God in Art: The Spirit Descends

Pentecost is this coming Sunday, June 5. The story of Pentecost is found in Acts 2. We at Methodist Life encourage everyone to begin meditating this week on the role of the Holy Spirit in our personal lives and in the lives of our churches. In terms of importance, this Sunday ranks right up there with Easter. After all, it is through the Holy Spirit that we experience God directly in the time we now live. How will you honor that great truth this Sunday?

Mosaic depiction of Pentecost, photographed in a basilica in Trier, Germany. Image by Holger Schué via Pixabay.

God in Art: A Revealing Walk

In one of the resurrection stories, Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, walking unrecognized with them. The story is found in Luke 24:13-35. This depiction by an unknown Flemish painter around 1600 is dependent on pilgrim clothing and imagery familiar to the artist, but it does capture an important theme. The world is a busy place, full of distractions, and as we wander through it we can miss the Savior even as He walks with us. Be sure to zoom in on the tiny details. There’s more going on in this painting that you initially will see.

God in Art: A Different “Last Supper”

Today’s epistle reading in the daily lectionary is 1 Corinthians 11:17-22, 27-33. Paul gives instructions regarding communion, and how it can be taken worthily or unworthily.

When we take communion, we of course do this in remembrance of Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples. Traditionally, if we think of a painting, we tend to think of DaVinci’s famous depiction. There are other attempts to picture this moment, and I particularly like the one above, painted by Artus Wolffort around 1630. As we prepare for future opportunities to take communion worthily, perhaps meditating on this work will help.

Hope your screen is big enough, and that your week is increasingly blessed!

Eyes Open

A detail from Fedor Bronnikov’s “Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Home,” painted in 1886.

A Parable of Jesus, from Luke 16:19-31 (NRSV)

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

“He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

By Chuck Griffin

Having heard the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, you may be having trouble seeing yourself in the story. That’s understandable. Lottery jackpot billboards aside, most of us don’t seriously imagine a life of great wealth and constant feasting. I suspect our basic psychological makeup also makes it difficult for us to imagine having fallen so low in life that we could end up lying in the street with festering sores, stray dogs the only creatures who seem to notice us.

And yet, I find this parable to be almost universally applicable.

Certainly, the lesson is taught through extremes of wealth and poverty. But at the same time, it’s not really about the dangers of wealth, nor does it somehow invest poverty with a kind of holiness. Instead, Jesus gives us a lesson for the heart.

Notice something about both men in the first of the parable. They simply are described in their respective states. There’s no evidence they interact; at no point does poor Lazarus actually ask the rich man for anything, and at no point is the rich man portrayed as having rejected Lazarus directly. They simply are in proximity to each other.

The parable points out the danger of a terrible sin, a sin we seldom talk about. It is the sin of self-absorption, of being unable to see a need that is before us. It is the sin of unsearching eyes; it is the sin of walking past someone and not caring.

We tend to think, “It is what I do that could send me to hell, to an eternity separated from God.” Jesus is telling us something very different—there is tremendous danger in what we fail to do.

The extremes of wealth and poverty are in the story for a basic reason. They make clear the rich man has no excuse for his failure to act. With such wealth, he could have easily cared for the poor man who had wandered into his circle of influence. The rich man would not have missed what Lazarus required for restored health and a decent standard of living.

The rich man is not condemned for failing to care for all poor people, just for failing to help the one at his gate. I’m reminded of the story of the thousands of starfish washed ashore on a beach, gasping and dying. A little girl walked the ocean’s edge, throwing starfish into the ocean.

A man came along and said, “Little girl, there’s no way you can save all those starfish!”

“You’re right,” she replied, throwing another one in the ocean. “But I saved that one.”

The rich man could have at least said of Lazarus, “I saved that one.”

Some may protest this interpretation by pointing out how we are saved by faith, not works, and on that point, I would agree. We can do nothing without the grace of God at work in us, and we receive God’s saving grace through a belief in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.

Jesus intertwines faith and action in his teachings, however, presenting them as the rope that pulls us from the pit. This parable has much in common with Jesus’ teaching about the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, where he sorts the judged to his left and right—to damnation or eternal joy—based on how they treated the stranger, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned.

The lesson is the same in both accounts: Our actions best reveal whether our hearts rest near the bosom of Christ.

This teaching is good news! We are actually being invited to participate in God’s restorative work in the world. All we have to do is pray that the Christ who saves us also makes us intentional about seeing the brokenness around us.

I once worked in a nonprofit relief organization with a woman who required a family to allow her to make a home visit before they could receive any significant aid. I asked her one day why she did that—I could tell some of the families felt they were being scrutinized or even judged.

She laughed, telling me that yes, some of them probably felt that way, but the home visits let her see the needs the families weren’t revealing. Even the poorest people in rural Upper East Tennessee are generally a proud bunch, and often the problem was getting them to ask for all the help our little nonprofit could provide.

When I understood what she was doing, I admired her approach. She was actively searching for need so she could see it and address it.

The end of the parable emphasizes the overall point. The rich man’s last request is that Lazarus be sent to his presumably rich brothers as a warning about the danger of their hard-heartedness. Abraham makes it clear that these lessons about compassion have already been delivered by Moses and prophets, and that men who failed to hear those ancient words would continue in their deafness “even if someone rises from the dead.”

And there again is the great danger of unseeing self-absorption. When we fall into it, we miss God entirely. In God’s greatest work in this world, Christ rose from the dead, but self-absorption can leave us blind to even this great miracle.

Lord, make us alert. Show us the broken people in this world and how we can play some small part in undoing their suffering. Amen.

God in Art: Jeremiah Laments

Known as the “Weeping Prophet,” Jeremiah foretold the destruction of Jerusalem after the people had fallen into sin. Here is today’s reading from Jeremiah, Chapter 3, verses 1 through 5. It is a harsh condemnation issued on behalf of God, but we need to remember that thanks to the work of Christ on the cross, God will return for his church as a bridegroom for a bride.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem,” circa 1630.

God in Art: Man of Sorrows

“Christ Carrying the Cross,” El Greco, circa 1580.

Having exited the Christmas season, let’s take a few moments to meditate on where the Christian story takes us as we move through winter and into spring. In between his birth and the moment depicted above, Jesus revealed much about God’s plan for humanity, including how the promise of salvation would be fulfilled.

Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

God in Art: Pietà

As we move toward the Christmas season, let’s not forget the larger story. Christ grew in wisdom and stature, and as a man had much to teach us regarding God’s love and expectations for us. Then he died for our sins, restoring us to God.

We can easily imagine Mary holding her son both at his birth and his death, when he was brought down from the crucifixion she witnessed. The Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo beautifully captured the latter moment in a sculpture commissioned in 1497. It is called the Pietà, which in English means “Piety.” It is on display in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

While it is a scene of death, the sculpture certainly can remind us of Christ’s birth. Mary is depicted as remarkably young, more like her age at Jesus’ birth than at his death more than three decades later. Michelangelo also altered the scale of the characters—if the two characters in the sculpture were to stand, Mary would tower over Jesus. And yet, the scene appears astonishingly natural, a mother cradling her son. The image seems to bridge the moments of birth and death.

Dear Lord, in this approaching Christmas season, may we carry in our hearts the full meaning of Christ’s presence among us. Amen.