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Sadao Watanabe

Pentecost, 1965, Hand-coloured kappazuri dyed stencil print on washi paper, Private collection, © 2019 Tatsuo Watanabe

Sodoma (Giovanni Antonio Bazzi)

Saint Sebastian, 1525, Oil on canvas, 204 x 145 cm, Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Thomas Cole

Study for Two Youths Enter Upon a Pilgrimage, 1846–48, Oil on canvas, Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art, Witchita State University ; Gift of Sam and Rie Bloomfield, 1954.1.2, Photo courtesy of the Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art

Persecuted yet Pentecostal

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

In John Bunyan’s classic allegory of the Christian life, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian sets out from his home in the City of Destruction to travel to the Celestial City. Seeking deliverance from the burden that he is carrying, he is encouraged by Evangelist to find the Wicket Gate. On his way, however, he encounters Mr Worldly Wiseman, who diverts him from the narrow path by promising him deliverance through the Law with the help of Mr Legality in the town of Morality.

The conflicting visions presented by Evangelist and Mr Worldly Wiseman echo the stark difference that Jesus presents to his disciples in this passage from John’s Gospel between following the way of Christ, which leads to the cross, and following the way of the world, which regards the cross as foolishness.

Jesus’s caution to his disciples comes in the section of John’s Gospel known as the Upper Room Discourses or the Farewell Discourses. After washing his disciples’ feet and predicting both his death and Peter’s denial, Jesus offers words of comfort to his disciples, teaches them about his relationship with God the Father, promises the sending of the Holy Spirit, and prays for them. In the midst of these heartening words, Jesus offers a rather stark warning about how the world will receive those who follow him. In John’s Gospel, ‘the world’ is a complex, multivalent term, but the conflict between Jesus and the world has been apparent from the prologue (John 1:10). The truth of Jesus’s prediction will become all too apparent to the disciples, for he will shortly suffer mocking, beating, and death by worldly powers.

Jesus’s warning to his disciples echoes other texts within the New Testament, including James’s warning that those who befriend the world become enemies of God (James 4:4) and John’s caution not to love the things of the world (1 John 2:15). At the same time, these warnings should be understood alongside other uses of the term ‘world’ that include the affirmation that Jesus’s entire mission, which is fulfilled in his life, death, and resurrection, is motivated by God’s love for the world (John 3:16–17).

It is not the case, then, that God hates the world. Indeed, God loves the world, which was created by God and through Christ (John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2), so much so that God the Son took on flesh to enter that same world in order to redeem it (John 1:18). However, it is the case that the world often regards the death of Christ upon the cross as foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23), rejects the truth of his resurrection (Acts 17:32; 1 Corinthians 15:12), and hates those who follow him (1 John 3:13).

The artists and works selected for this passage point to the conflict between the world and those who follow Jesus Christ. In a sense, Il Sodoma’s depiction of the martyrdom of St Sebastian represents the suffering of all Christians who have been persecuted by the world because of their faith. This was particularly true in the lives of early Christians, who did not expect that the relationship between Christians and the world would ever be anything but one of rejection, hatred, and suffering.

Of course, those circumstances changed dramatically with the conversion of Constantine and the subsequent legalization of the faith, to the point that for long periods of its history, Christianity became the dominant religion within many cultures, expressed its power in ways antithetical to the gospel, and even aligned itself with the state.

However, that does not mean that the world now embraces the radical call of discipleship to Christ, for the cross is still a stumbling block, and persecution remains a reality for many Christians around the globe.

In that regard, Thomas Cole’s allegorical rendering of the lives of the two young pilgrims helpfully demonstrates the ongoing tension that exists between following the way of the cross (Matthew 16:24) or the way of the world. As Cole makes clear, there will be difficulty, even suffering, in following Christ.

Yet, thankfully, that is no reason to despair. Christ’s words of caution are followed by his promise of the Holy Spirit, who will guide the disciples into truth and through whom Christ will be present with them. Sadao Watanabe’s depiction of the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost points to the fact that those who follow Christ are not abandoned by him. Rather, in their ongoing struggle to follow Jesus through this world, Christians are guided, supported, and enabled by the Holy Spirit, who grants them a faith that is confirmed through the power of Pentecost.

Next exhibition: John 16:16–24