I am sure you, like me, watched in disbelief as Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was engulfed in flames. My husband and I had our wedding in Paris and so we felt personal sadness to see this iconic landmark so badly damaged.
There was a particular poignancy that the fire happened a week before Easter and so photojournalists competed to get the perfect picture of the inside of the church. The winning shot was on every newspaper and every digital outlet the next day – a large golden cross on an altar, rising undamaged from the rubble, highlighted by dusty sunbeams.
And I couldn’t help but think of the utter simplicity of the gospel. When we take away all the religious clutter that we so often add, we are left with an absolutely perfect love story that is without equal. And it stands alone, complete. Our religiosity adds nothing. Zero. Nada.
We humans are funny. We somehow think that Almighty God needs manmade, ornate adornments. And yet all of creation exists to worship Him. Every mountain peak, every ocean belongs to Him (Psalm 95). The heavens declare His glory (Psalm 19).
Isaiah 66.1 says it best. ‘This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Could you build me a temple as good as that? Could you build me such a resting place?’
It is just so easy to complicate God’s story.
And it is easy to complicate my response to it.
It is so easy to try and add to what God has done, to think that religion and ritual add value to God’s gift or make our worship more pleasing to a distant and difficult God.
But when Jesus said, ‘It is finished’, He meant it. When the curtain that concealed the holiest area of the Temple was torn in two, it was clear that God’s presence could once again be accessed directly and worship would now be based on internal obedience, not outward ritual.
But some of us struggle to accept a free gift. It makes us very uncomfortable.
When I was growing up, we had an apple orchard. In apple season the trees would produce far more than we could handle, even with my industrious mom canning endless jars of applesauce and apple butter. So, one day we decided to put a basket of apples out by our fence with a sign saying, ‘Help yourself’. You would not believe the arguments we had with people who insisted on paying us for them! Their pride just wouldn’t let them receive free apples. In the end, most of the fruit was spoiled and had to be thrown away. What a waste.
And so it often is with faith. It feels good to offer God something in return for His sacrifice. It somehow relieves our guilt or makes us feel less helpless to attempt to add to what He has done. Religion is an easy way to earn something that is offered as a free gift of grace.
Notre Dame is a lovely structure and it is historically significant but it is just a building. We are no closer to God in a fancy cathedral than we are in our back yard or driving in our car or sitting in the hall our church rents on a Sunday. Worship is about a relationship, not ritual. Liturgy is lifeless without love.
And even though I am tempted sometimes to earn what I have been given, the cross reminds me just how silly that really is. Because the gospel story is very simple.
I desperately needed a Saviour.
It is straightforward and it is beautiful. It is all I need. It is enough to fuel my worship for all of eternity.
There is nothing to add to it but gratefulness, nothing to do but to give my whole heart to Jesus in trust and obedience.
Whatever you are doing this weekend, enjoy the simplicity of the cross of Jesus Christ. Worship Him in grand buildings or rented halls or living rooms. Sing with choirs or with your kids and a CD. Enjoy His free gift with a thankful heart. Sit in the sun, breathe, smile, rest.
It is finished. And it has just begun. And we are right in the middle of all the glory of what God has done and what He is doing and what He is yet to do.