19 March 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