Another Visitation

Jesus imageA walmart shopping receipt is the latest location for appearances of ‘Jesus’ likenesses, following on the heels of Jesus-shaped pancakes, clouds, vaseline smears in windows and who-knows-what-else.

Leaving aside that it’s an excellent likeness of an unfortunate and misshapen circus person from the 19th century, rather than a typical representation of Jesus, it makes me wonder why devout people see any importance in such discoveries.

Of course, it’s possible that no one does. Maybe it’s all for the cameras and no one really puts any religious stock in it. It would make me happy if that were so. Nevertheless, the church has a long enough history of relic-gathering and spiritualising to make it worth considering what lies behind such an attitude.

As far as I understand it, Christianity is based on the historical activity of Jesus in which we are called to believe though we were not there to see it (John 20:29), and our belief is a matter of long perseverence and trust that what has been promised will be fulfilled because the one who promised it is faithful. We know that God is with us and at work, but there is very little suggestion in scripture that we are to expect supernatural phenomena or a face-to-face conversation with God.

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1Corinthians 13:12)

So I reckon that faith is difficult because — to state the obvious — it is not sight, and so it means that we are not regularly reassured by indubitable means that what we believe is true. My suspicion is that people clamour for the supernatural, whether at the Walmart register or at miracles rallies, because they are eager for better evidence that God is really there (even if God can’t draw very well).

There is a similar problem evident in the book of Colossians. The best sense that scholarship can make of the background to Paul’s words is that the Christians there were being tempted by a Jewish mysticism that promised the worshipper trance-based transport (tranceport?) into heaven where one could stand with the angels worshipping God. Although there is an appearance of ultimate, unmediated spirituality about this approach, Paul calls it the opposite:

Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. (Col. 2:18b)

Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom… but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Col. 2:23-3:2)

According to Paul, and with a great sense of irony, setting your mind on things above and not on earthly things means getting your head out of heavenly experiences and back into focus upon life in service of Christ. The ordinary, boring matters of faith and loving others is true worship and true spirituality. ‘Spiritual experience’ has no value in keeping you in touch with that.

So, on the basis of his words in Colossians and elsewhere, if we presented Paul with Shrouds of Turin and Vaseline Jesus faces and many other more respectable spiritual phenomena that Christians parade in an attempt to prove to themselves that their faith is warranted, I suspect that he might tell us that this is the age for faith, not sight, and to stop being so unspiritual.


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