Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sermon – “Here is Your Son” (John 19:25-27)

At the cross her station keeping,
Stood the mournful mother weeping,
     Close to Jesus to the last.
Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
All his bitter anguish hearing,
     Now at length the sword had pass’d.
Oh, how sad and sore distress’d
Was that mother, highly blest
     Of the sole-begotten One!
Christ above in torment hangs;
She beneath beholds the pangs
     Of her dying glorious son.
Is there one who would not weep,
Whelmed in miseries so deep,
     Christ’s dear mother to behold?
Can the human heart refrain
From partaking in her pain,
     In that mother’s pain untold?
Those words are an excerpt from a nineteenth-century English rendering of a very long Latin hymn called the Stabat Mater. It focuses on the agony of Jesus’ mother Mary, during those dreadful hours she stood at the foot of the cross in company with three other women and the disciple John, watching powerlessly as Jesus’ life slowly, painfully slipped away from him.
Composer Antonín Dvořák’s rendering of the Stabat Mater takes a good hour and a half to perform. John’s gospel, on the other hand, presents it to us in half a verse, just ten words in the Greek. But of course behind the stark simplicity of John’s account there stands a whole story that goes back to the beginning of the gospel, a story that John does not tell, but for which we need to go to the Gospel of Luke.

Mary’s sorrows

In the opening chapter Luke introduces us to a young virgin, in all likelihood barely in her teens, who receives a visit from an angel. “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! … Do not be afraid… You have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” “I am the Lord’s servant.” Mary replied. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Perhaps some of you are familiar with the more poetic rendering of her words in the old King James Version: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And this is where Mary’s pain, which culminates at the cross, begins.
For Mary knew that as an unwed mother she would be the scorn of everyone in Nazareth. She would risk rejection by the man whom she was to be married. She could even be subject to death by stoning. And it was only through another angelic intervention (this time to her future husband, Joseph) and the kindness of her cousin Elizabeth who invited her to the seclusion of her home in the hill country, that Mary was saved this threefold humiliation.
Now let’s skip over a few months, until after the time Jesus is born—forty days after, to be precise. Mary and Joseph have come to the big city, to the Temple in Jerusalem, to do what was required of the parents of every first-born male: to present a sacrifice on his behalf. Their intentions were interrupted by a man who suddenly seemed to come out of nowhere. His name was Simeon and Luke describes him as “righteous and devout … waiting for the consolation of Israel”. He took the baby Jesus into his arms, praising God. Then he turned to Mary and prophesied, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” And he concluded with these dark words, addressed directly to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).
The next scene comes twelve years later, when Jesus and his parents are again at the Temple in Jerusalem. Assuming that Jesus was with some of the many neighbours and relatives who would have journeyed together, Mary and Joseph had travelled for a day before they began to worry. Then there was a hurried trip back to the city and another day of searching before they found him still in the Temple, conversing with the teachers of the Law. “Young man,” Mary scolded him, “why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you.” To which came Jesus’ rather mystified reply, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?” (Luke 2:48-49, The Message). Many have since wondered if Mary’s three days without Jesus were not a precursor to three infinitely more agonizing days that lay ahead for her.

Mary’s solitude

Until we come to the cross, that is where Mary’s story ends in the Gospel of Luke. But we do meet with her a couple of other times, once in John’s gospel and again in the writings of Matthew and Mark. In John it is the famous occasion of the wedding reception in Cana, a settlement located a few kilometers from Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. When the party has embarrassingly run out of wine, it is Mary who takes the initiative to approach Jesus with the problem. “They have no more wine,” she informs him. To which Jesus replies in a sentence that translators have found notoriously impossible to render into English: “Woman, why do you involve me?” The words seem petulant, even rude. However, if you look at the bottom of the page in your pew Bible you will see that the translators have been careful to add a footnote stating, “The Greek for Woman does not denote any disrespect.”
While it may not have been disrespectful, it was not the usual word a son would choose to address his mother. So what is going on here? I think we can find the beginning of an answer in the other gospel incident involving Mary, the one found in both Matthew and Mark. This time Jesus was teaching in a local home. As usual a large crowd had gathered. The house was packed to the point where there literally wasn’t even elbow room. So when Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived, they were not able to make their way past the door. So they sent a message through and word got to Jesus: “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” And how did Jesus reply?
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
The point Jesus was making on that occasion comes out even more clearly on another one, when from out of the crowd a woman cries out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” To which Jesus replies, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27-28). And if we want to go all the way, we could point to Jesus’ words in Matthew, chapter 10:
For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:35-37)
So what is happening here? Is Jesus rejecting family relationships altogether? Is he declaring war on the family? I don’t think so—and the answer begins to emerge as we stand with Mary at the foot of the cross.

