Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Cross and the Idol

One of the revolutionary things about this YHWH who rescued God's people from slavery, led them through the wilderness, and secured for them a land and a future was that YHWH was always present. Even before what we Christian term "the incarnation," God was incarnated among the Hebrews. God was with them. It's why, when we read the famously accommodated prophesy about Immanuel, we don't have to claim it's foretelling a specific future about a baby in a manger, but that it's describing a constant reality: God is with us. God is present.

Part of the problem in Israel was that they took a God who could not be contained and made a box, called a temple. Pretty quickly, as you might imagine, the God who infused and inhabited all things was confined to the religious. Instead of life being worship in all of its minutia, worship became something people did in a specific place, at a specific time, in a specific way. Oh there was always rituals, but they were rituals pointing and imaging the everyday actions of the people. And no, there's no reason why religion can't still be practiced in that way (and is!), but you have to admit it's a lot easier to keep religion in a corner when the God at the center of it is wrapped up in a neat little box.

This is why it was so necessary for God to be re-incarnated - to show up in a living, breathing person - to explode back into the world that God's people had pushed God out of. No longer would God be segregated to the temple, but would be active and alive in the world. It's no wonder that Jesus seemed to reject the trappings of the temple and the religious system that had built up around it over the intervening years: there were more important things to do. Life was to be lived - lived in the way it had been created to be enjoyed. In Jesus we see a person fully inhabiting his personhood, humanity being truly human - even to the point of giving up that humanity for the sake of others.

What did we do then? Well, for a while we lived into that example. There were lots of people sacrificing and going to their deaths out of love for neighbor and enemy alike. That tradition continues; let's not say it's faded away. But what it means to be Christian, in general, over time, has faded away. We've taken that great sacrifice of love and imaged it - imbuing meaning and honor on the instrument of Christ's death and giving it pride of place in our sanctuaries.

Again, I am not arguing that the cross is misplaced or ill-used or inappropriate. For certainly the reminder of death is key to our lives as God intended them. What is most important is not blessing or survival, but sacrifice - the meaning of life is to give it away in whatever manner we are called. Love, of course, but how much love? The cross reminds us there is no limit to such love.

But we've still contained it in a box. Yes, we may wear it on a chain around our necks or tattoo it on our calves or adorn it on our clothes, but for all practical purposes we've locked it up tight in our houses of worship just as Samuel did all those many years ago. It's a method of control, for one - when God is in our box, we decide how and when and where people experience and respond to God. There's safety and security in that - the same kinds of things the cross challenges us to forsake.

This domestication is also a means of ignoring the creative purpose of our lives: to live freely and wholly into God's future. When the cross is locked up in the church, we can relegate the Kingdom to that place and time we choose to think of it. We no longer have to infuse our lives with the radical, counter-cultural otherness that so characterized the one who died upon that cross, the one who rescued a people from slavery and lived among them as they wandered, poor and helpless in the desert. We can abandon the call of God to be humble when we've made the symbol of that God to important.

That's the catch, though, isn't it. God first told God's people not to make images of worship. We brush off the Muslim desire to keep their God and prophet unseen, but forget that our tradition has the same command. Yes, we're a bit more of a gracious people, at least in paper, but the teaching is the same: do not make idols - images that depict God - because God has made the only image necessary: us. Christ, as Paul says, the very image of the invisible God, is humanity as it was intended. We are God's image. We do not have the right to make another, simply because it better serves our purpose.

The cross is a call for our lives to embrace God's purpose. We must take it up and lay it down in service of God's radical love, not our own convenient agenda. It is not an excuse to make one place sacred and another secular. It is not permission to lie and steal and cheat in our everyday lives, because something better exists in another world. Something better exists, alright, but it's not in another world, it's in the world God created this one to become.

The means by which God is transforming the world God created into the world God intended is love. The path that transformation takes is through our lives and witness, not through our religious rituals and houses of worship. That shouldn't demean or diminish the importance of those things in our lives, but it does radically alter the way we view the cross. It is not an image to be exalted and looked up, but one to be shouldered and carried.

Carried out of the boxes we have created for it and into the world where it - and we - were meant to really live.

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