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Jesus—A Vision of Mercy

an image of Jesus, standing right there in the middle of this picture of the ancient city, his form obscuring the road running through the city.  The image is a vision of Jesus’s own words: “I am the way.”
Art by Stephanie Burke

Every year, each synod in the ELCA hosts an assembly, to conduct official business but also to learn, to worship together, and to encourage each other in faith.  Several years ago, I attended an assembly which featured an artist-in-residence named Stephanie Burke, a painter of canvases and murals. 

 

During the assembly’s opening worship, as music played, Burke painted a strange, indecipherable image.  Within minutes, just as the music finished, Burke dramatically turned the portrait one-hundred-eighty degrees, upside down.  You could hear the whole assembly gasp. 

 

The painting that at first had looked so strange—it was a portrait of Jesus, his head bowed down under a crown of thorns.  We had watched that artwork taking shape, but we couldn’t tell what it was.  We didn’t recognize Jesus at first.  It took some time and a change of perspective, and then it was clear: it was Jesus.

 

During the assembly, there was also an exhibit hall with a large canvas full of spaces where assembly participants were invited to paint-by-numbers on a mural created by Burke.  Many of us, even those who don’t consider ourselves artists, contributed to this mural.  In our closing worship on Sunday morning, the completed mural was displayed in front of everyone, finished out by Burke, the professional artist. 

 

The scene was ancient Macedonia, brick and stone buildings lined up along a dirt road which ran through the middle of the artwork.  It looked like a fancy backdrop for a stage play, and indeed the theme of our gathering together was to learn about ancient communities in Macedonia.

 

During the closing worship on Sunday morning, what we didn’t know was that this huge mural wasn’t finished.  During Holy Communion, as hundreds of assembly-goers moved through distribution lines to receive the wine and bread, there was the artist on the stage, painting away, her brush-strokes revealing nothing.  Her work could not be seen.  What was she doing? 

 

When we had all returned to our seats, as our time together was coming to a close and worship was ending, the bright fluorescent lights in the assembly hall were dimmed.  On the stage, black lights were turned on, and the artist’s work was revealed: an image of Jesus, standing right there in the middle of this picture of the ancient city, his form obscuring the road running through the city.  The image is a vision of Jesus’s own words: “I am the way.”  Again, we couldn’t see what was taking shape before our own eyes, but it was revealed in time, and the image was Jesus, with an outstretched hand—could he be extending an invitation? 

 

It isn’t always easy to identify Jesus or to trust him.  Even his disciples doubted, and they had seen the most!  As we read in the Gospel this morning, Jesus reminds the disciples that everything is happening just as he said it would happen, that “everything written…in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  Jesus reminds them and us, “The Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.   And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 

 

These are the mysterious words Jesus speaks just before he ascends into heaven.  Time for a pop quiz.  After his resurrection, Jesus spent how many days on earth speaking about the reign of God?  Forty.  Now, Easter always happens on the same day of the week—what day is that?  Sunday.  Forty days after Easter then would always then be on what day of the week?  This is the tricky question!  It’s always a Thursday. 

 

Last Thursday, May 9th, was the day on which the church celebrates the Ascension of Our Lord.  This year, our congregation didn’t gather for worship, so our celebration has moved to today, Ascension Sunday, when we hear the two stories of Jesus ascending into heaven. 

 

Scholars believe Luke wrote both a gospel and the book of the Acts of the Apostles, and he includes this story of Jesus’s ascension at the very end of his gospel and then writes the same story again for the opening scene of the book of Acts.  The story isn’t exactly the same—look at the lessons again later and compare the two—but Jesus issues roughly the same instructions to the disciples: stay in Jerusalem and wait there for a greater power which is coming.  And then Jesus floats away into the sky. 

 

Professor Mark Tranvik of Augsburg College points out that as Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples worship Jesus, which is an action affirming that Jesus is connected with God.  It is no longer possible to talk about God without talking about Jesus.  Tranvik writes, “Our lens for thinking about God must always include a crucified, risen, and living Christ.” 

