—Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (19 June)
Recently thinking about how we tend to make historical figures into icons of ideals. Hitler, for example, is a cultural icon for evil—even some of the most relativistic among us draw the line of wrong somewhere before our idea of him; his name is invoked when someone wants an illustration of the irredeemable (e.g. "If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?"). Likewise, Ghandi is our icon for peaceful leadership. Not that most of us know much about him at all; most are shocked when I tell them he spoke and wrote more about enemas than he did about peace. Regardless of the complexity of who he was, our image of him is a placeholder for a concept.
Seeing Saved! last week got me to thinking of what kind of icon Jesus has become in our cultural lexicon. Why didn't the film just dismiss Him, since it clearly wasn't going to embrace who He truly is? The idea of Jesus is important to us culturally. So what does it mean?
By and large, I think Jesus is our cultural representation of acceptance. It goes something like this: do whatever you like, as long as you're trying to be good, and it'll all work out in the end because He's accepting. Don't talk about sin, because that's not loving. The church is criticized legitimately for its many sins, but over and above that, organized religion just doesn't understand how loving and peaceful and accepting He was (almost like Ghandi). Jesus' arms are perpetually open in all-accepting love. Just love.
But the arms of Jesus are open because they were nailed there, by people not inherently different from me. And though men had their own corrupt reasons for crucifying Him, in the cosmic drama, that death was executed in punishment of the sin. Further, He was no victim—He took up the cross for the joy set before Him, scorning its shame and yielding His right to Himself to His Father. He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He accepts our sin only by bearing the judgment for it. His work was to free us from sin, not to free us to it. That's not the icon that sits well with our culture.
If we want Jesus to accept us as we are, it is only reasonable that we must accept Him as He is. He told people who were sinning to stop, because ultimately it's killing all of us. And He has the right to tell us what to do, on every level: no one will ever love us more, no one will ever know better what is best for us, no one has more right to us than He who purchased our lives, and no one has more authority on Heaven or Earth.
He's alive, not some dead historical figure. Though Sheldon's In His Steps is a powerful work, I think he'd cringe at much of the "What Would Jesus Do?" mentality and merchandising that have risen from the catchphrase a century later. It's not a guessing game. Abide. Live as a branch connected to the vine for life itself. Learn from Him, from His Word, from His Spirit, and discover that life isn't about a set of principles to follow independently of Christ Himself. The checklist isn't the relationship. The church isn't to be worshipped, nor is the Bible. Only God.
And Jesus is going to be complex, just as He has always been. He won't fit into a concept, ideal, or icon. He doesn't adapt to our cramped personal dramas the way we'd like Him to sometimes, and when He doesn't, we can't pretend He's abandoning or not answering us. He's calling us out, setting us free, and we're trying to get Him to make life work our way inside our cell. He's a thwarter sometimes, and I thank God He is.