Scatter the Word :: Vincent van Gogh, “The Sower”

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Vincent van Gogh, The Sower; oil on canvas; 1888.

After Jesus’ resurrection, there are numerous accounts of Jesus meeting with His disciples. Several of those accounts depict Jesus’ commissioning His disciples to continue the work He began (see Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18; Luke 24:45-49; John 20:19-23; Acts 1:6-8). He invites them to become witnesses of Jesus everywhere they go, making disciples as they proclaim the message about Jesus. Earlier in the Gospel accounts, in Matthew 13, Jesus tells two parables about God’s kingdom rooted in agricultural life. The first is a parable about a sower scattering seed on different types of soil with different results (Matthew 13:1-23), while the second is about a sower who scatters good seed in a good field but whose enemy sows weeds into the field during the night (13:24-30). When asked about this second parable, Jesus begins by saying, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man” (13:37). Jesus’ work is, in a sense, the work of a sower of seed, scattering good news into the field of the world. So, when the disciples go out, they, too, become sowers of the seed, scattering good news about Jesus. Vincent van Gogh’s beautifully rich painting, The Sower, is one of at least thirty paintings and drawings the artist made on this theme. Drawing upon his Christian roots and influenced by a similar work of Jean-François Millet, van Gogh saw his own artistic endeavors as a form of ministry within the world. Painting this while working alongside Paul Gauguin, van Gogh works out with passionate color his sense of how painting can bring beauty and peace from God into a disoriented and pain-filled world. The sun sinks low behind the sower almost like a halo, suggesting the holiness of a vocation lived out under God. Reflecting on Jesus’ self-description, van Gogh helps us see the holiness of the evangelistic calling of Jesus’ disciples—both then and now—who are sent out on mission, while also seeing the holiness within our vocational calling through which we can subversively join God’s mission in this world. It is both in proclamation and incarnation that Jesus’ disciples sow the seed of the message of Jesus.

Worship Him :: Jan van Eyck, “The Adoration of the Lamb”

Jan van Eyck, The Adoration of the Lamb (detail of the Ghent altarpiece); oil on panel; between 1425 and 1429.

“Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders.” (Revelation 5:6)

One of the most striking aspects of the book of Revelation is the imagery that abounds within the heavenly scenes of worship. Jesus, who first appears to John in overwhelming glory (Revelation 1:9-20), now appears in chapter 5 as a Lamb looking as if it had been slain. This is a strange picture unless one is familiar with sacrificial imagery throughout Scripture, and particularly references to Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The Gospel writers labor to show the connection between Jesus and the Passover festival, highlighting Jesus as the One who reveals the love of God and brings ultimate salvation and healing between God and humanity through His sacrifice. “The Adoration of the Lamb” serves as a moving centerpiece of the revered Ghent Altarpiece, assembled by Jan van Eyck and his brother, Hubert. Looking at it, our attention is immediately drawn to the Lamb, standing strong yet bleeding, on the heavenly altar at the very center of this panel, which is surrounded by eleven interior panels on the altarpiece. The quotation mentioned above from John 1:29 is written in Latin on the altarpiece itself, while the fountain below the Lamb has written on it in Latin the phrase: “This is the fountain of the water of life, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb” (drawn from Revelation 22:1). All around the Lamb at the center are angels and human figures who gather in worship before Jesus Christ the Lamb of God. When we consider the wonders of what Jesus has done through His life, death, and resurrection, what can we do but worship Him? He is worthy!

Come Alive :: Stanley Spencer, “The Resurrection, Cookham”

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Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection at Cookham; Oil on canvas; 1923-27.

Death is something we all must face and all, in one way or another, fear. There is a finality to it that is shocking and feels unnatural to us. Even though we understand and experience the breakdown of our bodies, even “natural” death feels wrong, not to mention the death that feels untimely. We all grieve over loved ones who have passed away, and someday others will likely grieve over our passing. One of the most important aspects of our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection is the way He turns the tables on death in the most dramatic of ways. Jesus dies on the Cross but is not held in death. He burst forth with life, thereby destroying death. As the Apostle Paul writes, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). The flip-side of death’s destruction is the promise of resurrection to all who have faith in Christ Jesus. In his painting, The Resurrection at Cookham, Stanley Spencer depicts the wonder of resurrection in the churchyard of Cookham, the village where he lived many years. Up from their tombs rise Spencer’s family members and local friends, as well as those from faraway lands. Right in their midst are biblical figures, like Moses, and all are under the gaze of God on the church porch. There is a wonderful mixture between the ordinary and the extraordinary in this painting. We are reminded that the most glorious work of God in Jesus’ resurrection touches ordinary lives in ordinary places both in our present time and at the end of all time.

Meeting Jesus in Our Doubts :: Caravaggio, “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”

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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas; Oil on canvas; 1601-02.

One of the most memorable stories after Jesus’ resurrection is His appearances to the disciples in the upper room. There we encounter the Apostle Thomas’ hunger to see Jesus for himself after somehow missing out on Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the other disciples. Once the others tell him that they have seen Jesus their Lord, Thomas responds: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Thomas is forever remembered by his skepticism in this episode, often called “Doubting Thomas” as a result. It is a shame, really, that Thomas is mostly remembered for this and not for other parts of his life. For example, when Jesus wants to visit Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus, Thomas knows it is risky but still encourages the other disciples: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). Thomas’ boldness seems to spur on the other disciples to be present as witnesses to one of Jesus’ most stunning miracles, the raising of Lazarus. While Thomas is known as the doubter, it is important to remember that when he finally does encounter the resurrected Jesus, he boldly proclaims not only Jesus’ lordship but also His divinity, exclaiming: “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). Our doubts and skepticism can certainly be a barrier to our life with God. They can derail us from faith, but usually I have found that happens with those who don’t thoroughly explore their questions. Instead, I have often found that skepticism and doubt can become pathways to deepening our faith. Jesus was not afraid of Thomas’ skepticism, but provided an opportunity for Thomas to have a deeper encounter and resulting trust in Jesus. Tradition tells us that Thomas eventually shared the message of Jesus as far away as India. Neither is Jesus afraid of our skepticism or doubts. What might He want to do in and through us as we honestly bring our questions to Him?

Look at Him :: Horace Pippin, “Christ Crowned With Thorns”

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Horace Pippin, Christ Crowned with Thorns; oil on canvas; 1938.

Good Friday is a time when we in a serious and focused way turn our eyes upon Jesus our Messiah crucified. It is a time when remember the cost of our salvation in the grisly death of Jesus. Isaiah the prophet speaks to us: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:4-5). We call to mind the reality that Jesus let go of so much, emptying Himself, in order to bring so much to us. The Apostle Paul describes it: Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8). Horace Pippin served in World War I, witnessing the brutality of that conflict and suffering an injury to his shoulder. He took up painting in part as a form of therapy for his injured arm after the war, and quickly became one of the most celebrated African American painters of the ear. Always staying close to the church, Pippin often painted on religious themes. Here Pippin’s portrait of Christ crowned with thorns captures the humble, unadorned Savior right before He is beaten and crucified. His eyes stare at us, inviting us to keep our eyes fixed on Him as He enters the brutality that will bring us life.