Reflections from a House of God

It is hard not to be impressed by Westminster Abbey. Gothic architecture was designed to invoke awe and it does just that. The imposing stonework – centuries old – is nothing short of magnificent. It is easy to feel humbled. There is a stillness in the sanctuary, even with the buzz of the tourists, that I have come to recognise as the voice of time. I have heard it in the mountains; I can hear it beneath the roar of the waves when I walk along a beach; it is one of the most alluring attractions of the African bushveld. I completely understand how people can find God there.

 

Only I didn’t. In years past I might well have mistaken the reverent peacefulness for the presence of God, but not anymore. Magnificent as it is, Westminster Abbey is just one more misguided attempt to worship a God reimagined in our image. Now I do not for a moment doubt the sincere desire of those who conceived of the lofty, vaulted ceilings, who so patiently and skilfully shaped stone into saints and angels, to bring glory to God. And I think they did. But the shape that their monument took reflected – as all religious activity must – the flawed theology of those who built it.

 

You see, the form that this act of worship took – the wonder that is Westminster Abbey – is clearly founded on a conviction that God is a sort of an upgrade on the dozens of royal figures buried beneath it over the centuries. It testifies to a God resplendent in majesty, wielding incomprehensible power, whose very knee-trembling presence demands our homage. It is a monument that proclaims – on behalf of God – “I am the centre of the universe. Kneel in awe”.

 

It is no wonder that so many kings and queens over the ages have identified with the Abbey, and buildings just like it all over Europe: it reflects their own beliefs about power. Surely the very fact that the Abbey has resonated on a spiritual level with so many aristocratic (and often brutally dictatorial) leaders should sound theological alarm bells for us? Now I don’t doubt for a moment that God wields incomprehensible power and is worthy of our devotion. But this is not how God would have presented that fact. That is how we display our power when we have it, not how God does. Jesus approaches power in a completely different way.

 

Three incidents in the gospel accounts will serve to illustrate. The first is when the mother of the sons of Zebedee approaches Jesus to request that when he takes charge (remember that for the Jews at that time, the “Kingdom of God” is a hope for the present world, when the enemies of Israel will be defeated and Israel restored to its former glory, not some otherworldly bliss when we die), she would like her sons to sit by Jesus’s side. In other words, she wants her sons to be rewarded for following Jesus with positions of power and privilege in the new dispensation. The other disciples are incensed, outraged by the audacity of the request but no doubt secretly harbouring the hopes that they could occupy those positions themselves. This is how Jesus responds (Matthew 20:25-28):

 

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

 

Some would no doubt use this passage to defend penal substation – Jesus being punished in our place. But that is to read the passage through a post-Calvinist lens. There is no suggestion here that the one holding us to ransom is God, because we have sinned. Jesus does not even mention “dying for our sins” here. You have to read that into his words. In fact, other New Testament passages would suggest that it is death (not God – which would be completely twisted: God dying as a ransom to pay Henself so that Hen could release us?!) that is holding us for ransom. But that is a topic for another day. My point is that Jesus redefines what it means to have power. The godly expression of power is service of those with less power. And hear the next part clearly: just as Jesus came to serve. God came to serve not to be served.

 

Later, at the last supper, Jesus makes the point again. Now think about it: he knows that this will most likely be the last time he gets to teach those closest to him, who have heard him teach on all manner of topics and have been demonstrablly slow in understanding, and he chooses this lesson as the one he hopes will stick. Jesus, in other words, regarded the washing of the disciples’ feet as the key teaching he wished to impart. Maybe we need to be paying more attention if we call ourselves disciples of Christ. We read in John 13:12-17:

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

 

Jesus makes it clear here that he is the Messiah (“Lord”), and as God’s anointed deliverer, this would make him unsurpassed in all generations in terms of power and influence. The disciples, as Jews, would certainly have understood that. And the message he leaves with them is simply staggering: if even God’s Messiah can serve, and no servant is greater than their master, there is no good reason for you not to do likewise. Not because the threat of doom hangs over you if you don’t, but because in so doing you will find abundance of life (“be blessed”).

 

If that doesn’t pose a serious challenge to contemporary Evangelical theology and praxis to you, then you haven’t being paying attention. God’s desire is to serve us, not to bask in our worship. I think it is easy for modern Evangelical and Protestant Christians, oblivious to the hegemony of our culture, to be blind to the ways in which we filter everything through the lenses of capitalism, of Reformation theology (albeit distorted) and of English culture in some or other form, to interpret Jesus in that light. In so doing, we construct a capitalist God who functions on economies of exchange, who sees it as a legitimate expression of power to exercise control over others, who demands adoration. We have come to worship a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant male God.

 

But Jesus operated in a different cultural context, and we will never understand his teachings so long as we insist that the only legitimate way to understand Jesus is through a WASP lens, located within a context of Western cultural power, because Jesus pretty much makes it his mission to undermine power. Brain Zahnd, if you are interested, has an excellent sermon on the interaction between Jesus and Pilate (John 18:38-39), where worldly power and divine power are starkly contrasted (it can be found here):

 

 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

 

Like Pilate, I think we miss the point. We attempt to make Jesus (and by extension, God) into a king in our own image. But Jesus rejects that construction. “You say that I am a king”, he answers Pilate, and very clearly implied is that Jesus would characterise himself differently. Not because he rejects the title of King – after all, he refers to “my kingdom”, and Pilate draws the logical conclusion – but because he rejects the conceptualisation of Pilate’s “king”. And he has already explained how. He contrasts two kingdoms for Pilate: a kingdom of this world, characterised by fighting and reciprocal violence, and his kingdom, which we are compelled to see as different. Pilate, a little while later (John 19:10), locates himself squarely in the realm of wordly power, completely missing the point Jesus makes, when he responds to Jesus’s silent submission with: “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” For Pilate, power is synonymous with the capacity to end others’ lives. Jesus, by contrast, rejects that notion of power, and instead has willingly submitted rather than fight. And this, he concludes, is to be interpreted as a testimony to truth.

 

And so I just could not see Westminster Abbey as a place of God. Apart from its legacy of elitism and blood, celebrated in the lives of all of the rich and famous people who rest there, I don’t think Jesus would have approved of the picture of God that informed its construction (though no doubt would have valued the offering and affirmed the extraordinary talent that went into constructing something so beautiful in his name, just as he affirmed the woman who poured expensive perfume over his feet in an ostentatious act of worship). For Jesus, the act of worship centres on the interactions between people, not on rituals or obedience to laws. By referring to himself as the Temple being broken and built again in three days, and, through the symbolic act of the Eucharist, Jesus relocates the locus of worship from the Temple and the elite to the table and the common people. It is a profound reconfiguring of religious and political power (for a moment, think about the Eucharist minus the penal substation lens, and you will possibly begin to fathom just how profound and beautiful the ritual is) that compels us to focus on community, rooted in self-giving love, that follows the example of one who came – the Son of God, no less – not to be served but to serve.

sdr

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