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Leonardo da Vinci's painting "Salvator Mundi" (Saviour of the World) recently sold for $40million. It's now arguably the second most famous painting in the world after the same artist's "Mona Lisa". The image is of Jesus Christ, a crystal globe in his left hand and his right hand raised in blessing. The viewer is held by the calm gaze of the eyes, marked with the results of crucifixion and resurrection.
$40m is a world record price (at time of writing) for an artwork. Strangely, it was auctioned at the same time as a range of modern and contemporary art, even though they are the best part of 5 centuries apart. What made someone want to pay that price?
Religious devotion? The satisfaction that you own one of only 16 known works by da Vinci? Investment? Most likely the last reason. The title, however, makes us pause for thought.
"Saviour"? What are we supposed to be saved from? The concept of sin has largely been replaced by a dread of being shamed - witness the recent scandals about sexual harassment in the corridors of power and entertainment. Guilt is easier to deal with - sue someone for defamation, pay them off, do community service if you have to, but never admit that you were wrong. You didn't lie, you "misspoke". You were young and foolish, now you know better, so the victim had just better get over it. That was then, this is now.
And yet, given the rise in cases of recorded depression diagnoses and suicide rates, we can't seem to shake off the feelings that something is not right deep within both the individual and our society. What's to be done?
How about instead of looking for a scapegoat, we look for a hero? Not one of our creating, of course. The news media create and then destroy such figures in rapid succession. "Salvator Mundi" portrays someone who came to bring hope, healing and blessing from God, and precisely because we can't stomach that kind of grace, we label him "holier than thou" and put him on a cross.
In the end, da Vinci painted Christ and called the work "Salvator Mundi" because the story of Jesus didn't end in a tomb. In fact it hasn't ended. The surprise for the viewer of the painting is that we are not only held in the calm gaze, as da Vinci intended, we are held in the love that is God's nature.
In the end, such love, such grace, is both priceless and free.
This year has seen celebrations all over the western world of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This was a split from the Roman Catholic Church initiated by Martin Luther and continued by John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and other early Protestant Reformers in 16th century Europe.
It was a revolt against the way the Church seemed to many to be "going off-message" with the way faith in God was being manipulated and made into almost a mechaical "system" which guaranteed salvation, so long as obedience to the Church's teaching, paying for forgiveness for the deceased and other ways of "earning" God's approval through keeping your nose clean or payments.
It revolutionused not only the global Christian faith, but also our western culture - in both good and bad ways (upside: development of social work; downside: the"white protestant work ethic").
I've been a Jesus-follower since 1961 and in all these years, I've seen all kinds of movements and trends inside and outside the church. From the strait-laced to the plain wacky,there have always been new slants on the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Some are just flashes in the pan, while others change our understanding of what Jesus calls us to be and do in lasting, helpful ways.
Rarely has anyone stopped to ask, "What exactly is our message?" Or even more dangerously, "How does Jesus want us to live?"
Yet it is becoming a serious and relevant question in these days when the Church of England declares that less than half the UK population say they are religious - and that includes more than 71% of people between 18-24 years. Is it just about packaging the message more relevantly, or does it go deeper than that?
How would you describe the message of Jesus today? Be more religious? Go to church mor often? Believe more things about God? Be nicer to your neighbour?
Jesus once said "I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly." (John 10:10). One way of translating that might be, "...that they might become fully human".
And yet many people I meet tell me they don't believe in "all that Christian stuff" because they think the message is only "God dislikes you because you're a sinner*, so repent* and start getting religious* or you'll go to hell" *words which usually are incomprehensible to them.
So let me ask you that question again - How would you describe the message of Jesus today?
I'll be back in a week or two to suggest an answer.
Bye for now.
Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” (Exodus 3)
In 3 weeks' time I'll be conducting a woodland wedding in Leicestershire. It'll be a great occasion - the youngest child of our friends of 40 years has collected a loyal band of friends equally outrageous and full of fun as she is! There will be dancing like there's no tomorrow. I love dancing. I could watch it all day, but getting me up to dance takes a lot of cajoling. I feel so self conscious, especially at my age.
This week is the 70th anniversary of the partition of India, an event which divided the subcontinent along religious lines. Broadly speaking Muslims were forced to migrate to what is now known as Pakistan and Bangladesh and Hindus and Sikhs to India. It was an impetuous answer to an urgent question: How to bring peace to a divided nation when British rule ends? The drawing of an arbitrary line seemed the simplest answer. but it had devastating consequences for millions of lives.
"What - another one?!" Brenda from Bristol cheered us up by voicing the thought of many of us -"Here we go again!" I'm sure it's not only me, but when we reach a certain number of years, there's a temptation to think that we've heard it all before and to turn away with a cynical huff.
If you have ever read the account of the trial of Jesus (e.g. John 18), you'll have come across the remark by Roman governor Pilate, who had the jurisdiction over this kangaroo court: "What is truth?"