Posted by: owizblog | February 23, 2013

Shattering Images of Jesus: Sermon, October Communion 2001, Langside Parish Church

Maybe people in glass houses should throw stones…

Recently, I came across a stained glass window I particularly liked. It depicted St. Columba. But not the gaunt, tall, ascetic St. Columba we, or at least I, tend to think of. This St. Columba was plump (reassuringly plump, from my point of view!) and decidedly worldly-looking. I liked this window – but only after it had shocked me. And it shocked me on a number of levels. It shocked me that anyone would depict such a worldly Columba – but I was then shocked to think “Who am I, to sum anyone up at a glance and call them worldly” And then: “But I suppose I do that all the time… and I shouldn’t”  I was shocked that this Columba was unashamedly plump. I’ve felt bad about my weight for years, and here was this chap flaunting his, not even holding himself in, and clearly God loved him…

I was very shocked when I started to unpack that thought…

And of course I was shocked that I was shocked. Because I’m your supercool, unfazeable, all-accepting Minister, who’s never shocked.

Which translates: I’m always shocked when I realize that something has shocked me!

An image in glass, which shattered several of my cherished images….
I

I’ve always had a difficult relationship to stained glass. When I was the Minister of Colmonell, the windows in the church made me very jumpy. They were ravishing, especially the three huge Louis Davies windows behind the pulpit. Their detail was extraordinary – a lifetime’s study. And if the sermon got boring, I would sometimes catch my parishioners indulging in that study. Their eyes would drift off me, and onto the throng of pilgrims and angels ascending to Jerusalem behind me. Or to the shepherd and his dog, done from life, in the bottom right corner. If I was really off-message, I’d see the mouths start to shape the Latin words scattered here and there. On bright spring mornings I felt as though I was in direct competition with those windows.

You’ll know, of course, that coloured glass windows were originally teaching aids, bringing the holy stories to people who couldn’t read. But that’s too simple -and a bit patronising; the images they offer are for all of us. The protrayals with which we grew up, of Jesus, of Moses, of prophets and angels, come from stained glass as much as from Sunday School posters, or illustrated Bibles, or anywhere else. I wonder how many of us, when Jesus’ name is mentioned, see instantly a face, and wonder where it came from. Maybe it came from a window we saw in childhood, in the church we were brought up in, or a church we happened to be taken to, once.

II

Images are precious. And very dangerous. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are imageless faiths. God is infinitely far from any image we have of him, infinitely greater, infinitely subtler, further away from us, yet closer to us, than we could ever depict. Once we were made in the image of God. And our Calvinist forbears loved to proclaim that that image was spoiled, or even wiped out, in the Fall. They weren’t the first to stress that. The Greek-speaking church was split by a huge controversy in the eighth century. On the one side were people who said that you couldn’t use pictures of the holy – icons – in worship. Our human fallenness meant that the image of God was expunged in us. We didn’t know it.

But on the other side, the side that eventually won, were people who said: “The Fall, yes, the Fall. Very real, very terrible, catastrophic. But then comes Redemption. In Christ. Who is, (as I never tire of telling you) not fifty per cent man and fifty per cent God, but a hundred percent man and a hundred percent God. And in his obedient, perfect humanity, he restores the Image of God in our nature. And we can depict him, and he depicts God, whose image – the “stamp of whose very being” as the letter to the Hebrews puts it – he bears.

None of this is a million miles from what Bishop John A.T. Robinson meant when he spoke of Jesus as “The Human Face of God.”

“He’s the image of his father…”

III

We ofter say that we live in an age that needs images. We are people who need images. We think visually, we remember things better if we see them than if we hear them. Best of all if we see and hear.

But there’s something deep in the Presbyterian psyche that worries about this! Because images are to do with idolatry. And idolatry is, is it not, the worship of images…

Mebbes aye, mebbes naw. But surely, to worship an image, you have to take that image and tie to it the reality it depicts. You have to say “This is what Jesus – for example – is like, and not anything else.” “This is the sole reality of Jesus, as far as I’m concerned.” “For me, no other depiction will do.” It seems to me that one of the things that the Christian tradition has been very good at doing for two thousand years is bombarding us with so many different depictions of Jesus, that it becomes very difficult to hang onto just one, and say “This is the Jesus I worship – this is the image I cling to!” Because we’re constantly exposed to other people’s images of Jesus that challenge or contradict our own.

And this is all of a piece with the way the Bible depicts Jesus Christ. The way in which he portrays himself. And God. Contradictory, conflicting images. He tells us to turn the other cheek, then cleanses the temple with a whip. He forgives the woman caught in adultery, gives not an inch to the rich young man who has problems letting go of his rich lifestyle, and, in the week of the crucifixion, he curses a fig tree that won’t feed him even though it isn’t the season for figs. He tells us of the loving shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep, and of the royal host of a wedding breakfast who throws a guest into outer darkness because he isn’t properly dressed. He shows us a God who is the loving father of the Prodigal Son; then – today – he tells us that we are nothing but servants, and shouldn’t get above ourselves.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild – aye, right!

What’s going on?

IV

Contradictory, conflicting images. This is how providence keeps us from idolatry.

