ST STEPHENS UMC
August 23, 2015
POINTING TO JESUS
W. JAMES ATHEARN
Illustration: The Appearance of Christ Before the People, a painting by Alexander Ivanov
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Thanks for welcoming me to your worship service. Some of you may be aware that I once worked with the Russia Initiative; a mission program of the General Board of Global Ministries, facilitating partnerships between U.S. based churches and emerging churches in Russia and surrounding countries. I would like to share a little bit of that experience with you today.
In my study at home is a copy of a painting to be found in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. By Alexander Ivanov, it is a theme captured by a number of artists over time. A moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus is approaching in his first appearance to the people and John the Baptist declares, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” I was struck by this painting. It is huge, 17 by 25 feet, filling the whole wall in the gallery. After many preliminary sketches, the artist completed this painting over a period of 20 years, 1837 to 1857.
The figures are so vivid as if to jump off the canvass. The followers of John are gathered around him, some already preparing for their baptism. To the left of John the Baptist, there are the figures of his disciples who became disciples of Jesus: young John, Peter, Andrew and Nathaniel. Over to the right is a group that appears to include the critical Pharisees. In the center is a wealthy man with his slave. After a life of suffering and abuse, the slave is beginning to show a face of joy for the first time in his life. Seated to the right of John with the red headgear is a man with the features of the artist himself. Alexander has placed himself in this scene.
To anyone who knows the scriptures, the story behind the painting is obvious. John is introducing his followers to Jesus and who he is. In fact in the Gospel of John’s narrative all the titles which we ascribe to Jesus, all the meanings of our relationship with him that evolve over a lifetime of faith are quickly highlighted from the beginning. He is the “Son of God,” “Rabbi,” “Messiah,” “One of whom Moses and all the prophets wrote,” “the King of Israel,” the Son of Man.”
Can you bring to mind how you were first introduced to Jesus? Who was it who said in effect to you, “Look, there is Jesus, the Lamb of God who is the sign of God’s forgiveness over the brokenness of your life, even the sin of our broken world?”
In your imagination, where are you in this picture? Are you looking toward Jesus, or looking away and preoccupied with your own thoughts? And who is it in your life story who is pointing to the approaching Jesus for you? Who was it who introduced Jesus to you -- your grandmother, a friend, a Sunday School teacher, an evangelist?
Who was it? Who is it? Was there a moment when someone pointed to Jesus for you, or was it a journey of growing in faith as Jesus has gradually come into focus? When have you taken a maturing ownership of this faith? Who was your friend in Christ in this journey?
I have read that the artist, Alexander Ivanov included his friend Nicolai Gogol in this painting. Gogol was a prominent literary figure of the 19th century, somewhat of a troubled soul. In earlier sketches, Gogol is turned away from the approaching Jesus. In the final version, Gogol is facing toward Jesus. What brought about that change? Or was Alexander hoping that his friend Nicolai would turn his face toward Jesus?
What has brought about the change for you when you ignored or maybe were simply unaware that Jesus was approaching your life and you are now turning toward him?
Does the person that first pointed you toward Jesus have a continuing role in your faith journey? Perhaps as an encouragement, a mentor, and a corrective who spots your mistakes? Do you welcome this as a form of partnership in your faith journey? Hopefully we are growing in our faith.
It is helpful when someone who has been introduced to Jesus becomes a part of a fellowship of believers. Here there will be encouragement, mentoring, sharing of experiences in the faith journey. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a little classic entitled “Life Together, a discussion of Christian fellowship.” A key insight for me from this book is: “The Christ in my own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of my brother or sister.” We need each other’s wisdom, each other’s prayers, and each other’s fellowship as we journey in this faith together. It is a holy partnership.
Now may we suggest that you have another place in this painting -- right in the center of the action? Are we not called, you and I, to be one of those who point to Christ in the spirit of John the Baptist? Imagine that you and I are pointing others to the approaching Christ even while he is yet on the horizon of their lives. That is what disciples do. We are called to point, and to introduce others to Jesus. It is the basic framework of our calling and our mission. We may introduce, we may encourage, we may mentor, and we may guide and model what it looks like to follow Jesus in our world. But it is Jesus himself and his Spirit who works the change in the heart and leads us together into the journey in faith. We are together in this. We are a community of faith in this. We encourage and support one another in this. This is what a Christian Community is all about. This is what a church is all about.
A significant challenge in our pointing witness today is to engage with the younger generations. Is our witness relevant and authentic for their lives? And are we open to their witness to us when Jesus transforms their lives?
It was our custom to have national Russia Initiative Consultations every two years. The year we met in San Diego, we brought a youth delegation from Russia together with other pastors and laity. I was moved to hear the young man from Samara tell his life story. He spoke about his new life in Christ, and how he was literally saved from the drug addictions that had been destroying him.
I have learned when I was at a church conference in Moscow in May, that the young man recently completed Seminary studies and is seeking additional education and a way forward in ministry. What a transformation! What a sign of resurrection actually. But I also learned who the pastor was who pointed him to Jesus. She is still one of the most effective pastors in the Eurasia United Methodist Church. She did not write this young man off. Consider how she was the right person in the right place at the right time in this young man’s life.
Pointing a person to Jesus, especially the young, is an art of being timely. But we may never know the result. It is only that we be ready at any time to point to the Christ on the horizon of someone’s life.
Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin and brokenness of your life.
Carry that message with you and it just may be that you will be the right person, at the right time and the right place in somebody’s life.