Don’t Put God in a Box

6 On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. 7 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 8 But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. 11 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.

–Luke 6.6-11 (NIV)

We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

–Colossians 1.9b-14 (NIV)

Today I comment on another false and inadequate god that J.B. Phillips identified in his book, Your God Is Too Small. It is God-in-a-Box. This unreal god has been around for a long time as we see in today’s Gospel lesson above. The Pharisees had so elevated their traditions that they couldn’t see the forest from the trees. They got their means and end confused and when Jesus called them on it–in the context of this particular passage the conflict was caused by what the Pharisees saw as a Sabbath violation on Jesus’ part–he had to set them straight. He essentially told them to remember the two Great Commandments–to love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love their neighbor as themselves. But they were too enamored with their own teaching and tradition to be bothered by a little thing like healing and showing compassion for one in need.

Sadly, there are some folks in various denominations today who act just like the Pharisees. They would likely be appalled if you told them they worshiped God-in-a-box but it is true nevertheless. These folks just don’t think God can operate outside the confines of their own particular denomination’s rules, traditions, or beliefs.

Now don’t misunderstand. I have nothing against the great Christian traditions. I am part of the Anglican Communion with its particular traditions and being part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church is very important to me. But I also try to always remind myself that Jesus is Lord, not Anglicanism. The various traditions are just fine because they reflect the diversity of peoples’ worship practices and lesser beliefs. But when we elevate our traditions and make them Lord instead of Jesus, we have a problem. A big problem.

For you see, Christians are a resurrection people and it is appropriate during this season of Easter to remember what we are and Whose we are. As Paul reminds us in his letter the Colossians, we are to live joyfully as redeemed people. We have been rescued from the darkness of our sins and have been reconciled to the Source and Author of all life. Our present and future our secure. We have the resurrection hope, the hope of New Creation, where we believe that one day when Jesus returns with great power and glory, our mortal bodies will be raised up and transformed into new resurrection bodies that are adapted to live forever in God’s New Creation, just the way Jesus’ mortal body was raised up and transformed. Just as importantly, in God’s New Creation, whatever that looks like, evil and brokenness will be vanquished forever.

That doesn’t mean we are to sit around gazing at our navels and waiting for that day to come. Just the opposite. It means that with glad and joyful hearts we roll up our sleeves and get busy in our lives right here and now. We join together with other members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and do the things we need to do to deepen our relationship with Jesus so that we can be transformed into his likeness through the power and Presence of his Holy Spirit. Only then we are ready to go out into the world and be his agents of New Creation, imitating Jesus and seeking to put right all that is wrong with his broken and fallen world, at least in the context of our own lives. We remember that we are not Jesus, but rather his followers, and we have his good name to uphold. Only God in Christ can finally put the world aright. We get that. But we also get that Jesus can use us to help him work on this project of New Creation until he returns again to finish his mighty and redemptive work that he started when he became human and walked on this earth.

But given the human condition, the temptation is always there to forget all this and to make something or someone else an idol to follow. Even as we open ourselves up to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and work as Jesus’ agents of New Creation, it is possible to forget our role and start to delude ourselves that the work we do is not possible without us or that it can only be conducted within the confines of our particular denomination. Right.

No, we must ask the Spirit to give us the proper spirit of wisdom and humility and to help remind us Whose we are, in part, through the loving fellowship of our fellow believers. We must do likewise for them. When that happens, and when we continue to grow in our relationship with Jesus through regular Bible study, prayer, and partaking of the sacraments, we can be confident that we won’t try to put God in a box. Rather, we will live our lives with joy, meaning, and purpose as we follow him. After all, there’s really no better feeling than knowing you are faithfully serving God and being obedient to his call for you.

That’s what Paul is talking about in today’s passage when he talks about being strengthened by power. It is the power to serve and obey God in Christ. It is the power to persevere when resistance comes–and make no mistake, resistance will come when we are obedient to God’s calling to us because we are telling the powers and principalities that they are no longer in charge, and they will not like that one bit.

When we remember who truly is Lord and serve him faithfully rather than make our religious traditions Lord, we will turn heads, just the way Jesus did. Folks will ask us in amazement why we do the things we do, and by whose authority. God-in-a-box, on the other hand, may turn heads, but it will be in the form of people shaking their heads in disgust or bemusement because they instinctively know that the god we are serving is one of our own concoction, not the God of this wondrous universe.

Find a tradition that fits your temperament and worship God for all your worth within the context of that denomination. After all, Jesus wants you to become part of his Body. But remember who you are and Whose you are as you do so. Remember that your tradition is there to help you get connected to the Living God so that he can use you, in turn, to be an agent of his New Creation. Then get ready for the ride of your life. If you have not done so already, consider these things and then accept Jesus’ gracious invitation to you to step out of your own darkness and into his light. It will be the best decision you have ever made. Talk about job security and work that makes a difference!

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!