On the side of a tunnel in southwest Atlanta, there is a street mural painted by Suzy Schultz. It was part of the Art on the Atlanta Beltline series. Near the opening of a tunnel, tagged with graffiti, stands the portrait of a singer, larger than life. His eyes are closed. His mouth is open. One imagines he fills the air with soulful sound.
Saint Cyril of Jerusalem once informed catechumens of a dragon who sat by the road. “In your journey to the Father of souls,” Cyril said, “your way lies past that dragon.” I thought of that quote as I saw this mural. To enter the tunnel, you must walk by the singer. Unlike Cyril’s dragon, however, this singer seeks to save rather than destroy your life. For people immersed in daily life in Atlanta - walking, jogging, or biking this path - the singer beckons them to be aware of another world, a world of grace which overcomes all suffering.
Something like this is happening in our reading from John this morning. Jesus is speaking to His disciples in the upper room. He is drawing His teaching to a close. His disciples are about to enter into the fear and confusion of His Passion. Jesus knows what will happen. As He tells them, “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave Me alone” (16:32). These disciples who have followed Him for three years, have seen His miracles, and have listened to His teaching, will ultimately desert Him. As darkness falls and evil arises, they will run and leave Jesus alone. He alone will bear the wrath of his Father. He alone will take the curse that has fallen upon all creation. And He alone will be their salvation.
Though His song is sorrowful, the words of Jesus promise His disciples life. Running away will not save them. What will save is His victory over sin, evil, and the fallen world. So, as His disciples are about to enter a dark tunnel, Jesus sings to them a song of His victorious love. “I have said these things to you,” Jesus says, “that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (16:33).
Jesus will not take His disciples out of the world. He will not offer them a life free from trouble. No, Jesus is honest with us. In this world, we will have tribulation. But we will also have this eternal gift: Peace. Why? Because Jesus, in His death and resurrection, has overcome all sin, suffering, and tribulation in this world.
Jesus will not take His disciples out of the world. He will not offer them a life free from trouble. No, Jesus is honest with us.
So, with these words, Jesus encourages His disciples then and His disciples today. He opens for us a way to walk through suffering and to sing our song of salvation as we talk to our heavenly Father (16:26-27).
This mural in Atlanta is one Christian artist’s way of singing her song and celebrating the power and love of God that brings His people through suffering. Suzy Schultz is the artist. The portrait is of a neighbor who came to her studio and sang while she captured his song in pictures. His songs were gospel songs, old melodies taught to him by his mother. Now, he is painted, not in a studio, but out in the world, where these gospel songs are needed by all who pass by. Why? Because in this world, we all have trouble. And we are all in need of the good news that Jesus Christ has overcome the world.
For Schultz, this is actually the foundation of her art. In her artist’s statement, she writes about “the second innocence.” The first innocence is, “A beauty that is young, unmarried, untested.” The second innocence is, “One in which the beauty is a result of the scars borne from the battles of life.” As Suzy explains, when she started her work as an artist, she left the comfort of a reliable job, a supportive mentor, and a steady income. As those things were taken away, she entered “a very dark couple of years.” But, when what was familiar was taken away, she discovered “the things in my life that really grounded me.”  And one of those things was faith. She sought out people who had weathered the painful cares of this world and possessed a sacred beauty, a second innocence, a reflection of God’s grace.
So, in the city of Atlanta, alongside a graffiti tagged tunnel, stands this singer of grace. And here in this congregation, alongside the cares of life which trouble you, comes Jesus in the reading from John, singing His song of grace. It gave voice to God's victory for the disciples on the night when He was betrayed. Now, after His resurrection, it gives voice for us today of His victory that graces our journey through the troubles of this world.
“In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 16:23-33.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. David Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 16:23-33.