Flipping Tables in the 21st Century
What Jesus and The Hulk have in common.
Adapted from a sermon at First United Methodist Church of Orlando.
In the first Avengers movie, a team of superheroes comes together to stop an alien invasion. One character is Bruce Banner, a mild-mannered scientist who, when he gets angry, turns into a giant, green, rage monster named The Hulk.
At the climax of the final battle, Captain America says, “Now might be a really good time for you to get angry.” Banner replies “I’m always angry” and transforms into The Hulk.
When I think of anger, I think of The Hulk.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jesus. Look at a Google image search and everything seems so peaceful (even if they are strangely white). While there’s always a picture of Jesus holding a lamb, there won’t be any rage monsters.
Yet, in one scripture passage, we get a glimpse of an angry Jesus. This story appears in all four Gospels — a distinction shared with few portions of Jesus’ life. (Matthew 21:12–13, Mark 11:15–19, Luke 19:45–48, and John 2:13–22) Because it appears in all four books, it’s worth looking at what sets this story apart.
Jesus enters Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds. The next day he enters the Temple. Jesus doesn’t like what he sees. There are money changers and people selling animals for sacrifice. While these were common practices, Jesus sees people being taken advantage of.
That’s when Jesus gets angry.
Jesus flips over the tables and drives people out, “cleansing” the temple. In John’s account, Jesus even makes a whip to chase people and animals off. This is not the peaceful, lamb-holding guy the image search presents.
Yet, I can relate more to angry Jesus than I can peaceful Jesus. While loving everyone is something I strive for, I can’t say it’s my default. But anger? While I’ve never flipped a table, I can get angry.
I asked a group of people earlier this week what makes them angry. We talked about bullies and people being left out. Like the money changers and dove sellers in the temple yard, these are all ways people get taken advantage of.
I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about The Church — not our local building but the global institution. Should Jesus be walking through today, I think we’d get a glimpse of angry Jesus.
We’ve got a lot of tables that need flipping.
Hugh Hollowell, a pastor in Mississippi, said, “Every time we use religion to draw a line to keep people out, Jesus is with the people on the other side of that line.” Unfortunately, the institutional church has become a place of exclusion despite Jesus teaching to the contrary.
Denominations decide who can and cannot receive communion, get married, and become ordained pastors. Lines are being drawn and excluding so many people, it makes me wonder who’s left.
Not only does drawing lines exclude people, but it also defines people as “less than” others. Take, for example, the United Methodist Church’s recent General Conference decision.
The decision maintains the status quo stating LGBTQ people cannot become pastors or get married in the church. The institution decided not only to exclude but define LGBTQ people as less than cis-gendered. This is wrong and hurtful and I’m certain Jesus would flip the table if he were in the room when it happened.
Sadly, the institutional church often uses a twisted understanding of scripture to justify these exclusions. This is a practice that has been going on for thousands of years.
The religious leaders of the day often tried to trap Jesus using scripture. Jesus challenged their teaching.
In one instance (Matthew 15:1–9), the religious leaders asked Jesus why his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating — a practice in the rules handed down through scripture. Jesus replied by asking why people who spoke against their fathers weren’t being put to death as also stated in the scripture.
The United Methodist Church believes scripture was inspired by God and written by fallible humans. As Methodists, we use our reason, experience, and tradition to interpret scripture. The books of Exodus and Leviticus say someone who spoke ill of their father should be put to death. However, we can make a reasonable, experience-based assumption the scripture might have a less literal interpretation.
Yet, many people take scripture at its face value and use it to justify exclusionary lines. This was something Jesus argued about with the religious leaders. I’m sure this is a table Jesus would flip over in our culture.
Even individual churches who are welcoming and affirming and follow Jesus’ teachings can draw unintentional lines of exclusion. We do this here sometimes without realizing.
Maybe we use hard-to-understand terms or assume everyone has a similar experience or background. These are unintentional ways of excluding people.
All lines of exclusion would anger Jesus. It’s why Jesus is always on the other side of an exclusionary line. After all, it was Jesus who said we are to welcome and unconditionally love all people.
When Jesus said all, he meant all.
In Mark’s angry Jesus story, after flipping the tables he addresses the crowd and says, “Hasn’t it been written, ‘my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?’” Here, Jesus is quoting from the book of Isaiah. He then says, “But you’ve turned it into ‘a hideout for crooks.’” This quote is from the book of Jeremiah.
Jesus calls out the religious leaders for allowing the institution to turn into a business. He drives the money changers and dove sellers away and calls upon everyone there to return the temple into a house of prayer for all nations.
The institutional church has become a business. Like all businesses, The Church often decides in the institution’s interest rather than the people’s. So we have to ask ourselves, how do we fix the problem and return The Church universal to a house of prayer for all nations?
First, and foremost we need to focus on following Jesus’ teaching. It’s one thing to agree with Jesus’ teaching and another to live it out. We must allow Jesus’ actions to become our way of life.
We start by loving and welcoming all people — and I’m not just talking about while inside a church building. While that is important, scripture describes the church as its people. We, as individuals, must love and welcome all people every day of our lives.
This means we cannot make jokes at the expense of others. We cannot post or say things that demean and hurt people. While we can disagree, we must debate our differences without attacking or hurting individuals.
We must also be vocal when people are being excluded — be it by the institutional church or our friends and family. The United Methodist Church’s General Conference decision was wrong. Individual churches that preach hate in place of Gospel are wrong. When faced with these things, we must be vocal about proclaiming Jesus’ teaching.
Out of hundreds of anecdotes of Jesus’ life captured in the Gospels, few are found in all four books. Each of the four Gospel writers saw this moment of Jesus’ life important enough to chronicle. So while angry Jesus is an odd image to behold, it’s one we need to wrestle with.
Communion is a time to reconnect with Jesus. In the traditional liturgy — the words introducing communion — there is a time of confession and pardon. We come before Jesus and confess what has separated us from him and ask for his pardon.
Just as Jesus cleansed the temple by flipping tables, so too may we be cleansed. The act of communion, of being cleansed and sharing a meal with our God, empowers us to go into the world to live out Jesus’ teachings.
A church member, Dianne Richardson, wrote the following confession and pardon for this season of Lent. We must let Jesus flip the tables in our own lives so we can be people who live Jesus’ message of radical love for all.
Lord, we confess that when it comes to reflecting the glory of Jesus, we fall far short. We often think that being Christ-like means politeness, getting along, and the peace that is the absence of tension. We forget that confrontation can be an act of love, that real peace is the presence of justice. But knowing that standing up for what’s right often requires personal sacrifice, we confess that we often choose stability and comfort instead. We have chosen to be bystanders to systems of oppression operating in our society. We grumble. We get mad. We cower. Or worse, we throw up our hands and say that’s just how it is. We accept the things we think we cannot change. We wait for someone else to throw over the money changers’ tables. Forgive us, Lord, for our inaction and fear. Help us to remember that pursuing peace is work, that pursuing Jesus means we will make some people angry. Allow us to lead with courage when holy indignation calls for us to take action. Strengthen us with a firm and resolute knowledge of your unbounded love and forgiveness and a deep sense of gratitude and mission. Amen.
Justin Cox is the Minister to Youth and Families at First United Methodist Church of Orlando. You can connect with him on Twitter.