Dear Friend in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In life, there are many lessons that we are called to teach our children- how to be good to each other; how to treat others with kindness; how to do the right thing. For most of us, the greatest challenge is teaching our children the religious lessons they should know. I am reminded the little girl who was restless as the preacher’s sermon dragged on and on. Finally, she leaned over to her mother and whispered, “Mommy, if we give him the money now, will he let us go?” Or there was the little boy who told his Sunday School teacher, “When you die, God takes care of you like your parents did when you are alive-only God doesn’t yell at you all the time.” And of course, there was the little boy in pre-school, who asked me why I was dressed so funny. He was referring to my collar. “Our dog has a collar like that,” he said. “Kills ticks and fleas up to six months.” He’d obviously learned that old joke at home. As members of the Lutheran Church, one of our greatest challenges is teaching our children the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.
Last week, I mentioned that Martin Luther added two parts to the historic Roman Catholic catechism consisting of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. The first addition was his Explanation to Holy Baptism, and the second was his Explanation to the Sacrament of the Altar, or Lord’s Supper. In 1281, the Council of Lambeth, had voted to restrict the chalice at communion to priests, so for nearly 350 years, the laity in the Western Church were barred from receiving wine at Lord’s Supper. Luther longed to reform and restore the former practice. He also believed that the Church had shifted the focus of the sacrament as a gift of God’s mercy, to a human act of sacrifice to placate an angry God. Lucas Cranach’s altarpiece was intended to portray the new Protestant Church’s understanding of Holy Communion.
The painting unfolds onto a timeless, space less scene of the German countryside. There are two mountains outside the windows. The one is a distant White Mountain. That may be a play of words and images. The name Wittenberg means White Mountain. Oddly, there is no mountain to be seen in Wittenberg. The other mountain bears a striking resemblance to the Wartburg Castle where Luther was forced into hiding after the Diet of Worms by his protector Frederick the Wise. This is where Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German. It is also where Luther took on the disguise of Knight George or Junger Jorg. No longer appearing as a monk with tonsure, Luther could travel around the area incognito. It was during the period of Luther’s absence from Wittenberg, that the iconoclasts destroyed the religious works on the City Church.
Lucas Cranach begins with a traditional portrait of the Twelve Disciples and Jesus seated at the table. Cranach was very cautious of painting any work that would be too inflammatory to the Roman Catholic Church, after all, he was still commissions Roman Catholic princes and priests. He was very strategic and coy. You will note that there is one extra figure in the painting- a servant perhaps. But I would like to say- the photographer. The young man bears a striking resemblance to Lucas Cranach the Younger, who worked with his father on the monumental painting. The twelve disciples are seated around a round table. This is not a hierarchical portrait of the closest and most distant player. The table is also is very similar in size to the baptismal font we studied in last week’s sermon. Surprisingly, Judas the Betrayer and the Beloved John are closest to Jesus. It is an intimate portrait of the disciples in near equal proximity with their master. We can easily recognize Judas by the money bag at his side and the yellow clothes. As for the sacrament, it is interesting to see that Jesus is feeding Judas. The sacrament is not barred from anyone, but they may not necessarily be eating to their salvation. Indeed, Judas may be eating unworthily. Why do I say that? Because if you look closely, Judas also has his own cup of wine in front of him. All the others seem to be drinking from a common cup.
There is another interesting detail regarding Judas. The disciple is no longer seated in harmony with the other disciples. His foot is already stepping out of the inner circle. This is not the announcement of Jesus’ “One of you will portray me,” and the response by the disciples, “Is it I?” in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. This is the moment of betrayal- off Jesus telling Judas to go and do what he must do.
One hundred years before Martin Luther, there was another reformer in the Czech lands named Jan Hus. He too spoke out against indulgences, and believed that pastors should preach in the language of the people. Most importantly, he argued that laity should be allowed to drink the wine at Holy Communion. Unfortunately, Hus did not have a powerful legal protector like Martin Luther had in Frederick the Wise. Hus was arrested and brought to the Council of Constance where he was burned at the stake. There was a legend at that time that in a hundred years, there would rise another from the ashes. “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan which you can neither roast nor boil.” 100 years later, Martin Luther was portrayed as that noble swan.
Jan Hus, I believe has been drawn into the Cranach’s altar painting from Wittenberg. You’ll notice in the background that there is one disciple wearing a theological hat. It is the sign of a professor. He is also holding the communion chalice- almost as if he is serving the disciple next to him. Lucas Cranach made other images of Luther and Hus distributing the cup at communion. Perhaps it is not a surprise that Luther is holding the second cup and sharing it beyond the inner circle. It seems to proclaim that God’s gift of forgiveness is available to all.
In scripture, Jesus promises, that whoever eats of this bread and drinks of this cup will receive eternal life. As Christians, you and I are destined for the gates of heaven. We have been created in God’s image to dwell with him in his eternal home. We have been given the free will to stay the course. It is a destination, far better than you have seen or heard. But sometimes we are so stymied at the crossroads of life, that we lose sight of our destination. Sometimes our bearings are so incorrect, that we head out in the wrong direction. And sometimes we are so lacking in will and energy that we fail to complete the journey at all. It is in these moments, that God prepares a table for you to strengthen you for that journey. This meal is but a foretaste of that feast to come, where God has prepared a heavenly banquet.
My friends, God is inviting you to come to his Table and to share in his fellowship and love and forgiveness and to live. What other lesson do you need to learn? “Your Table is ready.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.