If you have seen Jesus, you have seen God.
Colossians 1:15 | The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
This week, my daughter was on vacation from school. We watched some movies together. Two were children’s movies about Jesus – Lion of Judah, and God With Us. I kept a close eye on her as the films came toward the end, when Jesus is crucified. It was her first time seeing it. I have been very aware that this can be a very traumatic thing for a young child to see, even if it is softened by a G rating and not all that graphic. I’d explained to her a little bit about who Jesus is, and why we pray “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” when we say grace or bedtime prayers. But she’s older, getting better at following movies, and I knew this movie was probably going to be the first time she really saw the full story of Jesus play out.
Well, my girl is pretty brave. She was upset at how Jesus was treated, but not scared. She watched Pilate bring Jesus and Barabbas out in front of the crowd, and when the crowd chose Barabbas, she turned to me and with a teacherly tone, explained, “Jesus is innocent, but they want to kill him.”
That’s right, I said. And then she asked…”Why?”
“Sometimes,” I said, “bad things happen to good people.” That’s just the beginning. How on earth would I explain to her that Jesus had to die for the sin of the world? And that’s what she was watching play out?
As Jesus was lifted up on the cross, she understood what was happening to him wasn’t fair. When he said, “It is finished,” and bowed his head, she said, “He died.”
That’s right, I said. And then she asked…”Why?”
The only answer I could think of was, “Because God loves us.” She kept looking at me for more, and I explained, “God loves us like a hero, and sometimes heroes die to save people.”
Well, the film wasted no time for the sake of the kids – within a few minutes, the stone rolls away, and Jesus is back. My daughter was thrilled. “He’s risen!”
That’s right, I said. And she turns to me, and with that teacherly tone, explains, “He died because God loves us, and He rised because God loves us, too.”
I can’t explain how grateful I am for these little cartoons. I honestly had no idea how I’d explain it all to her. You all know perfectly well, I can barely explain it up here every Sunday without going off on tangents!
Well, for the grownups there’s a great new series called “the Chosen,” and it follows Jesus and especially his disciples. It’s great, in my opinion. Go check it out, preacher’s recommendation!
But there’s a little controversy about “the Chosen.” Don’t watch it, some say – because, they say, Jesus shouldn’t be portrayed onscreen by an actor — because that actor might distort our perception of Jesus, therefore our perception of God. In other words, Christ shouldn’t be portrayed by an actor, because the actor’s humanity could get in the way of God.
Well. This is what’s called iconoclasm. It has a long history in Christianity. The earliest churches were filled with paintings of Jesus, the saints, etc. The great cathedrals like the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople were filled with colorful portraits of this nature. Then, in the 7th century, during the first clashes of Christian and Islamic culture in Byzantium, there was a revolt against icons, that is, paintings of God, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the angels and the saints etc.
The power of the Caliphate was growing, and with it the influence of Islam. But it wasn’t just Muslims who were against icons (because it was against their religious laws) – but also, some Christians were influenced by these ideas and made them their own, and joined their Muslim countrymen in a campaign of defacing church iconography.
Why? For the same reason some people say you shouldn’t watch “The Chosen” — they believed God shouldn’t be portrayed in imagery.
Iconoclasm was condemned by the Christians of that era and for centuries, churches were filled with paintings and statutes until the Protestant Reformation brought back iconoclasm with a vengeance. This is why so many Protestant churches often aren’t decorated with much aside from verses from scripture, much like mosques of Islam, from which the roots of iconoclasm came.
Well, I hate to take sides – but might I suggest, that this very controversy touches on the heart of why Jesus came to us. He came to be a living icon – a living portrait of God — to show humanity what His Father looks like, in his own humanity. Don’t take my word for it, take scripture’s — “the Son is the image of the invisible God.” Christ came precisely so that God could be seen.