Mary’s solace

There we see Jesus turning to his mother and addressing her with that same word that we heard at the wedding in Cana: “Woman…” “Woman, here is your son.” Then he looks at John and entreats him, “Here is your mother.”
Now traditionally from many pulpits you will hear a message about Jesus’ deep devotion and care for his mother. And if you have ever visited ancient Ephesus in Turkey, your tour guide would almost undoubtedly have brought you to the site of the house where John supposedly lived and looked after Mary in faithful obedience to his master’s dying plea (and, by the way, for which there isn’t the least shred of evidence!). That interpretation has an honourable lineage, going back to St Augustine in the fourth century. “The good Teacher,” he wrote, “does what he reminds us ought to be done. By his own example he instructed his disciples that care for their parents ought to be a matter of concern to pious children.” [2]
Now I have no intention of denying the fifth commandment or the many New Testament passages that give witness to the importance of the family. Yet what I do believe is that Jesus, in his dying moments on the cross, is pointing to something far deeper and with far greater implications than the obligation to honour one’s father and mother. And it is this: that through his sacrificial death our relationships have been irrevocably altered. The words to Mary and to John point us to the horizontal dimension of the cross: that Jesus died to bring reconciliation not only with God but also with our fellow human beings. We have become members of a new family, knit together not by the ties of blood, but through Christ’s blood shed on the cross.
Think for a moment of this passage, from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26,28-29)
Or this, from Ephesians:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ… Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household… (Ephesians 2:13,19)
Or this, from the Letter to the Hebrews:
In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. (Hebrews 2:10-11)
Add to these verses the fact that more than a hundred times in the New Testament Christian believers are addressed as “brothers and sisters” and you begin to see that what we are looking at is not an optional extra, not an add-on, but a core feature of our Christian life. That’s why greeting one another with the peace and looking into one another’s eyes as we share the bread and the cup at the Lord’s Supper is so important. It’s why we pray for one another’s needs Sunday by Sunday. It’s why there is a ministry of deacons and why we engage in regular acts of service.
More years ago than I care to admit I remember listening to an LP recording (and there’s a hint as to just how long ago it was!) of New York socialite Gert Behanna. She had reached rock bottom after decades as an alcoholic when she received a little article in the mail entitled “It Is Never Too Late To Start Over”, by Samuel M. Shoemaker. After reading it, she did something she had never done in her life before. She went over to her bed and dropped down to her knees in prayer. But what to pray? “I thought there was a prayer I had to learn once,” she said. “What was it? And I got as far as ‘Our Father who art…’ and then I thought, ‘Our Father, not theirs, not just mineOurs…’ ”[3]
At the moment of her conversion Gert Behanna recognized something profound—that not only did she have a Father in heaven, but she also had a family on earth—sisters and brothers around the world. That horizontal dimension of the cross is every bit as important as the vertical.
When Jesus uttered those dying words to Mary and to John, he was not merely entrusting her to his young friend’s care. He was introducing both of them to a new family—a family brought into being not through the pains of a mother in labour, but by the agony of the cross. As we look to that cross this morning, Jesus also bids us look at one another, and with profound thankfulness to recognize in the eyes and faces of those around us the members of our family. “Woman, here is your son… Here is your mother.”

