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Lent 3 - ‘Layers’  John 2 v 13-22                        

Sunday 5 March 2018

One of the more unusual aspects of this week’s weather was the fact that we had two sessions of significant snow. A layer upon a layer. Some parts of Scotland have had up to a dozen layers of snow, falling before the previous ones have thawed. We don’t often compact snow onto already compacted snow. Unless of course you’d cleared the snow without looking at the forecast and found the nicely salted or cleared pathway covered in another fresh and frustrating layer.

In wider terms, the laying down of layers of material is at the heart of geological process. The stones of this cathedral – limestone – are made up of layer upon layer of ancient minute animal and plant material.

Stories, narratives, texts in the Gospels also work like this. Sometimes what we read in the Bible has undergone a layering process. The original event has been recorded, reflected up, revised and reviewed for the purposes of the writer, and the Christians to whom he was writing, and the developing understanding of God in Jesus Christ.

Even the 10 commandments, which we heard in the first reading, have their layers. The texts appearing in Exodus 20, also reappear in Deuteronomy 5, where there are subtle differences. Subtle, not dramatic as in the joke about Moses coming down the mountain and saying, ‘the good news is I’ve got it down to 3, the bad news is adultery is still in’.

Subtle in that Deuteronomy is stronger about observing the Sabbath, rather than remembering it in Exodus –codes of conduct developed over time.

Lets’ briefly go ‘off piste’ with this for a moment. I was learning this week about the latest systems for maths teaching – and, yes, our poor little choristers will be on the receiving end as this is the latest wider curriculum thinking, I’m told.

Three layers of understanding are to be assessed. The first is fluency –so, do you know what 7x6 is? Of course you do!

The second layer then is problem solving. How might multiplication be used to work out the area of the floor of this Nave. Yes, you know if you measure the length and the width in metres and centimetres and multiply them you’ll get the area. OK, feet and inches for some of you!

The third layer is reasoning.  How does multiplication help you to work out the area. This is to stop those brainy people who can do the sums taking over, and it’s the real mathematics. How does multiplication to work out an area actually function? And then you get into lots of this number by that number and the use of grids and the identification of patterns.

Well, Jesus didn’t go into the temple in Jerusalem to measure its area. Herod’s temple is reckoned to be 10.5 hectares –that’s 26 acres for those in the old money.

It was big. Jesus says ‘destroy this temple and I will rebuilt it in 3 days’. The people reply, don’t be ridiculous, this temple took 46 years to be build. It was supposed to take 40 but there was a delay in getting the stone from France!

This takes us into the layers of this narrative. This story is in all the Gospels. We know that Jesus visited the temple and got angry. He physically drove out and removed traders, he spoke about the house of God, the house of prayer being used inappropriately for commerce.

But then the layers begin to build. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus visits the temple and drives out the moneychangers on his last visit in the days that led to his crucifixion. In John’s Gospel we are in chapter 2. Jesus has just wowed everyone by turning the water into wine at the wedding and then he goes to Jerusalem and to the temple. John dramatically has him making and using a whip of cords. Jesus action is linked to Psalm 69: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’. For John, Jesus is setting out his manifesto. In the other Gospels, the story is part of Jesus’ passion, here John is clearly showing that something different and dramatic is happening as the incarnation takes force.

Then a clue about another layer: the disciples remembered this event and Jesus’ words about the temple and his body and raising up after three days. In later reflection they could see that Jesus was making a comparison between the Temple  and his own body as the new temple.

And then a final layer, John was writing later in the first century. By then his Christian community knew that the temple in Jerusalem had been almost totally destroyed by the Roman authorities in 70AD. Here was more meaning. The old temple had indeed been destroyed. Jesus, through his resurrection, had renewed the Jewish system by making his risen presence the new temple of holiness. This, for John, was the real sign, the symbolism of what was going on.

In the cathedral Rule of Life, one of the parts of the Rule that we inherited from the Benedictine tradition was that of Study. We tend to think of that as being linked with students receiving tuition and conducting in depth research and writing, all focused around a pint glass. Study is too important to be left to students.

Study is about experience and reflection, building knowledge and understanding and we all do some of that very regularly. We all learn something every day.

So, the study part of the Rule, is encouraging us to try and give time and pay attention to what’s happening to us, as individuals, in our relationships, at work, in the daily rhythms, as worshipping Christians, as people in our society, as how we are identified by others, as how we see ourselves.

It’s about the layers again. What actually happened? I have a pain in my body, I went to the doctor, we had a discussion and she prescribed some tablets.

What was really going on? I’ve had this pain for a while and my partner was fed up with me getting irritable and told me to take action. Why was this happening? I’m doing too much and some of these physical symptoms are telling me there’s a lot of strain in my system; I need to change something.

We could use study like that to really understand a situation about our well-being. Or we could use it with the story of Jesus in the Temple to aid our spiritual understanding of who he was and how he lives today. Often, it’s simply about making some time to give ourselves the chance to reflect. We know what happens when we don’t do any of this; we hear people saying, ‘they’ll never learn’.

By attending to the layers of experience, reflection and meaning in life, we engage with our spirituality –we exercise it and keep it healthy, as the Benedictines knew. And we can pray a prayer like this:

Lord, we give thanks as we reflect on the patterns that weave across our lives. Some seem clear, some confusing and we don’t yet understand. We know enough to accept that in all things you work for the good of those who love you.

Then we can see disappointments can be for the best; sadnesses being tinged with comfort; partings being made easier by a nearness of the spirit and by love.

We bless the hand that guided.

We rest in the love that sustains.


The Reverend Canon Richard Mitchell

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