At the last supper, Philip is distraught that Jesus is saying he must go away. Jesus has taught them so much, and Philip seems desperate for more precious divine wisdom from his teacher. You can feel his desperation when he asks, Jesus, before you go, at least please show us the Father!
What does Jesus say? “Philip, I have been with you all this time, and still you do not know Me? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
This is so important! Jesus is how we see God! He is the image of God. This is why I said, the iconoclasm controversy touches on the very heart of why Jesus came. Before he came, there was the commandment: have no images of God before you; Paul said this is because there is a veil around these commandments, a veil that makes it impossible to see God; but only in Christ can this veil be removed (2 Cor 3:14). And he makes this promise himself, that God can be seen, when he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Mt. 5:8)
Before I became a Jesus Freak, I looked at Christians and thought, “Why are they so obsessed with Jesus? It’s kind of like idol-worship.” I know lots of people who think that’s the case. And what I say to that is: we all worship idols. Everyone does. Whether it’s celebrities; politicians; work; addictions; our friends, lovers, or ourselves. But if Jesus is your idol, the difference is – your idol is actually God.
Not that Jesus is an idol, but that God came in the flesh to replace all idols that we would otherwise worship. Because, ever since our ancestors in the Garden chose the tree of knowledge over the tree of life, we as a species crave knowledge. We crave the fruit of knowledge. We want to touch, taste, smell, see, and hear it. And this is why, as the ancients said, Jesus, who in his divinity was the fruit of the tree of life, came down from heaven for our sake to be a fruit of knowledge hanging from the tree of the cross – reconciling the elevated heavens and the fallen earth in himself.
We are meant to be obsessed with Jesus. Being wise in philosophy, politics, or all the commandments do nothing to bring us closer to God. If they had, the philosophers who learned at the feet of fallen angels would not have been destroyed by the Flood in Noah’s age; the politicians of Sodom and Gomorrah would not have been destroyed by fire and brimstone for their sins; the scribes and Pharisees who sit in Moses’ seat, the priesthood and the Temple of Jerusalem, would not have been destroyed for rejecting Christ.
These are unable to bring us closer to God. That’s the bad news. But the good news is this: while nothing can bring us closer to God, nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
Jesus is God’s love letter to the world. He’s God’s love language. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God – and the Word became flesh. Set your mind on him – more than philosophy, more than politics, more than even the commandments, even the Bible itself.
Yes, even the Bible. Don’t get me wrong — how can I say this?
Well, consider this. How long have there been Christian saints? Since Christ was raised, the ages have been filled with saintly Christian disciples. Let me tell you something: the vast majority of them could not read. The Bible wasn’t printed in anything but Hebrew and Greek for the first five centuries of Christendom. Then, Latin. Throughout Christendom, every Sunday the Bible was read in Latin to people who did not speak or understand Latin. The common man could not own Bibles until the advent of the Reformation and the printing press. The world has never been more literate than it is now, and this is a very recent development in the big picture.
Do you think there were no saints until now? Of course not. How did people get close to Jesus all this time? Through the sacraments: through the Eucharist. The broken bread and the wine tell the story of the broken body and shed blood. Through the icons: many people learned the story of the Gospels from paintings, stained glass windows, that’s where the stations of the cross come from. Illiterate Christians for over a thousand years have prayed the rosary – not just to pray a litany of Hail Mary’s, but to contemplate the life of Christ in what are called the Glorious mysteries, the sorrowful mysteries, the joyful mysteries, and the luminous mysteries – where they visualize different scenes from the Lord’s life while they say the prayers of the rosary.
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, as the proverb says, how much more so the mind’s eye. Jesus came in the flesh so that we may finally, for once and for all, have an image of God, by which we can come to see and to know God’s love, and develop a real relationship with Him based on the truth of who He is and what He did for us in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
“What then shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, freely give us all things? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is there to condemn us? For Christ Jesus, who died, and more than that was raised to life, is at the right hand of God—and He is interceding for us.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…
“…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:31-39)