[1]     Edward Caswall (1814-1878)
[2]     Tractate 19.2 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon – “What does he mean?” (John 16:16-24)

I wonder how many of you may have seen Martin Scorsese’s film Silence when it was showing earlier in the year. Sadly, it has received far too little attention and was a failure at the box office. Yet I believe it is one of the most profound films to have been released in years. I won’t tell you too much about it, except to say that it is based on a novel by Japanese Christian author Shusaku Endo.
The story takes place in the late 1600s, with two Jesuit missionaries, Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe journeying to Japan to try to find their former mentor and fellow priest, Father Ferreira, who is rumoured to have abandoned his faith in the heat of the vicious persecution unleashed against Christians. Suffice it to say, the film is gruelling to watch, as the situation becomes bleaker and bleaker for the two priests, not to mention the Japanese peasants and villagers who have embraced the Christian faith.
Here at First Congregational you have been making your way through what are almost Jesus’ final words, spoken to his disciples as they shared their last supper together in the upper room. I can’t help but think that, as in the film Silence, there must have been an overpowering, almost palpable, sense of foreboding, indeed of bewilderment, as Jesus donned a servant’s towel and washed the disciples’ feet, as he warned that there was one among them who would betray him, as sent Judas Iscariot off into the night, and not least as he used the bread and wine of Passover to speak of his own body being broken and his life’s blood being shed for them.
No wonder, then, that the evening was filled with confusion and questions: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” “Lord, who among us would ever betray you?” “Lord, where are you going that we cannot follow?” “Lord, how can we know the way?” “Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” And now, in this morning’s passage, “What does he mean? We can’t make head or tail of what he’s saying.” (Notice that at this point the disciples’ confusion has reached the stage where they don’t even bother to address their questions to Jesus any longer, but to one another.)
So it is that into the midst of this gloom and confusion Jesus speaks once more: “In a little while you will see me no more…” “You will weep and mourn…” “You will grieve…” Hardly words to instill confidence and hope! Yet I believe that as we look into them, as we take time to examine them, we will find that they are words bursting with a richness that is scarcely possible to fathom. So let’s turn in our Bibles to John 16, verses 16 to 24.

The Wonder of the Cross

The passage begins with Jesus saying to his disciples, “In a little while you will see me no more…” As I’ve suggested already, these words must only have added to their confusion. Twenty centuries later we have the advantage of hindsight. It is clear to us that what Jesus was speaking to them about was his death on the cross. Within a few short hours Jesus would be forced away from them to be humiliated in a series of mock trials before the religious council and the secular authorities. He would be savagely beaten and then subjected to the cruellest form of execution the Roman Empire had managed to devise—the slow, painful process of hanging exposed on a cross gradually to asphyxiate to death. By the time it came to that, however, all but one would have left the scene. Both through the wicked actions of the authorities and through their own weakness, the time was swiftly coming when the disciples would indeed see Jesus no more.
In my mind’s eye I can picture them on that first Good Friday going back to the places where they were staying or possibly to the upper room, their bowed heads and stooped bodies bearing silent witness to the profound dismay and utter bewilderment that filled their hearts. “You will weep and mourn,” Jesus warned them. “You will grieve…”
Yet little did they know that as their hearts were being ripped apart, so too was the veil of the Temple, the thick curtain that separated the Holy of Holies—revered as the very dwelling place of God—from the rest of the Temple. So holy was this place that only the high priest could enter it, and he only once a year, on the Feast of the Atonement (Yom Kippur). He would have a rope tied around his waist, so that if he happened to die or become incapacitated while performing his duties he could be dragged out and nobody need enter to rescue him.
What happened that day on a physical level, dramatic as it was, was only a sign of what was also taking place on a cosmic level. Through his sacrificial death on the cross Jesus had breached the separation between God and humankind that had been a reality since the days in the Garden of Eden.
Centuries before, the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you…” (Isaiah 59:2) Now, because of Jesus’ death on the cross, the church can proclaim, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain…, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings…” (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Clearly all of this was far beyond the grasp of the disciples. Indeed theologians today still ponder over it with amazement. American preacher Fleming Rutledge spent eighteen years working on her more than 600-page book The Crucifixion. New Testament scholar Tom Wright, who himself has just published a book on the crucifixion, has written, “I am under no illusions that, even if I were to write a thousand pages on the subject, I would never exhaust it.”[1] Surely in the end our response to Jesus’ death on the cross can only be one of amazement and praise. In the words of Isaac Watts,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The Wonder of the Resurrection

