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Toward Wholeness Blog

Exercises in missing the point: What I learned visiting chapels and cathedrals

We’ll leave tomorrow for the high country again, but we’ve spent a bit of time in Alpine valleys recently, and of course, this means visiting churches and cathedrals, each one filled with history.

The architecture of churches, in Tirol and Bavaria at least, testify to the union of state and church.  There are statues and frescoes celebrating violent triumph over one’s enemies, with soldiers standing on the neck of the conquered, raising a lifted sword in victory.  Then, right next to that statue, there’s one of Christ, the suffering servant laying down his life.  For that matter, the entire region has been dotted with countless crucifixes; stone or wood carved images of Christ dying on the cross.  They’re in the forest, hanging over the doors of farmer’s remote cabins at 4000′, and in high cathedrals.

The juxtaposition celebrating power while worshipping the one who embodies the utter relinquishment of power seems strange.  The thirty years war, which decimated Europe, had its roots in power struggles between Protestants and Catholics.   Warring armies throughout Europe have been appealing to the power of the sword to rule, conquer, subdue “in Jesus name”.  One wonders how this is possible, but answers come quickly, and are summarized in the simple reality that anyone… ANY. ONE. can claim Jesus and raise a flag in his name.

The self-absorbed King Ludwig, who built the famous Neuschwanstein castle as a playground for his fantasies, was utterly self-absorbed, profoundly materialistic, utterly out of touch with reality, and, get ready:  a man characterized by “deep faith.”

Kings and Reich Chancellors, Presidents and Senators, NRA lobbyists and Green Peace activists,  Yankee and Confederate soldiers, Protestant and Catholic warriors, have all invoked violence in Jesus name.

There are lessons to learn here, important ones, if the church is to be a place offering any hope or meaning at all in the midst of the insanity of racism, violence, materialism, nationalism, consumerism, individualism, and all the other “isms” that, as the idols of our time, are cursing, enslaving, and destroying us.

1.  The goal must be purity.  Paul speaks of this in II Corinthians 10 when he expresses a fear that our hearts might be easily seduced away from the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.”  For the rest of my days, I’ll never forget the image of two statues side by side in a church I saw last week: a triumphant soldier standing on the neck of his enemy with sword raised was placed next to Jesus as a shepherd, a sheep on one arm while the other was still seeking, still looking.  “My God” I pray, “forgive us for losing the simplicity of devotion to you, for in that simplicity, we become servants rather than power loving leaders, humble rather than proud.  We become people for whom ‘you’ are enough, rather than you plus wealth, or you plus the assurance that we can kill anyone who trespasses our space, or your plus creature comforts.”  I pray that, on my return to ministry leadership, I’ll pursue simplicity and purity with a passion and zeal, for therein lies the reality of Christ.

2.  When Jesus is the reference point, insanity doesn’t happen as quickly.  Really now, can you see Jesus advocating the use of an assault rifle to keep his home safe?  Can you see Jesus firing anyone who doesn’t agree with him?  Can you see Jesus living in the lap of luxury and amassing more and more while others he knows are living in abject poverty, oppressed and enslaved?

If Jesus is just a poster child for our cause, we can cherry pick some verses and justify Jesus as the slave owner, or Jesus as the gun rights advocate (“look we have two swords”, said a disciple), or Jesus as the source of our upward mobility.

Jesus, though, is no more the source of our upward mobility than he was the source of colonial expansion.  He was co-opted for both causes, but read the book.  Jesus wasn’t into either of those things.  If we knew Jesus better, we’d have fewer statues celebrating wars that expanded our borders,  but as it stands, these statues stand right beside the Prince of Peace, and I’m not sure anyone sees the tragic joke.

3.  The problem is as old as people.  The pharisees were the religious experts of Jesus’ day and they thought they had it right when they’d raise their stones to throw at the woman caught in adultery.  But Jesus turned the tables on them to reveal that she, more than they, was closer to the kingdom of God, because she knew her own brokenness.  Forever we’ve all been claiming the moral high ground, claiming God is “on our side”but of course, the joke’s on us.  God has no sides but God’s, and you’re only on God’s side when you look like Jesus.

Churches.  They’re everywhere over here and every time I go inside one I come out praying that the community I lead would look more and more like Jesus in the coming months and years, and less like the striving, proud, divisive, complacent crowd that we’ve so often been as God’s people down through the centuries.

Do you think we can learn from history?

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