 

And since Jesus ascends into heaven, it changes our view of God.  We can no longer imagine God as detached from human experience.  Because of Jesus, we know a God who suffers, a God who is vulnerable and approachable, and who also has the power of resurrection life to assure us that pain and death will not have the last word. 

 

Tranvik also points out that these stories of the Ascension testify to the great forgiving power of God.  Remember: these disciples are the same ones who just forty days ago were denying Jesus, betraying him, and otherwise were complicit in his execution.  But Jesus does not return to point out their shortcomings and failures; the first time the resurrected Jesus Christ appears to his disciples, his first words to them are “Peace be with you.” 

 

Tranvik writes, “This is not a word meant only for his closest companions during his earthly ministry.  This radical word of mercy is to inform the entire mission of the disciples for…‘repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.’”  When Jesus lifts up his hands to bless his disciples, these hands still bear the wounds of the one who was executed on a Roman cross, but “the last image of their betrayed leader is a dramatic sign of mercy.”[1] 

 

If we trust the testimony of the mysterious men in white robes, who tell us that Jesus will come in the same way as he went into heaven, might that mean that Jesus is revealed wherever there is mercy, wherever there is unconditional love and forgiveness?  Suddenly, a new vision of Jesus comes into view, and just like watching an artist at work, we realize we have been watching this at work for a long time but when the image snaps into focus, it still has the power to surprise us. 

 

We know that is the power of the Holy Spirit, to help us see Jesus, to reveal Christ’s presence, wherever there is mercy, wherever there is forgiveness, whatever points us toward the power of resurrection.  In Jesus, God brings peace and mercy rather than retribution and revenge.  Wherever mercy is shown, there we see an image of God’s love.  Where do we see mercy at work? 

 

Some of us have the experience of mothers who demonstrate mercy, and in our culture, mothers are celebrated today, with flowers or gifts or cards, which is nice.  But historian Heather Cox Richardson reminds us that the origin of Mother’s Day here in the United States began in the years following the Civil War. 

 

Richardson writes,

“…the sheer enormity of the death caused by the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War convinced writer and reformer Julia Ward Howe that women must take control of politics from the men who had permitted such carnage. Mothers’ Day was not designed to encourage people to be nice to their mothers. It was part of women’s effort to gain power to change society.  …[during the war] Women had bought bonds, paid taxes, raised money for the war effort, managed farms, harvested fields, worked in war industries, reared children, and nursed soldiers. When the war ended, they had every expectation that they would continue to be considered valuable participants in national affairs, and had every intention of continuing to take part in them.”[2]

 

Julia Ward Howe was a talented writer—you might recognize her name as the composer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she wrote during the early years of the Civil War.  At first, she wasn’t a radical feminist advocating for women’s right to vote, but after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, she wrote,

 

“I was visited by a sudden feeling of the cruel and unnecessary character of the contest. It seemed to me a return to barbarism, the issue having been one which might easily have been settled without bloodshed. The question forced itself upon me, ‘Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone know and bear the cost?’

 

"Arise, women!” Howe commanded. “Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’”[3]

 

Hers was a vision of mercy.  Where do we see mercy at work in our own world, right now?  Where do we experience the love of God, like an image coming into focus before our eyes?  This might just be how Jesus returns from heaven just as we saw him go into heaven—with bold mercy, unflinching love, hands outstretched in blessing. 

 

Let us remain here in the city, just as we’ve been instructed to do, waiting for the power that is to come.  This power in the Holy Spirit is what we will celebrate next week at the festival of Pentecost.  Because just in case what you’ve already seen isn’t amazing enough—remember, you are witnesses of these things—there are even more amazing things on the way.  You haven’t seen anything yet. 


Amen.

Pastor Cheryl


[2] Daily newsletter for May 11, 2024, Heather Cox Richardson.

[3] Ibid.


 


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