What’s your sign?
I don’t know about you but that question conjures up images of discos, leisure suits, gold chains, and mood rings with the Bee Gees—somewhere in the background—supplying the soundtrack.
I can almost smell the Hai Karate!
Whether characteristic or caricature, it is both amazing and interesting how some images or phrases capture the essence of a certain moment and convey that essence beyond its allotted time and space. They become a symbol, a sign.
In the church, we are overrun with signs. From crosses to sacraments to clerical garb, signs are everywhere. These signs convey something as well. They convey some aspect of faith forward and outward. They tell a story. They express theology. They point beyond themselves. Pointing beyond themselves, that is the function of a good sign.
A sign is never meant to be an end unto itself. If it is an end unto itself, then its value is only as significant as the essence of the sign. A sign that says STOP is only good, only effective if we understand that sign to designate a potentially life-changing opportunity lying just ahead. Understanding that the STOP sign is more than just some painted metal is essential to the ordering of a good traffic citizenry and preserving life. A good sign is always meant to retain something of itself while pointing the viewer to something in addition to itself. As a conduit to something else, a sign grows in significance. It begins to expand in dimension, in purpose, in power. It taps into something greater than its original, limited nature might offer. Like a kind of visual metaphor, a sign takes the familiar and directs our attention in another, possibly unexpected way.
This rehearsal of the meaning and function of signs might seem elementary. It is. But, it is, nevertheless, important to be reminded. For the early church, such reminding was necessary, too.
Early in the church’s history, a group thought it an abomination to place signs or images in the church. This group, called the Iconoclasts, went around destroying any image or visual sign related to the faith. They took the commandment from Exodus to have no graven images both to heart and, as the church eventually decided, too far. They forgot or never appreciated the difference between idols and icons.
But, an important difference exists.
Idols as those things that—like a bad sign—have stop pointing beyond themselves. In fact, an idol is really a corrupted sign. An idol is a sign that previously pointed beyond itself, engendering a sense of power and reverence into that sign, only to take that engendered power and reverence and point it back onto itself, misdirecting the good-faith trust of the observer solely onto the sign and into the sign. The sign replaces the thing the observer previously thought the sign pointed to. This delusion works for a little while until the observer asks something of the sign it is not able to offer. Because, while representing the power of something signified, the sign does not contain the power of the thing signified. In many respects, this stealing the power of one thing and inappropriately redirecting it back onto itself is the very definition of original sin.
That is what happens in the Garden of Eden story. In that narrative, Adam and Eve are told that God is the source of the knowledge of what is good yet by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve presume to take God’s place, positioning themselves at the center of their own moral gaze, misrepresenting their own import and potency. This putting ourselves where we do not belong is the very definition of sin, e.g., theft is the placing ourselves in ownership of that which is not ours, adultery is the placing of ourselves in a position of relationship that is not ours, vengeance is the placing ourselves in the position of judgment that is not ours, etc.
An icon, on the other hand, is an image that consistently points beyond itself, capturing the attention of the observer and redirecting the observer’s attention through the iconic image to something greater than itself, e.g., the horrific means of capital punishment called the cross points us to the hopeful, empowering story of the crucifixion and resurrection. In this way, the church differentiated idol from icon. The church affirmed the function and role of images while rejecting the sin of literalism couched in the Iconoclasts’ good intentions. The literalistic interpretation of that passage from Exodus was a repetition of sin because the Iconoclasts took a previous misstep when they misplaced scripture itself.
The Iconoclasts confused scripture, i.e., the words of God, with Christ, i.e., the Word of God. This confusion meant that scripture no longer acted as a conduit, an icon, directing our theological thoughts and considerations to and through the person of Christ but stopped those theological thoughts and considerations at the text itself. Scripture became an idol. Whenever this stopping short and stopping with scripture happens, the sacred texts of our faith move to the fore, and we begin to see the shortcomings of the texts when asked to be the primary arbiters of all truth and fact.
Those sacred texts cannot possibly, on their own, bear the scrutinizing weight of our theological investigations when we try to convey to them the power and import only meant for the Second Person of the Trinity. Under such burdensome weight, the sacred texts invariably fail our best-intended efforts and us. The sacred texts of the faith while essential are not perfect and are filled with difficult, often contradictory narratives and claims, e.g., why in three of the gospels is Jesus crucified on Friday and in John’s gospel he is crucified on Thursday? A literalist reading of the text might find this discrepancy theologically debilitating or necessarily ignored. Either way, the text cannot, if it is its own witness, withstand the rightfully offered scrutiny such discrepancies provoke. It was for this very reason that Thomas Langford—a United Methodist theologian—surmises the Methodist Church rejected biblical literalism when biblical literalism first began to circulate in the middle part of the 20th century. Biblical literalism was a repetition of original sin because it placed scripture in a central position of the faith reserved solely for God and denied scripture its inspirational function. As an idol, the best we can do is mine the sacred texts for “scientific” data, “historical” facts, and “eternal” truths, delimiting our theological imaginations and robust intellectual engagement with the text and the faith. As icon, the text frees our intellects to engage faith inspirationally and fully, always pointing us to something (someone) greater that itself and ourselves. As fact-book, scripture is poorly suited to the task, filled with errors, inconsistencies, and gaping holes. As faith-book, scripture is well positioned to inspire and shape imaginations.
There is always a temptation for individuals and institutions to repeat this original sin, centrally placing ourselves and our ends upon ourselves. As individuals, this happens when we think we are self-sufficient or fully worthy of others’ adulation and ultimate adherence. As institutions, this happens when we think that we exist to ensure our own perpetuity, rather than to serve the greater good of kingdom and community.
This week in chapel we are considering the signs of faith. We are considering how those signs inform and inspire faith. We, also, are considering how we, too, serve as signs, as symbols, as icons of faith. As this week begins, I invite us all to explore what others see in us. Do they see just us or us and something, someone greater that we serve? It is always my prayer that my life and work becomes bifocal, allowing others to see me as I truly am and to see God and God’s love simultaneously. It is a challenging task, a daunting call but essential to whom I am to be in the role as ambassador of Christ as the Apostle Paul appoints us to be: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20)
An ambassador supplies an interesting image. Ambassadors are both themselves and the proxy for someone else simultaneously. Like a good icon, good ambassadors are both personally present and individually transparent. As good ambassadors, who do we represent while traversing the halls and sidewalks of YHC? What sign do we offer? What sign must we offer? Let’s find out together.
See you in chapel.
Have a wonderful week.