cor 6:12-20

Facebook live (sermon begins at 23:45): https://fb.watch/r6rm3Dvlh-/


Do you remember the children’s limerick that you do with your hands? (Demonstrating:) “Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” I’ve used that one a few times over the years in children’s sermons, to make the point that the church is people, not a building. This is the basic message this morning — though I do have a bit more to say about it.

For we can see this basic point in all of today’s readings — first of all, explicitly in our reading from Paul where he proclaims to us that our body is a temple for the Holy Spirit. To be more precise, he’s speaking to them in the second person, when he asks them, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” One thing we can’t see or hear in the English translation is that, in the Greek, he’s using the second person plural. Unless we’re using the idiom of the southern United States: “Ya’all.” “Do ya’all not know that yer’all’s body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within ya’all, which ya’all have from God, and that ya’all are not yer’all’s own?” Together they are the church, the body of Christ. Six chapters later Paul will spend an entire chapter using the metaphor of them collectively as the body of Christ, with many members. (Use hand gesture from limerick.) In today’s reading, he makes it clear that collectively they are the temple of the Holy Spirit in this world. They need to live accordingly. They — we — need to live as the New Human Being, in discipleship to Jesus the Messiah.

This is more than corroborated in the Gospel of John, if we dig a bit deeper. Our Gospel Reading today ends with a mysterious prophecy from Jesus. He tells Nathanael, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” What does this mean? First of all, notice that Jesus uses his own preferred name for himself, “Son of Man,” which basically points to the New Human Being, the next generation of being human. He calls himself “Son of Man” in order to indicate that he’s come to establish a new, better way of being human for all of us. “Follow me. Come and see.”

The other business about heaven open and the angels ascending and descending uses the dream of Jacob in Genesis 28 (Gen 28:11-22). He dreams of a ladder between heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending. When he awakes, he exclaims, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:17). He calls the place Bethel (meaning “house of God”), which will become one of the holy places with a temple for the people Israel. So what is Jesus saying in using the image of Jacob’s ladder, the gate to heaven? That he is becoming that ladder. The gate to heaven is no longer a place. It is a person.

The setting for our First Reading today is the tabernacle, which was basically a movable temple, kind of like a traveling circus in the big tent. The tabernacle was a movable holy place. At this point it’s at Shiloh. Eli and his sons were in charge. In today’s reading we hear that they have been presiding over it in a corrupt way. Their leadership will come to an end. The central holy place of the people of Israel, their gate to heaven, must come under new management.

I mention the tabernacle because the figure of Jesus becoming the gate to heaven at the end of John 1 is not the first reference to this prophecy. In the middle of John 1, we read a very familiar verse, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, . . . full of grace and truth (John 1:14). The Word becoming flesh is what Christmas and Epiphany are all about. But a less-than-precise translation prevents us from seeing this other dimension. Our English translation says that the Word-made-flesh “lived among us.” The Greek word here means more than simply “live.” It is a verb form of the word for tabernacle or tent. A more precise translation would be, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled in our midst.” In other words, John has already given us a clue that the person of Jesus is replacing the tabernacle or temple. The gate to heaven is no longer a place. It is a person. The Word-made-flesh is tabernacling in our midst.

This is actually a major theme of John’s Gospel, which even has much bigger ramifications in the end. Let me briefly recount two other steps. The next clue comes in the very next chapter, John 2, where Jesus has just carried out his prophetic action against the temple in Jerusalem, overturning money tables and driving away the animals for sale for the sacrifice. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16), he says. The Judean leaders push Jesus for a sign of why he can pose such challenges, to which Jesus very enigmatically responds, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19). John the Gospel Writer explains to only us, the readers, what this means, “[Jesus] was speaking of the temple of his body.” Do you see? Once again, the temple is not so much a place as it is a person. Jesus has come to replace the temple as the gateway to heaven. He is becoming the portal of God’s presence coming into the world, the Word becoming flesh.

There’s one last moment to take-in in order to fully understand where this is all leading. It is the night before Jesus will offer himself as the lamb of God to take away the sin of the world. In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives a lengthy Farewell Address to his disciples, and in it he uses the phrase “my Father’s house” for the only time other than what we just read in John 2 when referring to the temple in Jerusalem, which he has come to replace. It’s a very familiar passage. One we read at the vast majority of our funeral services. “In my Father’s house,” says Jesus, “there are many abiding places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3). We are comforted by these words at times of grief and loss. We hear them as words about going to heaven when we die. But I ask you to hear them in a new way. To hear them instead in the context of what we’ve been talking about in John’s Gospel. Not as about anyone going to heaven. But rather as Jesus coming to be the new gateway of God coming to be with us. Jesus himself has become the new portal for God’s presence to be in the world. Rather than imaging abiding places in a faraway heaven, we are to imagine God’s heaven coming to have a new abiding place in this world.

And here’s the real clincher. As he goes to the cross and is lifted up the next day, Jesus is making sure that there’s going to be more than just one abiding place in God’s house. He’s going back to the Father. In replacing the temple as God’s abiding place in this world, God’s real home, Jesus is merely the first step towards having many abiding places. As Jesus goes on in the Farewell Address, he uses metaphors like the vine and the branches. The Father abides in him and he in the Father. But he is the vine and we are the branches, so he also abides in us and we in him. Do you see? Those many abiding places in the Father’s house that Jesus goes to prepare for us is . . . us. We are to be the abiding places for God’s presence in the world. Even as we lose loved ones and hear these words at a memorial service, they can be heard not so much as our loved ones going off to a heavenly abiding place, but as them going to abide in Jesus — who then abides in us. Our loved ones are not in a faraway heavenly place. They are as close as Jesus abiding in us. Our loved ones can be said to be abiding in us.

The bottom line of all this is that, in Jesus the Messiah, God chooses to be present to the world in us. We are right back, my friends, to Paul’s declaration that we together are the temple in which God’s Holy Spirit abides. God is present in this world when we live into our discipleship of Jesus, the Son of Man. Jesus, the next generation of being human.

What does this all mean? Well, first of all, the body of Christ called Bethania Lutheran in Racine, WI, is not so much a building or a place, but a people striving together in discipleship to be a gateway between heaven and earth, so that God’s new way of being human in Jesus Christ can continue to help make the whole creation new. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit in our discipleship together. That happens through wonderful ministries like Thread-by-Thread, a ministry to clothe the least in God’s family. It is providing gifts for children at Christmas. It is being welcoming to all people, even those living by differing gender and sexual identities. It is praying for one another through “Joys and Concerns,” caring for one another at good times and bad. It is many of the things I’ve been privileged to witness you doing these past couple months.

But in my time with you, I would also like to challenge you to further acts of discipleship, ones that follow Jesus when he does things like making prophetic actions in the temple. God knows that because human beings are a collective bunch, the plural you, “ya’all,” we all need to be saved as communities of people. Can we be fully saved without also renewing the institutions that nurture us? God knows that we have failed leadership in our temples of power, and so we are called to witness, as Samuel did to Eli and his sons, that when human leadership is corrupt and failed, then our full salvation as human beings also requires that our temples of power and wealth need to come under new management. My friends, this is so much easier in a democracy, in which we actively take part in choosing our leaders. I want to lift up to you that this democracy thing is also a part of our salvation. In our discipleship we are called to follow Jesus and Samuel in speaking prophetically to our leaders. To our temples of wealth and power. “This is the church, here is the steeple. Open the doors, and see all the people.” God’s presence in this world working to save us. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, January 14, 2024

Facebook live (sermon begins at 23:45): https://fb.watch/r6rm3Dvlh-/

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