Header for Views from St Peter's


Views Index | Events | Home page

Cleansing the temple: cleansing the soul — a Lenten journey with Rowan Williams

Lent 3: 4 March, 2018
Fr Philip Gill
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain

The cleansing of the temple was a definitive event in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Notable scholars claim the cleansing of the temple as the action that brought Jesus to the notice of the Romans and led to his execution.[1] The prophetic allusions notwithstanding, it is not clear that the traders in the temple were doing anything against the Law as they had received it from God. The upturning of the tables was a symbol that in Jesus, God was doing something new. A new era had dawned. Cleansing of the temple was an action meant to upturn our ways of relating with God. It was meant to blow out the cobwebs of faith! Lent is a time of blowing out the cobwebs!

So I am glad to introduce you to my companion who will be known to most and better known to some than he is to me — some St Peter's parishioners had the opportunity to meet him when he visited Australia in the 1990's. I speak of Bishop Rowan Williams. I watched on in awe as he preached here at 9.30 and at High Mass — completely different sermons and without a script. Then he spoke to a group of academics at Latrobe University completely fluently and again without notes. Then there were too some quieter moments of humbling private conversation.

In terms of Lenten spring cleaning however I want to reflect on his slim volume, Being Christian because for me it has been a book that has not only blown away the cobwebs but filled the new found space with light by which I could more clearly see what it means to be Christian.[2] I am reminded of the story of the man who had lost all enthusiasm for life. His house, once open, sunny and comfortable had become rundown. He rarely opened the curtains never dusted or vacuumed and let all his furniture become dishevelled. Then one day he passed an antique shop. In the window was a beautiful vase. He did not know why but he knew he had to buy it. He took it home and put it on a table in his lounge room. As he admired the vase he thought to himself, "What good is a beautiful vase without flowers?" He went out and bought some flowers and put them in his vase. The beautiful vase with its flowers made him notice the poor condition of the table. He had it restored and brought back to original pristine state. He thought his new acquisitions deserved to be appreciated in the light so he threw open the curtains. He noticed the poor condition of the walls so he had them freshly painted and so on until his house was better than new. His neighbours commented on the quality of his restoration project and he began to ask them in and offer hospitality. As his house was restored so it seemed that he had been brought back to life.

In Being Christian Williams discusses the Christian life in four chapters: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, and Prayer. When I first encountered the book I wondered why he had not included chapters on Church or ministry or community life, but really the book is about those things and how the subjects of the chapter headings under gird community life. The corporate nature of the Christian faith needs to be made explicit because people can undergo baptism without ever returning to church. They read their Bibles in solitude without a thought of how the Scriptures came about; they make their communion with God without much thought for others and pray contentedly on their own. For Williams this is hardly Christian faith at all and baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer are,"...those simple and recognisable things that make you realise that you are part of a Christian community." [3]

Williams approaches the topic of baptism through Eastern Orthodox icons depicting the baptism of our Lord. Often Jesus is shown in the river Jordan up to his neck in water. Above the water there is John the Baptist and the dove of the Spirit and some ministering angels. Below the water are the old river Gods, seeking still to do mischief. And so Williams says:[4]

...the gathering of baptized people is not therefore a convocation of those who are privileged, elite and separate, but of those who have accepted what it means to be in the heart of a needy, contaminated, messy world. To put it another way, you don't go into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!

Many look to religion to order their world and to give them access to some powerful force that, if they play their cards right, will see them warm and safe. Who doesn't want that — but the Christian faith is both about the God who broods over creation bringing order out of chaos and the God who comes to us in human form to share the creative work of ordering chaos with and through us.

In his chapter on the Bible, Williams faces one of the most pressing questions people ask of Holy Scripture. What about all the killing that goes on in Scripture that is attributed to God's anger? Williams answers that we can not assume that God's people have gotten it right every time — even in the pages of the Bible. In the second book of kings there is the story of Jehu's massacre of the house of Ahab at Jezreel. Jehu has been anointed by the prophet Elisha to get the job done. The carrying out of the massacre is seen as God's righteous action. We do not have to wait until the twenty-first century for a more critical theological reflection on the incident. We do not even have to wait for the time of Jesus. Williams draws our attention to the prophet Hosea, just a few generations after Jezreel and still within the canonical scriptures where we read that Jezreel is a place of shame and that the house of Jehu should be punished for his actions. Of this development Williams notes:

To me this is a very powerful moment in the Old Testament: a recognition that it is possible to grow in understanding and to think again about the past. Something in the world of the prophet Hosea...had already opened up the heart to see something more of God. [5]

For Williams it is the resurrection that is at the heart of the Eucharist. It is in this chapter that I read the most arresting words I have encountered for some time. Williams writes:[6]

One of the essential truths about the resurrection is that Jesus is still doing today what he did before; and part of what he is still doing is exactly this offering and accepting of hospitality. When In Luke's gospel, Jesus comes through the locked door to the disciples, the first thing he says after telling them not to be afraid is, 'Aren't you going to give me something to eat?'

The Eucharist is very much a corporate, bodily, community event in which we are confronted with the reality that the invitation to dine with God in Christ has gone out and been accepted by those around us. As much as, or much more than, I make my communion we take our place at the banquet of God. To sum up in Rowan Williams' words:[7]

We take Holy Communion
Not because we are doing well but because we are doing badly.
Not because we have arrived, but because we are travelling.
Not because we are right, but because we are confused and wrong.
Not because we are divine, but because we are human.
Not because we are full, but because we are hungry.

God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, "Abba! Father!" This for Williams speaks of a new way of praying. The new way to speak to God is as father. Williams himself take three companions with him on his journey in prayer. From Origen he learns that: [8]

"...we should start out prayer with praise: tell God that he matters: because we need to know that, even if God doesn't. End with thanks. And on the basis of the psalms — 'In the evening, and in the morning, and at noonday will I pray' (Psalm 55.18) — pray at least three times a day.

From Gregory of Nyssa we learn the essence of forgiveness. Praying the Lord's Prayer we say, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us." Gregory suggests an analogy from the way we teach children. We show them how to do something and then we ask them to repeat the task. This is what God does in forgiveness. God says to us, "I have forgiven you now you show me what you can do!"

From the 5th century monk John Cassian we receive help in battling the distractions to our prayers. He gives us a process that might be familiar moving from supplication to commitment to intercession to thanksgiving. Cassian also suggests we have a brief form of words to bring us back when the cares of the world impinge on our prayers something like, "O God make speed to save me."

Williams summarises three things he learns from these fellow Christians: that prayer is God's work in us not our trying to convince him of stuff, that these writers were deeply concerned with the connection between prayer and living justly in the world and finally that prayer is an expression of our faithfulness to God.

So swift and brief a journey, so rich and deep a conversation. Jesus cleared the money changers from the temple that we might know of the possibility of a new and invigorating relationship with God. May we allow Jesus to clear the cobwebs from our lives this Lent, and through companions like Rowan Williams, come to know more fully the God who calls us to him through Christ.


  1. E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, London: Penguin, (1993) p.269
  2. Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer, Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, (2014)
  3. Ibid. p. vii
  4. Ibid. p. 6
  5. Ibid. p. 38
  6. Ibid. p. 44
  7. Ibid. p. 55
  8. Ibid. p. 66


Topical Articles

 Ministerial Priesthood
 Lay presidency
 Catholic Anglicanism
 Women bishops

Views is a
publication of
St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.

Top | Views Index | Events | Home page

Authorized by the Vicar (vicar@stpeters.org.au)
Maintained by the Editorial Team (editor@stpeters.org.au)
© 1998–2018 St Peter's Church