On any given Sunday in church, I might see a kingly lion stabbing an alligator through the head, or a wolf writing the name of Jesus, or maybe a hen, sitting on a cluster of eggs.
Such are the images captured in stained glass around St. John’s. We have 28 large windows surrounding us on all sides, and every one tells a different story (or maybe more precisely, they tell a different piece of a larger story).
The windows are beautiful, yes, but more importantly, they’re educational. They’re also rhetorical. There’s a message in those window, and that message becomes more detailed and persuasive with every Google search for a name or symbol.
On the pulpit side of the church, there are 10 windows featuring the following cast of characters:
Noah, 3000 BC
Abraham, 1870 BC
Polycarp, 270 (Hmm…Polycarp died in 155)
Martin (of Tours), 400
Some of these figures are obvious enough, like Noah and the martyrs. But Ulfilas? (If you know who Ulfilas is, I’m thoroughly impressed by your knowledge of the history of Christianity.)
Ulfilas (also Wulfilas, “little wolf”) is the wolf I mentioned earlier, who is pictured writing the name of Jesus on a scroll. He’s important primarily for his work as a missionary to the Goths. As part of his effort to spread Christianity, Ulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic with the help of a Gothic alphabet he created. (Interestingly, Ulfilas also espoused the “Arian heresy,” which denies the divinity of Christ.)
On the lectern side of the church, the story continues, represented by the following figures:
Luther, 1517Gustav Adolf, 1632 (the king spearing the alligator)Francke, 1727Muhlenberg, 1787Saxons, 1838Wyneken, 1876Walther, 1887Pieper, 1931
Here, too, we have a mix of familiar and maybe not so familiar names as the story moves from the Reformation to American Lutheranism.
Luther, the Reformer? Yes.
Walther, first president of the Missouri Synod? Check.
Muhlenberg? Well, I know there’s a college called Muhlenberg, but there has to be more of a story about that little guy in the window, riding a horse.
And indeed there is. Muhlenberg, a German Lutheran pastor sent to Pennsylvania, is credited with starting the Lutheran Church in America; he is thus known as the “Patriarch of American Lutherans.”
Fascinating stuff, in every window. And when those stories come together, the message is clear:
Christianity has been around for a long time. It has marched on in the face of persection (e.g., apostles, martyrs, Saxons), language barriers (e.g., Ulfilas, Luther), war (Huguenots, Gustav Adolph), and uncertainty (e.g., Muhlenberg).
The stained glass version of the story at St. John’s ends, symbolically, in 1931, but the faith marches on.
And it will keep marching, with God’s help.
In the words of Lutheran hymnwriter Paul Gerhardt:
Is it any surprise that Gerhardt, too, is in stained glass at St. John’s?
If God Himself be for me,I may a host defy;For when I pray, before meMy foes confounded, fly.If Christ, my head and master,Befriend me from above,What foe or what disasterCan drive me from His love? (LSB 724)
* A note on the window count: Those who have seen St. John's may be thinking, "28 windows?" It’s 28 by my count, but what I count as 10 windows, others may count as 5 two-panel windows.