God in a cage match

Monday, June 24, 2013 Proper 7

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 970)

Psalms 89:1-18 (morning) // 89:19-52 (evening)

1 Samuel 5:1-12

Acts 5:12-16

Luke 21:29-36

Many a theological discussion has included the precaution, “You can’t put God in a box.” Today’s Scriptures don’t use nearly so tame a metaphor for trying to contain God. Instead, they make their point with dramatic triumphs and escapes. Both the Philistines and the temple police learn that you can’t put God in a cage match.

Our first reading pits the God of Israel against Dagon, the god of the Philistines. The Philistines had captured the ark of God in a battle that killed 30,000 Israelites. Since they’d won the Israelites’ God fair and square, they quickly installed the ark in Dagon’s house. However, during their night alone together, Dagon’s statue fell face down in front of the ark. The Philistines restored Dagon to his upright position. Yet, during the next night, the ark delivered a knock-out blow: Dagon’s statue was found face-down with its head and both hands cut off.

The God of Israel won that round.

The group of Philistines loyal to Dagon try to pass the ark of God on to another group, but they can’t handle it either. Wherever the ark goes, the people interpret their diseases and disasters as punishments. Finally, the lords of the Philistines admit that they can hold the ark no longer, and they try to return it. The God of Israel cannot be possessed or contained like Dagon—a god in the form of a statue, a god with a fixed house to dwell in.

The temple police in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles made a similar mistake. The high priest and the Sadducees tried to contain the early apostolic movement by throwing its leaders into prison. However, an angel came in the night to open the prison doors. The temple police—much like the priests of Dagon—awoke the next morning to find that God had triumphed overnight.

While Dagon’s priests found their god prostrate before the Lord in Dagon’s house, the temple police simply found an empty cell. The apostles themselves had returned the Lord’s house—the temple—to teach and heal in freedom. The prison was securely locked; the guards were at their posts. And yet, nothing could keep a movement of the Holy Spirit caged for long.

One conclusion from both of these readings is that no one who tries to cage God should underestimate God’s ultimate power. If we look at these stories in their contexts, however, we come to a more challenging question: How much violence will it cost before we give up our cages—our illusions of security—and accept real freedom?

The Philistines may have tried to house the ark of God and put the Lord in their service, but the Israelites made the first, costly mistake: bringing the ark of the covenant into their camp to help them win the war. They rejoiced when the ark arrived, sure that it would give them victory. But the Philistines told themselves to “Take courage” and “be men” (1 Sam 4:9), and they fought all the harder. The Israelites thought that the ark could bring peace through triumph in war. However, using the ark militarily only escalated the violence, and the Philistines won in a slaughter.

Our reading from Acts also takes place in a violent context. The temple police arrested the apostles “without violence,” but only because “they were afraid of being stoned by the people.” The temple authorities think that by locking the apostles up, they will keep themselves safe from violence. In tomorrow’s reading, Gamaliel persuades the religious leaders not to waste energy fighting the Holy Spirit. They release the apostles . . . although not without a flogging. Also, Stephen’s story, and his death by stoning, are still to come. (All sides seem to have stones to throw.)

So: How much violence will it cost before we give up our illusions of security—the escalation of war, the tremendous increase in imprisonment, arms races among individuals and nations? How much violence will we waste bringing God into battle, or caging the Holy Spirit?

Let’s not bother to fear the conceptual error of putting God in a box. Instead, let us fear the ways we manipulate God for our power and protection, and ask God to set us free to walk in the way of peace.

Inspired as a child by Maria Von Trapp, Luke Skywalker, and Jesus, Lora Walsh strives for wisdom, justice, and a simpler way.  She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas

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