One of the most celebrated paintings in modern history is “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci, the classic portrayal of Christ and his twelve apostles sitting at the dinner table.
Many students of art history believe that the painting, when first created, was somewhat different from the version which we now see. There was initially, it is believed, an exquisite lace border on the tablecloth. Upon completion of his work, Leonardo invited a group of art students to view his masterpiece and they were highly impressed by the delicate design and the intricate detail of the lacework.Upon seeing the reaction of these artistic novices, da Vinci took up brush, dipped it in some paint, and made a few vigorous long strokes across the canvas, obliterating the lace. Then he thundered, “Now, you fools, look at the face of Christ!”
Whether this story is truth or legend, it does make an important point. We need to get our eyes off the “lace” of distraction and from whatever it is that may divert our attention from Christ. Leonardo’s famous depiction is designed for the whole of the painting to focus on Christ at the center. Notice the light from the window behind Jesus. Notice the vanishing point: the angle of the walls and how the lines converge towards Jesus. When we take time to investigate each in turn, the Twelve Apostles seem to reflect Jesus’ values but are positioned to make him the focal point.
Speaking of the apostles, whatever happened to the original twelve who answered Jesus’ call to follow him? What kind of impact did they have on the world? Where were they from? Where did they go and what did they do after Jesus’ death and resurrection?
While Christian tradition often refers to the apostles as being twelve in number, different gospel writers give different names for the same individual, and apostles mentioned in one gospel are not mentioned in others. The commissioning of the Twelve Apostles during the ministry of Jesus is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels St. Matthew, Mark, and Luke. After his resurrection, Jesus sent eleven of them, with the exception of Judas Iscariot, who by then had died, to spread his teachings to all nations. (There is also an Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition derived from the Gospel of St. Luke of as many as 70 Apostles during the time of Jesus’ ministry.)
The period of early Christianity during the lifetimes of the apostles is designated as the Apostolic Age. During the 1st century AD, the apostles established churches throughout the territories of the Roman Empire and, according to historic tradition, through the Middle East, Africa, and even India.
The search for the 12 Apostles is one of the most interesting quests one can make in understanding the New Testament and the birth of ancient Christianity. Many know the apostles by name but may only have a general sense of their place in the biblical story. Beginning on June 9, Pentecost Sunday, I will begin my Summer Sermon Series in an attempt to bring each Apostle to life one by one. We will sift through the facts, stories, and legends that have accrued over time and discover the human being behind each image across twelve Sundays, June-August. I hope you will join me for an exciting journey!
This coming Sunday I will share the concluding message in my current sermon series The Parable of the Prodigal Sons. The way Jesus concludes the parable has always been rather baffling to me. But it does give us pause perhaps to a deeper truth that originally meets the eye. So many of you have shared with me what this series has meant to you, and I hope and pray that this Sunday will not disappoint. More importantly, I trust that it will strengthen our walk with Christ in these challenging times.
See you Sunday!
P.S. If you ordered N.T. Wright’s book Paul: A Biography, which is the (highly) suggested reading for this year’s Summer Institute of Religious Studies, the books are due to arrive at Asbury today. You can stop by the church office to order or pick up your copy or do so at the Welcome Center outside the sanctuary this Sunday and several Sundays to come. If want an audio or eReader version, go to smile.amazon.com. Be sure to select Asbury UMC Birmingham as your charity of choice. If you’d like to sign up for the institute and Chef Bill’s terrific Wednesday Night Dinners, there’s still time. Visit asburyonline.org/institute today.