4th Sunday of Lent: Woman, Here Is Your Son (4/6)
Other sermons in this series
“The Seven Last Words of Christ”
Scripture: John 19:23-27
Did any of you grow up in a family in which there was a reputation that was expected to be upheld either by behaving in certain ways or, maybe more importantly, avoiding certain behaviors or situations? For some families—maybe those that are in the public’s eyes more than most—there can definitely be clear expectations about what it means to be a Smith or a Jones or whatever the family name happens to be. The most obvious example of this in our day is the Windsor’s, Great Britain’s Royal Family. In their case, the Windsor name pretty much dictates what family members can and can’t do and say.
That fact is, whether or not our particular family surnames come with behavioral expectations, our sense of personal identity—who I am in this world—is closely tied to our families, right? And in this context, “family” means a group of people closely related by blood or marriage or adoption. The point is, whatever that family unit looked like for each of us, it played a tremendous role in shaping who we see ourselves to be and how we interact with the world around us.
I’ll give you an example from my own life. Farming goes back generations on my father’s side of the family. Not everyone became farmers, but through the generations enough have so that it’s the overarching identity of our particular line of Harts. And regardless of the different vocations represented by our line of Harts, one characteristic typical of farmers that seems to have weaved its way through the family is that of being hard workers. Even though my brother and sister and I are two generations removed from actual farming, I’d have to say that the family value of “putting in a honest day’s work” was definitely passed on to us through our father.
From my mother’s side of the family, I’d say that one of the family characteristics that’s been handed down is perseverance. My great-grandmother was born in 1886 in Oklahoma when it was still an Indian Territory. When she was three years old, her family packed everything they owned into a covered wagon and participated in the Land Rush of 1889. 50,000 people on horses and in wagons lined up along a starting line and at high noon on April 22, a gun was fired and they all took off to lay claim to some portion of 2 million acres that was available for settling down. Somewhere along this journey west, her brother died and they buried him along the trail. Only after they filed their land claim did they go get the body and bring it back it back to the family property. Life out West in those days was beyond tough. She married at the age of 18 and a year later gave birth to my grandfather, Bruce Wilson, in 1905. Based on family stories I’ve heard through the years, my grandfather’s early years were hard. And yet, despite all that, he managed to go to college and, eventually, seminary. He learned perseverance from his mom.
I don’t know a lot off the top of my head about my Grandma Wilson’s life growing up other than it was in Nebraska. What I do know is that when my mother was in 9th grade, her mom, my Grandma Wilson, was involved in a terrible car accident one Friday night in which she was ejected from the car (in the days before seatbelts) and landed on her head. She was in a coma for weeks, and every doctor who came into contact with her were of one professional opinion, that she would be in a vegetative state for the remainder of her life. Most people in a vegetative state have lost all capacity for awareness, thought, and conscious behavior, and require 24-hour care year-round. That’s what they said was in store for her.
Well, at some point she came out of her coma; she was fully aware. Then over time—a long time—she regained her strength and relearned how to use her hands and feet. Fast forward three years. She was healed enough to go back and renew her teacher’s certification, after which she taught elementary school and gave private piano lessons for many years. And if recovering from that accident wasn’t enough in the way of perseverance, she also persevered through many years of debilitating rheumatoid arthritis in her later years. My Grandma Wilson was the picture of perseverance.
And I’d say that in its own ways, that family characteristic has been passed along to us and reflected in how we live our lives. These “family traits” contribute to who I see myself to be.
The important role and place of family has been stated in different ways, but which make the same point:
- The family is the basic unit of society.
- The family is the nucleus of civilization.
- The family is the building block of society.
- The family is the foundation of society.
In other words, by God’s design, family is supposed to fulfill our basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, etc. It’s designed to ensures love and security for all the members of the family. And by design, it’s from the family that we start making social relationships, and develop and retain such relations. No one is an island unto themselves. Even loners aren’t 100% recluse. God designed human beings to be relational. At our core, we come to know who we are through the lens of relationship. And learning to be in relationship with others begins at the family level. Take that away, and we lose our sense of identity, of what makes each of us tick.
In ancient Judaism, the family unit was so important that they built into the Mosaic Law the requirement that where a family has two brothers and one of them dies without a son, the other brother is to marry his sister-in-law for the express purpose of having a son “so that [the dead man’s] name will not be forgotten in Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). The family unit was paramount for both survival and identity.
Hundreds of years later, a Jewish religious leader named Saul became a follower of Jesus Christ, and ended up being the greatest missionary the church has ever known. Today we know him as the Apostle Paul, the author of many of the letters which became the books of the New Testament. No doubt, Paul’s strict Jewish upbringing and education influenced his perspectives on family life. In his first letter to Timothy, he advises the young pastor on the matter of taking care of widows within the church. He writes, “Take care of widows who are truly needy. But if a particular widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn to respect their own family and repay their parents, because this pleases God. (In other words, younger family members should be taking care of their widowed relatives.) He goes on: “But if someone doesn’t provide for their own family, and especially for a member of their household, they have denied the faith. They are worse than those who have no faith” (see 1 Timothy 5:3-8). I have to think that Paul’s deep conviction about the obligation of family taking care of family is rooted in his Jewish upbringing. Family who fail to take care of family are worse than those who have no faith!
The family is the basic unit of society.
The family is the nucleus of civilization.
The family is the building block of society.
The family is the foundation of society
No doubt, as a Jew, Jesus grew up learning about the importance of family, and how family is expected to take care of each other in their time of need. This is why the remark he made from the cross to his mother and one of his disciples standing with her is so interesting.
