Sun, May 13, 2018

What is Beauty?

John 17:6-19 by Doug Gunkelman

St. Francis of Assisi wrote, “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”

Roman Catholic and Lutheran spirituality emphasizes the idea that every encounter with what is true, good, and beautiful is an encounter with God. God is the Creator Artist. Everything he creates is good.

Since ultimately everything comes from God, then everything continues to bear something of God’s divine fingerprint in the traces of goodness left behind – a goodness perceivable and reflected, to some degree, in all natural things.

So when I’m listening to the story of a young man preparing for marriage this fall, I watch his eyes swell and redden when he’s describing his close relationship with his mother who taught him so many things and who loved him in so many ways, but who will not be at the wedding physically because she passed away two years ago. The day she died was a gray and overcast day. When he stepped outside her house for fresh air, he looked up to the sky and saw a beam of light shining through the clouds all the way to the ground.

He felt God’s presence, God’s artistry, God’s fingerprint in that beam of light and he knew everything would be O.K. The beam of light was beautiful.

Perceptions of beauty point ultimately to God as the source of their being. Another Catholic writer, Thomas Aquinas, wrote that “beauty has a likeness to Jesus Christ”.

So Thomas encouraged his readers to be mindful of Christ whenever they perceived beauty, for the Son in Christian faith and understanding is the dimension of a God who became visible. The second person of the Trinity who became visible. In Jesus, holiness took on flesh and dwelt among us. But his time among us was cut tragically short.

It is not often that we pause to wonder whether it was because of his beauty that a conspiracy unfolded that resulted in his brutal execution. Was Jesus crucified because he was beautiful?

What is beauty? Is it merely a combination of qualities such as shape, color, or form that pleases the eye? Or is it something else?

When Christians think about the beauty of Christ, is it his Middle Eastern rugged handsomeness that is beautiful? Or is it the later paintings that have Jesus looking like a bearded Kevin Love with long hair that are beautiful?

If we’re not talking about his physical appearance then what are we speaking about when we refer to his beauty? Is he beautiful because his teachings are alluring? Or is he beautiful because there is something attractive not only about what he is teaching but also about the way he navigates this earth – attentive to the “little ones”, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and all those who are pushed to the edges of society? Is he beautiful because he is just and because he seeks the well being of every human being he encounters?

If we answer the last question affirmatively, then perhaps it is true to say that his beauty has something to do with the compassionate and nonviolent way that he interacts with humankind. To be so loving, so merciful, and so radically inclusive in his relationships was compelling enough to people in the first century that he began to attract a large following.

To the crowds who gathered around him, he taught lessons on non-violent resistance – about turning the other cheek which is finally about resisting an opponent, and forgiving enemies which is about deescalating conflict. He preached that God desires humans to build a just society, “on earth, as it is in heaven”. His listeners hoped he would rule such a kingdom – a prospect that apparently tempted him when he was in the wilderness after his baptism.

When he arrived in Jerusalem, people lined the road and hailed him as their king. But those in power were threatened by him.

Following his last supper in the Jerusalem upper room, Jesus is praying for his followers in our gospel text. John 17:15-19 . . . 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

Jesus was praying that we would know the truth and that we would be sanctified, we would be made holy, and we would be saved through his self-sacrifice on the cross.

He was about to be betrayed by a few leaders who believed his death would protect the Jewish community from the Romans crushing his perceived revolution. In John 11:50, Caiaphas the high priest, justifies crucifying Jesus when he says, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed”. Then an informant, Judas, tells the Roman authorities where Jesus can be found. He faces charges of treason before the Romans.

Luke 23:2 . . . “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying he himself is the Messiah, a king”. Like other political prisoners, he was publicly tortured so that others would be deterred. His death was a victory for the brutal Roman occupation of Palestine; until the people proclaimed his resurrection; until they said, “He is risen!” until the community refused to accept the evils carried out by Rome through oppressive taxation and blunt force.

St. Paul comes along and writes that we are saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. Christ’s victory over death becomes our victory over death.

If Christ is beautiful because what is enticing about him is his desire for justice by nonviolent resistance to oppression and his compassionate desire for the well-being of all of humankind, then to be his disciple, to participate in his beauty is to seek justice and to be compassionate in working for the well-being of all of humankind whether it be feeding the hungry or supporting the addicted right here in Divinity or as part of the Greater Cleveland Congregations or in our support of the World Hunger Appeal and Lutheran World Relief.

What is beauty? What is beauty on this Mother’s Day? When we describe our moms as beautiful; we are not so much speaking of your appearance as we are speaking of your compassion, your love, and your commitment to your families. Beautiful moms are reflections of Christ, teaching us, feeding us, healing us, supporting us, and preparing us to be on our own after you have moved on to the place of eternity.

If I substitute the word “she” for “he” in the quote I began with from St. Francis of Assisi, it would go like this . . .

“She who works with her hands is a laborer. She who works with her hands and her head is a craftswoman. She who works with her hands and her head and her heart is an artist, a mother, a co-creator with God. She embodies the beauty of Christ.”

It is the beauty of Christ that inspires our prayer ministers commissioned today to be an even stronger prayer chain. The beauty of Christ moves our Grace Prayer Teams to pray with me at 8:15 every Sunday morning and to move in prayer throughout this sanctuary of God’s presence.

It is the beauty of Christ we see in our new members being received this morning into this body of Christ that we call Divinity. We join together to be a people and place of servanthood, compassion, and love; to be a people and place of hope, healing, and welcome.

It is the beauty of Christ we see in Karli Gillissie, newly created and re-created by God today in the waters of Holy Baptism. Karli’s twin soon-to-be 3 year old siblings, Klaire and Kenneth, will learn to love and protect their younger sister. Mom and Dad, Katie and Ken, may get tired occasionally, but you will be renewed when you see the beauty of Christ in your children.

It is the beauty of Christ that saves the world through justice, compassion, love, and wisdom in our relationships with one another. Two billion people on this planet identify themselves as Christians. When we truly live as disciples of Christ, when we embody the beauty of Christ, when Christ comes into us and transforms us in Holy Communion, then the beauty of Christ will save the world. In this beauty is our hope.