Home      Back to Trinity 10





A Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity

Fr. Gavin Dunbar

31st July 2005, at Saint John’s Church in Savannah



Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer;

but ye have made it the den of thieves. 




Is there a place for commercial activity in the church?  Go to one of the pace-setting evangelical mega-churches, and you may well find coffee bars, food courts, gift shops, athletic programs, day care, auto repair and convenience banking, in buildings indistinguishable in style from shopping malls; and with worship that consists in soft rock praise choruses, ‘special music’, videos, and upbeat, therapeutic ‘messages’ relevant to the felt needs of the worshippers.  Mega-churches are doing this, because they have decided to package, market, and sell evangelical faith to the religious consumers of America, using every tool that management theory and social science provide.  The danger in this evangelistic strategy is that they may turn the bread of eternal life into fast food for the soul, complete with empty calories and spiritual trans-fats. 

Go to the liberal protestant churches, on the other hand, and you will rarely find such blatant commercialization.  Worship is usually conducted with a little more decorum; and if there is a gift shop, the religious knick-knacks are in somewhat better taste.  Yet the working theology of such churches has been largely emptied of any distinctively Christian content; and under a thin veneer of religion they purvey the pieties of the secular world.  If evangelical churches are literally commercializing their religion, the liberal churches are doing so metaphorically.  Each may gain the world, but the danger remains, of losing their own soul.   

Surprisingly, however, there is a place for commerce in the church; and today’s gospel and epistle lessons show us what it is.

The gospel lesson begins with Jesus approaching Jerusalem for the last time.  Looking down from the Mount of Olives he saw the holy city; and the Temple itself, where God dwelt among his people surrounded by a massive complex of buildings, glittering in white marble and gilt bronze.  Its courts were thronged with worshippers from around the world, and armies of priests and levites attended to its sacrifices; its treasury overflowed with wealth, and its officials walked in the corridors of power: for the Temple was the heart of Israel, the centre around which all Jewish life was organized.  No mega-church of today could rival it. 

Jesus loved the temple of God, and the holy city; but the sight of it filled his eyes with tears; and he said, in broken phrases of grief:  “If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace!  But now they are hid from thine eyes”.  In Israel’s tradition, Jerusalem is the city of peace, within whose walls God preserved his people in peace.  But Jesus wept, because this city of peace did not actually know the things which belonged unto its peace.  Deluded by a false sense of security, it was in fact headed for disaster, as Jesus foresaw:

“For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.”  This prophecy of Jesus was fulfilled within a generation, in the year 70, when the legions of Rome destroyed the city and its temple, and deported its people into slavery. 

Jerusalem’s problem was ignorance, a refusal to know “the time of its visitation”, and “the things which belong unto [its] peace.”  It is not that they were not told of these things.  In his gospel Jesus proclaimed the time of their visitation by God’s mercy; and taught them the will of God for their peace; but his words fell on deaf ears.  They did not want to know.  Wilful ignorance of the truth, then as now, has dire consequences:  rejecting the knowledge of salvation, Jerusalem drew upon itself judgment.

You may well wonder how this could happen, in God’s own city, the place of the Temple.  In fact the Temple was the heart of the problem, the centre of resistance to God’s saving will.  The corruption of every nation always begins in the corruption of its religion.  The temple was a perfect hive of religious activity:  but there was no room in it for the word of God; no place for repentance.  Jesus found its courts filled with the buying and selling of animals to be offered in sacrifice:  a sign of the corruption of Israel’s religion, its pandering to worldly agendas and ambitions at the expense of the service of God.  So with divine authority, “Jesus … began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought, saying, It is written, ‘My house is the house of prayer’:  but ye have made it the den of thieves”.  And then, as St. Luke tells us, “he taught daily in the temple”.  Where buyers and sellers had done their business, the word of God, unadulterated, unpackaged, unmarketed, was now proclaimed instead. 

What Jesus drove out of the temple was one kind of commerce.  What he put in its place, however, was another kind of commerce, a holy commerce between God and man, transacted in Jesus Christ, a commerce in teaching and prayer.  For in Jesus Christ, the word of God comes down from above, teaching man God’s will, in which lies our peace.  And in Jesus Christ, the man’s word of prayer ascends on high, seeking peace according to God’s will [1].  That is the true business of God’s people, willing what God wills, as set forth in God’s word; willing the eternal good, which is God’s will.  As today’s collect puts it, in asking for such things as shall please God – in willing his will -- do we obtain our petitions – the peace and happiness which he gives.  That is our business; and anything else is thievery and fraud.