Based on various Scriptural references in the Gospels, the book of Acts, and in Paul’s letters, we know that Jesus had brothers. The most well-known was James, an important leader in the first century church. At some point Jesus looked down and saw his mother, Mary, standing with one of his disciples (presumably John, but that’s only a guess, because he’s only identified as “the disciple whom he loved.”) When he speaks to them about their future wellbeing, it’s what he doesn’t say that’s notable. He doesn’t say, “Mother, when I’m gone you’ll be in good hands. I’m sure James and my other brothers will take good care of you.” And to the disciple standing with her he doesn’t say, “Make sure my brothers take good care of my mother in my absence.” By all accounts, that would have been a normal admonition from a dying son.
Instead, he says to Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:27). And the very next sentence in the story indicates that from that moment on, this disciple took Mary into his home.
Whose homes was she not taken into? Those of her sons. However, it probably wasn’t because they were unwilling to take care of her; she was their mother for goodness sake! Rather, it was because Jesus invited his mother and his disciple to be a new kind of family unit, one not bound by traditional lines of blood or marriage. Son, brother, sister, father, mother, daughter – these family relationships would be no longer limited to those who share the same parental lineage. In essence, Jesus spoke of a new way of being family.
There’s story in the Gospel of Luke of the time Jesus’ mother brothers come to see Jesus while he’s talking to a group of people who’ve gathered inside a building. But because of the size of the crowd, they can’t actually get to him. Eventually, word gets to Jesus that his mother and brother are outside, wanting to see him. Instead of politely excusing himself and stepping outside, he turns to the crowd and says, “My mother and brothers are those who listen to God’s word and do it” (Luke 8:19-21). Jesus isn’t trying to be rude, nor is he distancing or even divorcing himself from his family. He’s actually extending the definition of what it means to be family. In this case, all of those who do God’s will can be full members of this family.
So, when Jesus says, “Here is your son…here is your mother,” he’s doing more than ensuring his mother is cared for after his death. The relationship that Jesus’ mother and the disciple whom he loved share with Jesus, the same relationship we can share with Jesus, creates a new kind of family. The family Jesus created soon came to be called….the church.
From its inception, the church was designed to be a kind of family – a new kind of family. According to the book of Acts, the church was called into existence on Pentecost, weeks after Jesus’ ascension back into his heavenly glory. But some have suggested that the true inauguration of the church happened when Jesus presented Mary and the disciple he loved to each other as mother and son. Their new relationship as spiritual mother and spiritual son can be seen as the beginning of the new community that would form in the name of Jesus Christ who, according to Paul, made one unified people out of the many.
This morning we kicked off our worship by singing, In Christ there’s no east or west, in him no south or north; but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth. Where did this notion of the many becoming one come from? It came from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, in which he wrote that we are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. He says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male or female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26, 28).
Along this same line, in Ephesians 2 he says that “Christ is our peace. [As such,] he made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body (that is, through his physical crucifixion), he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us” (Galatians 2:14).
Why is this such a radical idea? Well, think about it. The world in which we live thrives on division. Some of it is playful and generally healthy, such as competing sports teams. But a lot of it leads to open hostility between people. And the unfortunate truth is that the church isn’t immune to division and hostility. Just like the family unit, as ordained by God as it is, also isn’t immune to division and hostility. But, if there’s any hope for a reduction is division, and even at times a true breaking down of the walls of hostility, it’s only going to be on account of Jesus Christ! If there’s one organization in this world that has the power built into it to break down divisions, it’s the body of Christ. That built-in power is the Holy Spirit.
You see, in Christ we are all brothers and sisters of the same family. Our family name is Jesus Christ. And in this family, skin color makes no distinction between us; home language makes no distinction between us; where we call home makes no distinction between us; educational level makes no distinction makes no distinction between us; social status, economic provisions, political preferences—everything that divides us according to the word’s standards—is irrelevant before Christ.
I experienced just a sliver of this on Friday evening when our church hosted a 40-Days of Prayer prayer gathering right here in this sanctuary. For an hour, brothers and sisters from across denominational lines came together to sit and pray together as one. And I have to say, it was powerful. Partly because those who were here on Friday represented a wider range of denominations than we’re typically used to. And when we began to pray, all those denominational identities melted away for a brief period of time. It was wonderful!
Even within our own congregation, we’re not all cut from the same cloth. Within our church family, we reflect a wide array of beliefs and viewpoints in politics, social issues, and some theological matters. We don’t all have the same preferences when it comes to worship, do we? And you know what? Some of us would prefer that our congregation remain United Methodist, and some of us would prefer that we align with the Global Methodist Church. We all know that our congregation reflects a wide view on this one matter that’s before us. But that’s no reason for us to be divided as a church family. Jesus is our standard. Jesus is our center. Jesus is our reason for being. And our mission will continue to be making disciples of Jesus Christ. We can fulfill this mission even if we’re not in agreement on everything.
We are indeed a family. We are sisters and brothers not by the blood of our ancestors but by the blood of Jesus Christ. And in this family, we value our commonalities and our differences. And what holds us together is actually not a what but a who: Jesus Christ, our head. Let’s pray…
Father, we’re your children, your sons and daughters. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we praise you for making of us one family. We thank you for breaking down the walls that so easily divide people, and for calling us to be united in our mission and purpose. Forgive us when we fail to live into this call…when we choose to be divided rather than being one in Christ. Forgive us when we allow our broken human ways to lead us rather than following the way of Christ. And strengthen us with your Spirit to be the kind of family you designed us to be. Your Word tells us that when one of us is hurting, we’re all hurting. Since this is so, enable us to truly be there for one another in our hurting. As we face the challenges ahead, we choose to follow Jesus, who is our head. We choose the difficult ways of peace and love and honesty. Through Christ we pray. Amen.