Sermon - 3rd July 2011
Seeing Salvation: 4
Christ of Saint John of the Cross - by Salvador Dali
Scripture - Matthew 13:31-33
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Look at the picture, what do you see? What’s unusual about it?
Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross is a famous painting and hangs in the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow. When it was purchased by the city, for a mere £8,000, there was an outcry that it was a waste of money, but the crowds quickly came to see it and it’s rumoured that the Spanish government recently offered over £80,000,000 for the picture – an offer which was turned down.
Dali painted this work in 1951 and it depicts Christ on the cross in a darkened sky floating over a body of water complete with a boat and fishermen. Dali based his painting on a drawing by the 16th Century Spanish friar John of the Cross. The picture is unusual as, although it is a depiction of the crucifixion, it is devoid of nails, blood, and a crown of thorns. This is because Dalí, claimed to have been told in a dream that these features would mar his depiction of Christ. He also was told in a dream of the importance of depicting Christ in the extreme angle evident in the painting.
Many things help me see salvation in this picture.
It’s a work that reminds me of the many positive things that I encountered in the Roman Catholic church within which I grew up and came to faith.
It is a picture that seems to be associated with the great reforms in the Catholic Church ushered in by good Pope John and the Vatican Council - as the picture stands in stark contrast to the bloody messy crucifixions which dominated medieval and traditional Catholic iconography.
It’s a painting which reminds me of the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ love and it graphically shows the idea of Jesus dying for, and being put to death by, the world.
But it’s not a memory of the past, or the memory of reforms now being slowly revised that inspires me with this picture, it’s the perspective.
Dali has two points of view in the one picture. If you look at the top of the picture you see the crucifixion from above – as if painted from God’s point of view. Mel Gibson has shades of this in his Passion of the Christ where, at the moment of Jesus’ death, a tear falls from heaven and the viewer is above the tear, as if watching it fall from God’s face.
But the painting mixes two points of view, at the bottom of the painting we see a view of, and from, the world – the simple boat, perhaps on the Sea of Galilee, where the point of view is our own. So in this powerful painting two points of view – our own and God’s – are mixed to great effect.
This dual point of view seems to me to be indicative of the Kingdom of God which Jesus preached about and which we heard in our Gospel reading. The Kingdom is drawing close and will turn the values of our world upside down.
The Kingdom is about turning around the values of our world. From God’s point of view this is setting the world right, from our perspective this is a radical change.
- Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth, we tend to ignore them
- Jesus says that the peacemakers are blessed, we criticise them as compromisers or those who deal with terrorists,
- Jesus says the poor are blessed, we just feel guilty about them.
Dali shows in beautiful art something of this dichotomy of split points of view.
The cross is central to the Christian faith but not, as is so often preached, as a kind of cosmic sin management process. The cross is so much deeper than that. All too often the way we think about the cross is focused too much on sin –
- Jesus died for our sins,
- Jesus was sacrificed for our sins,
- Jesus’ blood means we’re forgiven.
These ways of expressing the mystery raise, for me, more questions than they answer. What type of God demands blood?
Instead I think the cross is about more than the management of sin. On the cross the Son dies and the Father feels pain. Dali shows us the cross from God’s perspective. What parent could not feel pain and horror as their child is put to death because of injustice, prejudice and politics?
Jesus was killed because some thought he was blasphemous and others thought he was challenging the status quo too much. His teaching threatened those who had power, who felt that the world could be managed for the rich and who were threatened by Jesus’ appeal to the crowds.
We look at the cross now influenced by the resurrection. Knowing about the resurrection, however, should not take away from the horror of Jesus giving himself up to death nor the Father feeling the pain, the agony, the injustice and the rage of it all. As Latin American theologian Jon Sobrino writes:
“On the cross of Jesus God himself is crucified. The Father suffers the death of the Son and takes upon himself all the pain and suffering of history. In this ultimate solidarity with humanity he reveals himself as the God of love, who opens up a hope and a future through the most negative side of history”
Until the Kingdom comes, the life of the Christian is about being drawn into this dynamic of the self-giving love of the Son and the pain and distress of the Father. This dual perspective for me is helped by Dali’s painting.
The Coming Kingdom
In the short parables we heard today, we see Jesus showing that the kingdom starts small but grows. The mustard seed is a tiny seed, but the plant that comes from it is huge. The kingdom is like a bit of yeast which raises the dough. The kingdom was inaugurated by Jesus but won’t be here in all it’s fullness until the end of time. We seek to live by the values of the Kingdom but are frustrated by the reality of the world around us.
We believe that everyone should be treated fairly, that we want to live in a society where the rule of law is paramount and where laws are fair. Yet we know and love people in this congregation who have had to flee from dreadful oppression and torture. Over the last few years we’ve already helped Moses, Prossy, Masoud, Farzad and Jaffa win asylum here helping to persuade our government and the courts that countries like Iran and Uganda with their murderous regimes are not safe for lesbian and gay people. Now we’re supporting Busi and Busani in their fight for justice and I imagine we will help more in the future. We do this not because we’re radical lefties (though some of us maybe), but because we believe the Kingdom of God is based on the idea of justice. Justice doesn’t stop at the boundaries of our own United Kingdom but is a universal value of God’s kingdom.
The issue here is one of perspective. With the eye of faith we can see the day when Uganda, Zimbabwe, Iran and so many other countries, follow the lead of South Africa and enshrine protection for all their citizens in their constitutions, a day when they accept God’s creation in all its richness; with the eye of reality we see things getting worse in so many other countries around the world.
With the eye of faith I see the Kingdom drawing close where we will live with justice, integrity and equality; with the eye of cynicism I think this is a long time coming.
Maybe this is the tension that Dali is showing in his evocative painting. The stillness of the world ignoring the one who died for it, with the agony of the Father who is ever present and who looks down seeing His Son slowly dying.
The Father’s heart continues to weep for all who are imprisoned unjustly, wounded, maimed and killed. God’s agony and rage will one day be directed at those who do these things, especially those who do or support these things using God’s own words to justify themselves. The coming Kingdom, Jesus reminds us again and again in the Gospels, also brings judgement and justice.
Joining the Perspectives
In Dali’s painting the perspective changes at the foot of the cross, in the little dark space between the cross and the world, the perspectives join. Maybe there is a lesson here, at the foot of the cross we find our perspectives be transformed, the realities of our world are challenged and changed by the reality of the Kingdom which draws close. Into the self-giving love of Jesus Christ and the agony of the Father are drawn all the pain, sorrow and injustice of our world. Until the Kingdom comes we have to continually live with this dual perspective and within it, to see our salvation.
Link to image of painting here.