In today’s epistle lesson we find ourselves in another city, Greek Corinth, one of the great commercial cities of the pagan empire, notorious for its wealth, its luxurious lifestyles, and its sexual decadence.  (You should imagine something like Atlanta, only without Ted Turner.)  Yet in this unlikely place, the gospel of Jesus Christ had been preached and believed.  Formerly, St. Paul reminds the Christians of Corinth, they had been led astray in the service of “dumb” and speechless “idols”; but in the gospel of Jesus Christ they heard the word of the living God, teaching them the knowledge of salvation; and by his Spirit they had believed that word, and confessed Jesus as Lord.  And they had been richly endowed with manifold gifts of the Spirit, certain capacities for knowing, speaking, and doing that bore witness to the truth and power of the Word of God. 

The gifts of the Spirit are necessarily manifold.  As St. Cyril of Jerusalem says, “One and the same rain comes down on all the world, yet it becomes white in the lily, red in the rose, purple in the violets and hyacinths, different and manifold in manifold species”.  “For the rain does not change…but adapts itself to the thing receiving it and becomes what is suitable to each”.  Likewise the Spirit gives himself according to each man’s diverse capacities, and brings them to fulfilment in proportion to his faith.  So “there are diversities of gifts”, some greater, some lesser; but all are to be honoured, for “all these worketh that one and the self-same Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will”.  They come from the same Spirit, and contribute, each in its own specific way, to the common good, and to the glory of the one who gave them. 

Every gift is different; and no one has the capacity to receive them all.  It is only in and through the shared life of a community, comprehending a diversity of gifts and vocations, that we are able to possess a measure of the truth, and a measure of the good.  Therefore, the life of the church is a life of holy commerce, a communion of saints in spiritual gifts and goods.  In the unity of the Spirit what is given to one becomes the common possession of all; and what is done by one becomes profitable to all, through charity, “which seeketh not her own”.  For no one receives any gift of the Spirit purely for his own sake, but the sake of the whole Church.  

Today’s lessons show us, that there is not only a vertical commerce between God and man through Jesus Christ, a commerce in teaching and prayer; but also a horizontal commerce between Christians in the Church, a commerce in spiritual gifts.  The eternal good which we know by faith in God’s word, and which we hope for in prayer, we must also will for one another, and share with one another, in love and charity.  Without this commerce the Church is impoverished and dies, and ‘her children within her’; but where this commerce flourishes, the church grows rich in the things which belong unto her peace.  And so for the sake of holy commerce, the Church must drive out all other trade in worldly appetites and ambitions; it must reserve the house of God for the sharing of the gifts of the Word and Spirit, and not allow it to become a den of thieves. 

At the beginning of this sermon, I made some sharp remarks about the commercialization of religion in evangelical and liberal churches.  I said nothing about traditional Episcopalians:  but we have no reason for to be complacent.  We may say the right things, and even believe them; but the point is to do them; and there, I am afraid, we fall short.  All too often we are distracted from our soul’s true business, and know not the time of our visitation.  Let us pray for Christ to come again, to cleanse the temples of our hearts from their commerce in worldly appetites and ambitions; to make them houses of  true teaching, and fervent prayer, and mutual service, in faith, and hope, and charity.  May he purify our hearts, enlighten our minds, and make us partakers of his peace.  Amen. 

[1]  Hooker. Laws. V. xxiii.  P. 115.

The term “commerce” or “commercium” is in fact part of the traditional language of prayer, and is found, for instance, in the Gelasian Sacramentary.  Richard Hooker speaks of this “commerce” in a notable passage on prayer, that also alludes to Jacob’s ladder (Gen 28) and John 1.51:

 “Between the throne of God in heaven and his Church upon earth here militant if it be so that Angels have their continual intercourse, where should we find the same more verified than in these two ghostly exercises, the one Doctrine, and the other Prayer?  For what is the assembling of the Church to learn, but the receiving of Angels descended from above?  What to pray, but the sending of Angels upward?  His heavenly inspirations and our holy desires are as so many Angels of intercourse and commerce between God and us.  As teaching bringeth us to know that God is our supreme truth; so prayer testifieth that we acknowledge him our sovereign good.  …Prayer…showeth our concurrence with [God] in desiring that wherewith his very nature doth most delight [viz, to impart virtue unto things beneath it]”