What is our relationship with God? In ancient times, there was often an attitude of bargaining or exchange with God. This was the attitude which lay behind the practice of offering sacrifice. Such sacrifices of animals, crops or other gifts were a way of dealing with God. In exchange for the offerings, God would care for and protect the one who sacrificed. This was the role of what we see in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The piece in John’s Gospel (Jn.2:13-25) this Sunday tells the story of Jesus’ cleansing the Temple. It is a story that sometimes surprises us as we see Jesus expressing upset at what he finds there. John tells the story as a lead into seeing our relationship with God in a new light. For Israel, the Temple was the sign and symbol of God’s presence in their midst. It was the place of sacrifice to God. As Jesus speaks to the people in the Temple, he redirects their attention from the physical Temple building to himself as the Temple. The Gospel account points out that this all came to make sense to the disciples after the Resurrection.
Jesus then, becomes the sign of God’s presence among us. He represents a new way of seeing our relationship with God. God’s care and love is not dependent on what we offer to God. It is not affected by sacrifices we might present. It is not the result of bargaining with God. Our relationship with God is a free and unconditional gift from God. We do not have to bargain or win God’s love and we cannot lose it. It is always there for us. This is a remarkable discovery, a great surprise.
Even in the Old Testament, this is the relationship between God and God’s People, Israel. It was not always apparent to this People, but it was there nonetheless. Israel saw itself in a covenant relationship. God called them as a People to be God’s own. They in return lived according to the Law, represented most especially in the Commandments, what we see given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
This relationship in the Old Testament appears to be one in which, like all covenants or alliances, each side promised something to the other in exchange for their relationship with each other. That is, it appears to be bargaining. But, can this happen between two very unequal parties? In this case, the relationship between God and Israel is indeed unequal – between the divine and the human.
The Covenant of the Old Testament is in fact an unusual one. The relationship results from the free gift of God’s love to this People. Over the course of the Old Testament we learn of this quality of free gift again and again. No matter how many times Israel drifted from God, God continued to reach out in love for them. They could not win this love, nor could they lose it.
The great expression of God’s love comes in the New Testament, with Jesus. John expresses this a little further on as he describes in conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. He says to Nicodemus: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son,...” (Jn.3:16-17)
The piece we hear today in the Gospel reading comes from an earlier section of John (Jn.2:13-22), but it presents that same core element of our faith. Jesus is the sign of God’s loving presence for us, the new Temple. Our relationship is not based on our doing something for God. It is not dependent on sacrifice or offering. It is not affected by how we keep rules or commands. It is not the result of some arrangement arrived at by bargaining with God. It is in fact a free gift of God’s unconditional love, a love we do not win, a love we cannot lose. Our covenant is a gift. Accepting and living this covenant, however, has the capacity to change us, and our world.
Question ~ How might accepting that God loves me unconditionally, affect the way I live?