Because, you see, idolatry is not so much the worship of images of the divine as of my image of the divine. My favourite image, my pet picture. Idolatry is me saying “I know what God is like – here’s my picture of him, which is right. And yours, by the way, are all wrong…” And it doesn’t need to be a picture. Doesn’t need to be an image in the conventional sense. All it needs to be is a way of portraying God that I can cling to and that I can use to hide from the Living God. From Truth.

Truth, you see, is where God is found. That’s why John’s Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth. Which sounds fine and dandy. Trouble is, truth is what you can’t change. You can cover it up, you can stick plasters over it, you can hide from it and run from it. But it won’t go away. And when you do eventually run into it, it hasn’t changed. That’s true of the physical truths of the universe, and it’s also true of the truth about who you are, and how you got to where you are today. John’s Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth, and we barely hear him. Where we should actually feel nervous and unsettled.

Truth, you see, can be very destructive. It destroys the comfortable images that we live with because we’re happy with them. The truth often seems to come from outside, like the cold draught that seeps in under the duvet when we’re about to have to face the day. And don’t want to, but the day won’t go away. The truth comes from outside and challenges the way we’d seen things, seen other people, understood ourselves and our place in the universe.

But the truth has its consolations. It may sometimes be cold, and always it’s hard and unyielding. But it’s what we have to deal with. It’s where we live.

V

And it’s where God meets us. Where we live day by day. Which is where also Jesus of Nazareth walked, amid a hard, unyielding human reality that won’t go away. That won’t bend, or change shape just because we want it to. A reality that can sometimes thrill us – just look into the sky on a clear night, or across a loch at sunset – but that sometimes gets us down. Because the office or the four walls of the house are as real as the loch, and much more difficult to walk away from.

Jesus was here. Maybe we should start doing Christian graffiti, to transform our world. Maybe we should send out teams to spray-paint walls with “Jesus woz’ ‘ere!.” Because that’s where the Gospel begins. When the infinite reality of God intersects with our human reality. When what we can’t change suddenly is full of God.

 
And we can face the truth…

 
Bishop Richard Holloway apparently said in a recent book “If you have to choose between Christ and truth, chose truth…” If I misquote him, I’m very sorry, because I see what he means, and I approve of the gist of it. But I think he has it wrong. To be a Christian, to believe in Christ, to have Jesus as our image of God, is just exactly to be thrown back on truth all the time. To have no escape from the way things are. As the German theologian Ernst Kasemann puts it:

“The man who surrenders reality in the slightest degree is treating the creator and father of Jesus as dead, even if he unwearyingly goes through liturgical exercises, on Sunday or in the silence of his own heart. God dies at all times and in all places where his servants withdraw from the reality he claims.”

Jesus confronts us with the truth. And that’s how he sets us free. Case in point – today’s gospel reading.

Suppose one of you has a servant ploughing or minding sheep. When he comes back from the fields, will the master say “Come along at once and sit down” Will he not rather say “Prepare my supper, fasten your belt, and then wait on me while I have my meal: you can have yours afterwards”? Is he grateful to the servant for carrying out his orders? So with you. When you have carried out all your orders, you should say “We are servants, and deserve no credit; we have only done our duty.”

I hear that, and hear a voice in my head – my voice! – screaming “Hang on! That’s not what it’s supposed to be like! I’m not some servant! I’m the Prodigal Son, back from the Pigsty on the edge of Hell! Jesus said so! I’m supposed to be loved, and petted, and made to feel special. I’m supposed to be embraced, clothed in finery. Where’s the ring? Where’s the fatted calf”

I’m special, because God has loved me…

I’m the centre of the universe. I’m what it’s all about. All of this is my due. Is this what faith means to us? A compensation for the way the world ignores me? A place where my self image, which gets so battered by the way the world treats me, is restored, and I can come to be loved and cossetted? Where God will rubber-stamp for me all those decisions I took that those fools disagreed with, sympathize with all those times people ignored me or didn’t do what I wanted them to, or didn’t see how my idea was the best one, and will put back together my fragile ego?

If so, I won’t like this parable. Because it demolishes my self-image. And it smashes the comfy-cozy God-image I cherish, too. And the image of Jesus the pal who just endorses whatever I say.

VI
Because however much I may crave it, I’m not at the centre of the universe. I’m not special, perfect, faultless.

And I have to accept that before I can accept God’s love. Because if I don’t accept the truth about myself, I can never accept that it’s me who God loves. Because I won’t be able to accept myself as I am. And I won’t be able to love myself, either. I’ll always be loving the stained-glass me, the perfect me, the ideal me. Who isn’t me. Who doesn’t exist.

God loves me. Bottom line. But I’ll never be able to accept that love, unless I can accept myself as I am. I’m not special because I’m specially important. I’m not special because I’m amazingly clever and gifted. I’m not special because I’m the centre of the universe. Because I’m none of these things.

I’m special because God has loved me…

And I need to know that.

Jesus in today’s parable is talking to people who think they are special. Because of who or what they are. Their self-image gets in the way of their relationship with God. Makes God a satellite, orbiting round their existence. Makes God exist for their sake. And that’s idolatry.

Jesus confronts them with the truth.

So that he can confront them with another truth.

You are not God. But you are not nothing. You have no claim on God’s love, any more than servants have a claim on their master. But love doesn’t work like that anyway; if you could claim it, it wouldn’t be love.

Put yourself in the position of servants without a claim. That’s what the prodigal son did. And what he discovered, when he abandoned all his expectations and all his images, was the truth. That he’d been loved all along…

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