However, back to the disciples in the upper room… Jesus had warned them that their hearts would be filled with sorrow. But he also promised that they would be filled with exultation. “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me… You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” And so the scene shifts from Good Friday to the first Easter morning, from Calvary to Joseph of Arimathea’s garden. If those first disciples could not come to terms with Jesus’ crucifixion, how were they to handle his resurrection?
It was only with great difficulty and after considerable persuasion that they came to believe the reality of Jesus’ resurrection after it occurred. They dismissed the women’s reports of the empty tomb and the angels as old wives’ tales. When Jesus appeared before them in the upper room, they at first assumed he was an apparition. So no wonder Jesus’ words about their sorrow being turned to joy and about not seeing him and then seeing him only left them befuddled and confused! I know for certain that I would have been.
Yet within a few short weeks they would be proclaiming, “You … put [Jesus of Nazareth] to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead… Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:23-24,36). The resurrection points to Jesus as an individual utterly unique in the course of history. And that alone would have been enough to blow the disciples’ minds—or anyone’s mind for that matter. But dare I say that that is only the tip of the iceberg?
Look at what Paul writes in his famous chapter on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: “But Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). You see, Easter was only the beginning. Because of Jesus’ resurrection we can look forward to that day when, as Paul again writes, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
It’s Jesus’ resurrection that assures us that all the injustices, all the seemingly pointless suffering, the atrocities and the horrors that human beings are subject to will one day be gloriously, mysteriously redeemed. Climatologists warn us that human existence may come to an end when our pollution of the environment reaches the point where human life is no longer possible. Astronomers warn of a collision with a comet of the proportions of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago. Still others see us all being sucked into the oblivion of a black hole. None of them is a pretty picture. But Jesus’ resurrection tells that there is more, that God has greater plans for his creation than we could ever imagine—in Paul’s words, “that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
Now that does not mean that we are not to seek justice, to minister to the downtrodden, or to care for the environment. Quite the opposite: Jesus’ resurrection calls us to be outposts of that new creation that is to come, to be glimpses, even if ever so weak and glimmering, of the light that is to be revealed.

The Wonder of Communion

If all of that were not enough, Jesus reveals a third point of wonder for the disciples. The first is the wonder of the crucifixion; the second, the wonder of the resurrection; and I was going to call the third the wonder of prayer. But on reflection I think it is better to call it the wonder of communion. Listen to Jesus’ final words in this morning’s verses:
Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.
On the surface it almost seems like some magical formula—the kind of thing we read about in fairy tales: “Make a wish and all your dreams will come true.” Yet I suspect that all of us have had enough of an experience of prayer to know that that just isn’t the case. Nor is it what Jesus is speaking about here. For prayer, as we all know, is not some mechanical formula—put a loonie in the slot and down slides a candy bar. No, prayer is a conversation, and like all conversations it is an expression of a relationship.
When we begin to see it in this way, we also begin to recognize that asking something in Jesus’ name is not just a matter of tacking those words onto the end of a petition—“… in Jesus’ name. Amen”—as though that makes our prayer valid in a way that it wouldn’t be without them. No, it seems to me that to pray in Jesus’ name is to pray the prayer that Jesus himself would pray. And that in turn means that a significant element of prayer is seeking his will. It means coming to him and allowing him to come alongside us, and to be with him in the Garden of Gethsemane as the disciples soon would be, where they would hear him utter, “Father, not my will, but yours, be done.”
In that gift of prayer, that gift of communion, of being able to come into his presence, of knowing that he is with us even when we are not conscious of it, Jesus has given us something again that we will never fathom, never understand, yet to those of us who have entered into its mysteries, a gift more precious than words could ever express.
The disciples asked, “What does he mean?” And like them, our minds will never fully grasp the mysteries into which our faith in Jesus leads us. But more importantly he who has died for us, who is the first-born from the dead, and who is ever-present with us—he has grasped us, and he will never let us go.

[1]     “The Cross and the Caricatures”, Fulcrum, Eastertide 2007,