Being a subscriber to the whole Patheos website, not just the Evangelical channel, I happened upon this intriguing, if a bit clickbaity headline last night: “Do Christians Make an Idol out of Jesus? The bait worked, and I read the whole thing. The author makes many interesting assertions that, if they don’t exactly line up against the lections for this morning, at least provide a pretty satisfying way in. It is World Mission Sunday, after all, according to the ACNA, though my local church is still plugging along with the last gasps of Epiphany. But before we wander over to the Bible, let’s look at what Danielle Kingstrom has to say about Jesus. She asks:
Why do so many Christians worship Jesus? Why does the worship of Jesus take precedent over the worship of God? Is there a right way to follow Jesus that doesn’t imitate idolatry? And if there is, are there many models of this practice?
She pauses, there, to define what she means by worship. She provides two dictionary definitions, and then talks about images:
Images are important. We human beings are very images of God, are we not? So, if hanging a picture of Jesus (preferably a culturally accurate depiction of Jesus) in your house is automatic idolatry, then what would we say about hanging pictures of our family members in our homes? But still, how do we reconcile this very severe verse from Exodus? “You shall not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:4-5, KJV)
It is heartening to me that anyone would quote the Bible this way. Exodus 20 is the nub of the matter, and it is a good place to go when tackling this critical question. She goes on:
Some Christian sects would say that the glory of God is diminished by an image. That it makes God less than what God is. When we use symbolic representations of God, or even if you are into astrology and symbolic representations of protection, like I am, some would say this reduces the wholeness of the eternal, omnipotent Creator of the Universe. But then again, so many Christians believe that Jesus is God. And therefore, the worship of Jesus is the same as the worship of God. However, many other Christians do not believe Jesus is God and therefore the worship of Jesus is idolatry. What we see here is a divorce of ideas from the same Christian faith. Some believe that images and symbols help a believer, others suggest it harms their potential salvation from an eternal hell.
I love that line—“so many Christians believe that Jesus is God.” Yes, that’s true. Indeed, believing that Jesus is God is what makes a person into a Christian, or rather, is the prerequisite to being one. Satan knows that Jesus is God, but he is not a Christian. Believing, or knowing if you will, that Jesus is God should then lead one to trust him, and it is the trust that makes a person a Christian. Just to reiterate the point once more, though, if you don’t believe that Jesus is God, you aren’t a Christian.
Before I wander over to see what Jesus has to say about anything, I should note that I love the tone of the article, and I appreciate very much the scripture quotations. I think the questions Kingstrom raises are of the utmost significance, and I commend her for tackling them.
They are, in fact, brought to the fore over and over again through the Bible. So that if anyone would keep reading after Exodus 20, one would have to grapple again and again with the question of who God is, and how can anyone know. That, in fact, is the question that Thomas, in the text for this morning, is valiantly trying to come to grips with. He had not really thought that Jesus was God, all the days that he walked after him up and down the length of Galilee and Judea, suffering the immense disappointments of Passion Week. He had, like everyone following that strange man, poured all of his expectations and hopes into Jesus. He wanted life to be better. He believed in the moral teachings. He loved the camaraderie of the road. He wanted Jesus to have power and to invite him (Thomas) to be part of the new system that surely God must be organizing that would finally deal with the oppressive crushing rule of Rome. And, in the final reckoning, he loved the one who had called him and brought him all this way. But he couldn’t understand, his ear could not crack open enough to hear Jesus say that he (Jesus) was God, and as God, he (Jesus) had come to save his people from their sins. A merely human messiah, though one imbued with divine gifts, was what Thomas not only expected, but like all his fellow men, certainly preferred.
Of course, Jesus wrecked it all by dying as one cursed by—let the point not escape you—God. Jesus took the place of each person who refuses to worship God, who idolizes not just images, not just other creatures, but at the very core of it, the self. Adam and Eve and then each of us turn and, through the improper reverence of whatever we happen to have on hand, adore ourselves rather than God. To remedy this tragic circumstance, God took on human flesh. As we’ve said so often, having made us in his image, he then took on that ruined image and came “in the likeness of men.” That is as an actual man—joining humanity to his divine nature in order to save us from our sins. Thomas and the other disciples could not possibly have understood this, indeed, it goes over the heads of all people at least at first. It is a great mystery and one that we have to keep peering at as we try to believe.
But one way that we can see and know that Jesus is both God and Man is that, having said that he was God, and having gone then to the cross to suffer the penalty due to human idolatry on our behalf, he then rose again. And having risen again, he came to find Thomas and bring him out of his narrow, anxious sadness and into a glorious and astonishing joy:
So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
There, if anyone is warily looking around to understand why Christians worship Jesus as God, is the reason. Jesus vindicated his divine claims by rising again on the third day in a glorified body. If he hadn’t been God, he would have died as a shamed and cursed liar. But he did rise. Thomas and the others are eyewitnesses of this fact. And so the proper response is to fall on your knees, to
“confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Thomas’ version of that confession is one of the most beautiful the world has ever heard. Undone, stretching out his hands, he finally cries, “My Lord and My God.” And Jesus, accepting the worship that is rightfully his, raises him to his feet and sets him on the path of eternal life.
Kingstrom pivots from the question of idolatry to what she calls “weaponizing” belief, and even “weaponizing Jesus.” The prevailing view of this moment is that it’s alright to believe almost anything (within certain parameters), but the worst thing one can do is say to anyone else, ‘You have to believe this if you want to be saved.” It’s fine, in other words, to join an appreciation for the teachings of Jesus to some kinds of spiritualism, or various other kinds of beliefs, as long as you don’t tell anyone else what they have to do.
Unhappily for Christians—who, let me say just one more time, are only called that because they worship the Lord Jesus Christ—one of the Sundays on the church calendar is called World Mission Sunday (today) and we have to obey our Lord who tells us to go into every corner of the world and enjoin other people to worship the King. We are commanded to go out and tell the Truth, to call people to the Way of Life. For many who hear the news, it feels painful. The Scriptures liken the Word about Jesus to a sword that pierces into the human heart. The sword is a sharp and bitter instrument. It can be wielded as a weapon to destroy, but when it is the word that comes forth from your mouth, it has the power to bring a deep and true healing, a restoration of the very image that God first impressed upon his creatures.
So anyway, go to church! Worship Jesus! Today is a perfect day to let go of all your idols and put yourself into the hands of the One who loves you!