Worship at the Abbey

Sermon given at Sung Eucharist for All Saints' Day 2011

1 November 2011 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Out of the unhappy confusion around the protest and its effects outside St Paul’s Cathedral over the past two or three weeks, there has been one unexpected by-product: what we might call, perhaps a little grandly, the resurgence of public theology. One of the protesters’ banners, frequently shown on television, asks, ‘What would Jesus do?’ The question is thus framed. Not ‘what would Jesus have done?’ but ‘what would Jesus do?’ What would Jesus do if he were present here and now and faced with this particular dilemma? The protesters’ claim is clear: he would be with us.

I have to say I am more interested in the question, ‘what is Jesus doing?’ since I am confident that Jesus is present here and now and moreover is active in the situation. I have to add that I do indeed see our Lord Jesus Christ as being active – but not always in easily predictable ways.

However, I would like to spend a little more time with the original question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ It is not only the protesters who are clear he is on their side. Some elements of the media seem quite happy that they understand what Jesus would do, and can predict what he would do by simple reference to a particular bible story, the cleansing of the temple.

This is how their thinking runs. Jesus came to the temple and he was angry. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and cast them out of the temple. Ergo, Jesus is angry with the equivalent of the money-changers in our own day, that is the bankers. If he could show which side he favoured, it would be the protesters’. By a simple extension of the argument, if the Church is unhappy with the protest, then it can only be a friend of the capitalists and bankers and no friend of Jesus. What would Jesus do? He would overturn the Church. QED!

Perhaps you detect that I think there must be a flaw in this argument somewhere. In fact there are several. The first flaw I would point out is that Jesus had a number of things to say about money which imply that he recognised its importance and value and its legitimate use. On the other hand, he did also tell the rich young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor and then to follow him. So, the picture is by no means straight-forward. The second flaw worth identifying is that the cleansing of the temple is an infinitely more complex and interesting incident than at first meets the eye. During his visit to the temple, according to the synoptic gospels in the last week of his earthly life, and according to St John early in his ministry, Jesus overturns not only the tables of the money-changers but also the stalls of those who are selling the cattle, sheep and doves. 

Now, it is possible that all Jesus intends in cleansing the temple is to create a quiet and peaceable house. Certainly the evangelists tell us that Jesus quotes words from this evening’s Old Testament reading, from the prophet Isaiah, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer.’ And it is true that we conceive a house of prayer to be a sacred place, a shrine, a place of devout silence. 

But I am clear that such an interpretation misses the key point. We need to start with seeing that the cattle, sheep and doves are the animals for the temple rituals. They are there to be sacrificed. The money-changers are needed for changing people’s Roman coin into temple money, so that the people can buy animals and offer them to the priests for the ritual sacrifices. These sacrifices, according to Jewish understanding, are vital for keeping fresh and beneficial the relationship between his Chosen People and God. The people offer the sacrifices. God is supposed to be pleased with them and agree to continue favouring his people. Animal sacrifice is a particular part of the comfortable relationship between his Chosen People and God. What Jesus says is far more radical and far-reaching than mere criticism of money-changers or requests for silence in church. He blows a hole in the cosy sacrificial relationship. The key is in the three words I left out earlier. The quotation runs, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.’

‘For all peoples’ – that is for all the nations upon earth. For everyone. This is not just a matter between the Chosen People and God. God, as Isaiah had come to understand, is for all people. The possibility of a true and life-giving relationship with God is not to be confined to a particular race or group or class or character of person. That relationship is for everyone. The Jewish ritual sacrifices need overturning. They are exclusive. They have no positive effect. They achieve nothing. God is not to be appeased or bribed with small sacrifices.

When Jesus dies on the cross, St Mark tells us, the curtain of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom. What is this curtain and what does it shroud from view? The curtain is that between the holy place and the holy of holies. Until the destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, sacrifices were offered, and incense was offered on the altar of sacrifice, in the holy place. Beyond that, shrouded from view by the curtain or veil of the temple, the holy of holies was where the Ark of the Covenant had been housed in the first temple, where God himself was understood to dwell. The high priest entered the holy of holies only once a year on the Day of Atonement, to offer atonement to God for the sins of his people.

The death of Jesus on the cross tears open the veil of separation, the curtain that divides all the people from God. The sacrifice of Calvary serves, in a way that the animal sacrifices of the temple never can, to open the way to God, for everyone. In the temple, as Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those selling the animals for sacrifice, he demonstrates the worthlessness of the decaying system of animal sacrifices. He alone is the gateway, the door that leads to eternal life, and it is a way open to all people on earth.

What is also fundamentally important is that it is Jesus himself, through the sacrifice of Calvary, who opens the way to God. Eternal life is not something we can earn. We cannot deserve it. We cannot work our passage. None of us is worthy. It is not by what we offer God that we find salvation and new life in him; it is by what God offers us. There is no room for self-righteousness.

It follows that our celebration tonight of All Saints, that vast, incalculable company of people, who now rejoice in the very presence of God, who now enjoy for ever the beatific vision, is not a celebration of their wonderful achievement. Heaven is no eternal award ceremony. We celebrate tonight God’s wonderful generosity and goodness, who has poured into these innumerable lives his passionate love. 

It follows that the way to holiness, the way of the saints, is a way we can tread as well as the saints. Our weak wilfulness is no barrier to God, whose love is made perfect in weakness. We too can ‘come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.’ [Hebrews 12: 22-24] The way really is open to us. The way of Christ that leads to eternal life. And the first step on this great path to life is to open our hearts to God.