Isaiah 58, 9b-14; Hebrews 12, 18-24; Luke 13, 10-17.
I wonder how you picture God?
At home I have a collection of images of the divine from some of
the Eastern religions. There are Hindu gods, with their many arms to show their powers and characters, some of them, like Ganesha and Hanuman, with animal heads. Then there are the different images of Buddhas, serene and detached from the world; and bodhisattvas – almost buddhas – like Kwan Yin, the goddess of compassion, who looks like a Chinese Virgin Mary.
I’ve got fewer images from the Christian tradition – because most images come from the Catholic tradition and I don’t find many of them them spiritually inspiring – but I do have icons and photos on my wall which portray Jesus, Mary and the Trinity in different
ways. One of the things I have asked people to do during Confirmation preparation is to draw their idea of God – and that brings interesting responses. You tend to get a few elderly men with beards, sandals and long white robes; but one 14 year old girl drew a picture of the world cradled in loving hands – which I thought showed some spiritual maturity.
In two of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, you have a prohibition on making images or drawing pictures of God, and some strands of Christianity have also observed this at different times. So in this ‘western’ religions’ you tend to get pictures of God drawn with words. Christianity in particular has gone in for defining God by creeds and statements. But another way of giving a picture of God is through stories.
In our Gospel reading today, Luke gives us two opposing pictures of God. On the one hand, Jesus shows a God who relates to humanity through grace, compassion and inclusion. He sees the woman’s need and responds to it, even though she hasn’t asked for help. He calls her from the edge of the synagogue (which symbolises her exclusion from active society as a result of her ailment) and places her in the centre. He lays hands on her – breaking all the taboos in the Old Testament Holiness Code on interaction between male and female – and tells her to stand up straight and hold her head high. He heals her, restoring not just her health but her place in society. He calls her a ‘daughter of Abraham’ emphasising her dignity and her equality with the men around her.
On the other hand, the leader of the synagogue demonstrated his belief in a God who relates to humanity through law, fear and exclusion. His only concern was with the rules, especially the complicated oral law which specified what a faithful Jew could or could not do on the Sabbath. To break those risked angering God. His spiritual blindness meant that he could not rejoice in the good done by Jesus, and ended up calling something good evil, simply because he judged it was done at the wrong time. He was so keen to obey the letter of the law, that he failed to observe the spirit of the law. According to Deuteronomy, the purpose of the Sabbath law was to celebrate release from oppression and slavery – yet he could not rejoice in the release of the woman from oppression by the evil of sickness. His misjudgement about the purpose of the Sabbath was compounded by his own hypocrisy: he would work if it was necessary to feed or rescue one of his animals, but he would not rejoice over the freeing of a fellow human being from illness and exclusion into fullness of life. Jesus judged, probably accurately that he would look after his animals because they made up part of his own personal wealth, so he was doing precisely what the prophet Isaiah condemns in our OT reading.
Pointers to both the God of law and the God of grace can be found in the Jewish tradition. Particularly after the exile in Babylon, strict adherence to the Law and separation and exclusion were seen as the way of preserving Jewish identity and loyalty to God. But there was also another strand, which portrayed God as the God of all nations, who wanted social justice and inclusion – the strand found in our Old Testament lesson from Third Isaiah.
For Christians, Jesus is the icon of God, the one who shows us what God is like. Luke’s stories tell us that is a God who wants to heal people and include the outcast, the God of grace, that Jesus shows us; and that the proper response to that revelation is to praise God and rejoice (as the ordinary people in the synagogue did) not carp and condemn (as the leader of the synagogue did).
But this insight is one the Christian community has had to learn again and again, especially as the Church turned from a movement into an institution. Institutions tend to be much more comfortable serving a God of law, with clear rules that define what and who is acceptable, and what is not. Some rules are necessary for community life – but the tendency is to go beyond what is necessary and try to keep the community pure and obedient by fear of breaking ever more complicated rules – a process which tends to exclude people, rather than include them, and oppress them rather than liberate.
So, St Paul had to argue that we are justified by our faith, not by our works, by the grace of God, not by keeping the Law; and the writer of the letter to the Colossians argued against teachings that said the observance of the Sabbath, festivals and food laws were as important as loving all members of the community. But the restrictive rules crept back into the life of the Christian community nevertheless. To counter what it regarded as heresy, the church authorities drew up creeds, and demanded adherence to them as a condition of membership, expelling those who could not accept these pictures of God. The old restrictions on the participation of women returned, with the implication that they were somehow more sinful or unclean than men. Even the multitude of laws about what could be done on the Sabbath (now Sunday rather than Saturday) came back, so that it became a time of oppression not liberation. The Puritans forbade music, dance, sport, anything that might make the Sabbath a day of joy. The gloomy Victorian Sunday was maintained with the same hypocrisy seen in our Gospel reading, resulting in situation where rich people could avoid work on the Sabbath day, but the poor could not.
One result of this trend is that, while Jesus is seen as an attractive figure by many, a true icon of the God of grace and compassion, Christianity itself is rejected as reflecting only a God who excludes and punishes. Gandhi said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ!” And a few years ago, the American writer of vampire novels, Anne Rice, announced on Facebook that she could no longer be a Catholic Christian (though she would continue to follow Christ) since “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of …Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. I can no longer be part of what organised religion does.”
Now one can argue that Anne Rice’s experience was of the Roman Catholic Church, or the American situation, and therefore not applicable to us; and we could also argue about whether it is possible to be a Christian on your own, or whether being part of the community, a member of the Body of Christ, is an essential part of being a follower of Jesus. But her statement prompted a lot of comment and discussion in the media at the time, and many people, including those from inside different Christian denominations have admitted to sharing her anxiety that the institutional church doesn’t reflect the God of Grace that Jesus came to show us. That has serious implications for our mission, and our attempts to commend our faith to an increasingly indifferent and unbelieving society.
Anne Rice’s perception that the Christian faith is one which oppresses women and gays and obstructs progress arising from modern scientific discoveries and liberal values is one that is shared by many in our society, particularly in the media and among the young. How can we counter that? How can we present the Christian Gospel so that it is seen as ‘Good News’ for those on the margins of our society as well as those with power or who find life comfortable? How do we represent the God of freedom and compassion to the world, rather than the God of rules and repression? In particular, how do we lay Christians do that as we live and work outside the church building during the week – as we are ‘theChurch’ not just on Sunday, but in the whole of our lives?
So our readings today face us with a challenge, not just about how we mark a particular day, but also how we picture God and how that picture influences the way we serve God in the Church and the world. What sort of God do we want to worship and praise today? One who keeps some of his sons and daughters bent over and burdened, or one who wants them all to stand up straight and hold their heads high? One whose community is exclusive or inclusive? A God of rules or a God of love?
Luke asks us, “What sort of God did Jesus show us – a God of law or a God of grace?”