We have been looking at a series of letters written by Henri Nouwen to his nephew, Marc, discussing his Christian faith. In the first letter, Nouwen talks about how Jesus is the very heart of his existence. In the second, he talks about how Jesus is the God who sets him free. Today we begin our examination of the third letter. If you happened to miss the first two, they are in the last three Friday posts on Facebook and are also available under the Pastor's Desk tab on our church website (irvingtonumc.org).
Letter 3: Jesus: The Compassionate God (Pt. 1)
Yesterday I went with some friends to Colmar, a French town in Alsace. We went there to take a look at the Isenheimer Altar .. for me it proved to be a very profound experience. The Isenheimer Altar was painted between 1513 and 1515 for the chapel at the hospital for plague victims .. The artist was a man of such a retiring disposition, some say very melancholic as well, that historians are still unable to agree who he actually was .. In it the whole pictorial art of the late Middle Ages is summed up and brought to its highest point. This work is not only the most spectacular altarpiece ever made, but also the most moving .. When I saw the body of Jesus on the cross, I had an inkling of the reaction of the plague-stricken and dying sufferers in the sixteenth century. On this altar they saw their God with the same ulcers as their own .. they saw solidarity, compassion, forgiveness, and unending love brought together in this one suffering figure. They saw that they had not been left alone. But they saw, too, that Jesus had not only died for them, but - also for them - had risen gloriously from death.
As we drove back through the vine covered hills .. I also came to understand better what Jesus meant when he said to his friends, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing." Remarkably enough, I'd already made up my mind last week to write to you this week about the suffering and resurrection of Christ.
It won't be easy to write to you about the death and resurrection of Jesus in a way that will affect you deeply. You're more likely to say, "Oh yes, I know abut that; let's talk about something else." Yet somehow I have to alert you to the truth that what this is all about (the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus) is the most fundamental, the most far-reaching event ever to occur in the course of history. If you don't see and feel that for yourself, then the gospel can be, at most, interesting, but it can never renew your heart and make you a reborn human being. And rebirth is what you are called to be - a radical liberation that sets you free from the power of death and empowers you to love fearlessly.
What do you think about Nouwen's statement that without feeling the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus the gospel, for us, can at most be interesting but can never renew our hearts? Today, or this week, as you read this devotional, look up the Isenheimer Altar on the computer (if you can) and look at the images on the panels, particularly those of Jesus on the cross. Also, get out your Bible and read from any one or more of the Gospels the account of Jesus' arrest, suffering, death, and resurrection. Then begin to write your third letter: when you think about Jesus on the cross, what are your thoughts? How does the cross renew your heart?