By Thomas Hastings – Executive Director – OMSC@PTS
This is the sixth in a series of eight posts that spotlights paintings from our Artist in Residence program in dialogue with Christian scripture to offer spiritual windows for reflection and prayer. These reflections are based on Princeton Seminary’s Summer 2022 Chapel series. You can view the service from which this post is based HERE
SCRIPTURE READING : Matt 28:16-20
Beginning with William Carey’s 1792 “Enquiry Into the Obligations of Christians, to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens,” this text from Matthew’s Gospel provided the inspiration for generations of European and N. American missionaries who were dispatched to non-Western and non-Christian countries to plant Christian churches and build schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions. Indeed, the final three verses 18–20 became known as “The Great Commission.” The concrete call to action to “make disciples, baptize, and teach” surely appealed to those who lived in the “task-oriented” cultures of the modern West.
Today’s painting by Nalini Jayasuriya, somewhat ironically entitled “The Great Commission,” invites us to revisit this text from the “relationship-oriented” cultural context of Sri Lanka. When OMSC commissioned Nalini for this work, she affixed an explanatory note to the back, which reads as follows:
“To me, the Great Commission is much more than the words that Jesus spoke to the twelve. So, I have tried to suggest the Power that had to sweep through humanity and through Time, transcending all thought and illumining all experience. So, Christ makes a Statement and an Offering; a Statement of the Abiding Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove, and the Offering of his Life in the symbol of the Cup. This is not a portrait of the young vibrant giver of the Gospels, but an almost elusive vision of a spiritual Presence—a Presence eternally renewing.”
Rather than the concrete tasks of “making disciples, baptizing, and teaching,” Nalini invites us to pause to ponder verse 16: “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” If you look closely at the faces of this group of disciples, you notice that there are worshipers and doubters among them. These 15 faces suggest a whole range of possible responses to Christ’s promises. It seems some of these disciples are all in, some are bowed down or praying, perhaps asking for an increase of their faith, some seem to hesitate, waver, or doubt, perhaps wondering what these promises of the abiding Spirit and the Sacrament might mean. Perhaps you can discern yet other responses in these faces?
Notice that the mouths of most of these disciples are open. They are engaged in an active, antiphonal relationship with what Nalini has called the “almost elusive vision of a spiritual Presence—a Presence eternally renewing.” They are not simply the passive recipients of a command, and they are definitely not rushing off in the presumption that they will be the generation chosen to convert the world to Christ. If we could hear the responses of this congregation, I suspect we would hear some who are praising, we would hear some who are gasping, we would hear some who are inquiring, we would hear some who are protesting, and we would hear some who are silent. And in any congregation gathered for worship today, I suspect we may hear a similar range of responses to Christ’s promises. Indeed, even those of us who have been called to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach will sometimes find ourselves praising, sometimes gasping, sometimes inquiring, sometimes protesting, and sometimes remaining silent.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.