Gospel Reading: John 18:1-19:42
On one occasion, Jesus is teaching about demon possession and a crowd is gathering to hear him. A woman in the crowd cries out:
‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ (Luke 11:27)
Jesus’ reply is direct:
‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ (Luke 11:28)
Jesus never gave easy answers or let people get away with things. His concern was with bringing the Word of God to them. We don’t know who this woman was or what exactly was on her mind when she cried out. It seems that she was impressed by Jesus. If she was a mother herself, perhaps she thought how proud Jesus’ mother ought to be of her son and of herself for raising him. We say similar things today. We will say to a mother that she must be very proud of her son or daughter. Or to a son or daughter that their mother has done a good job in bringing them up. Or to put it more colloquially, we might say to a mother that she is lucky to have such a good son! The woman who cries out is saying that Jesus’ mother must be very happy at giving birth to Jesus. Mothers, for their part, will often be proud of their son and daughter if they do well, even if they don’t always understand what it is that they do!
For Jesus, however, all this is very much besides the point. What matters to him are not human ties or praise but whether people hear the Word of God and keep it. Jesus has said things like this before. On a previous occasion, Jesus’ mother and brothers have come looking for him, but can’t get to him because of the crowd. Jesus is told that they are outside, Jesus answers:
‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’ (Luke 8:21)
So why am I talking about this today of all days? During Holy Week and Easter this year, I am looking at four of the characters involved in the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. We looked at Judas on Palm Sunday and Peter last night for Maundy Thursday. Today, for Good Friday, I want to consider the Blessed Virgin Mary, and ask what she might have to teach us as we think especially today of our Lord’s death.
On Easter Sunday, we will be thinking about another Mary, St Mary Magdalene. There are a lot of Marys in the Gospels! We thought about yet another Mary, St Mary of Bethany on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. In our Gospel reading, St John writes that there were three Mary’s standing near the Cross: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; and Mary, the wife of Clopas. It perhaps comes as no surprise, then, to learn that Mary was the most popular girl’s name at the time. One estimate is that a quarter of all girls in the Holy Land at this time were called Mary. In the Scriptures, Mary (from the Greek version of her name), or Miriam (from the Hebrew and Aramaic), was the sister of Moses, hence the popularity of the name. It can, though, get quite confusing!
I have spoken quite a lot about the Blessed Virgin Mary in recent months in the sermons for the Feasts of the Annunciation, Assumption, and Immaculate Conception. I don’t want to repeat what I said in them. [The sermons are still available online for those who may be interested!]
You may, however, be wondering why I am speaking about the Blessed Virgin Mary at all on Good Friday. Indeed, many Protestants would argue that the two incidents in the life of our Lord that I have just mentioned suggest that we shouldn’t be talking about the Blessed Virgin Mary at any time, except perhaps to give her a mention when we think of the birth of our Lord at Christmas.
Those who think like this, have, ironically, more in common with the woman in the crowd, who cries out that the one who bore and nursed Jesus is blessed, than they might imagine. They think Mary did her bit by providing her womb and nurturing Jesus at her breasts when he was a baby. Like the woman in the crowd, they think it is her physical usefulness that Mary is blessed for, but that and nothing else.
Others would be prepared to credit Mary for her obedience and admire her for her faith, but only in the same way that we admire those other figures in the Bible who showed obedience and faith. Mary herself, they think, has nothing more to offer us now. Our concern, they argue, is not with Mary, who is just another human being no different to us. What matters now is hearing the Word of God and keeping it. What they forget, of course, is that the incarnation took place precisely because Mary heard the Word of God and kept it. Mary is blessed for her faith and obedience, and not only for her womb and breasts.
What is more, if Mary has no further relevance to us now, what we have just read in our Gospel reading this morning seems a bit strange. St John tells us that as Jesus is dying, the last words he speaks directly to anyone are to his mother and about his mother. As Jesus hangs on the Cross, seeing the Beloved Disciple and his mother standing nearby, Jesus says to his mother: ‘Woman, here is your son.’ And then to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ (John 19:27)
Many are resistant to seeing anything in this other than an understandable, but purely human concern, of a son for the welfare of his mother. But is it really so simple? Has the Blessed Virgin Mary got no further part to play apart from being the one who bore and raised God’s Son? Many sincere believers are convinced that this is her only role she and that there is certainly now no ongoing role for Mary in the life of the Church and the individual believer.
Today, the last thing the Blessed Virgin Mary would want is for us to have an argument about her and her role. But St John’s Gospel, of all the four Gospels, is a Gospel with many layers of meaning, and St John loves to use symbolism to convey truth. It is legitimate to ask about whether there is a deeper meaning to Jesus’ words than Jesus simply wanting to find somewhere for his mother to live when he has gone.
After all, Jesus did have four brothers and some sisters (Mark 6:3), so if it’s his mother’s physical welfare Jesus is concerned about, you would think he would entrust her to them. Instead, Jesus entrusts his mother, not to any physical relative, but to the Beloved Disciple, who, we are told, from that hour took her into his own home (John 19:27). The Cross is Jesus’ hour (John 12:27). It is what he came for. His hour is also the time when his family, the Church, begins to come together as his Beloved Disciple and his mother live with one another.
There are two traditions about what happened next. The first is that the Apostle John and the Blessed Virgin Mary stayed in Jerusalem and that the Blessed Virgin Mary lived another 11 years until the end of her earthly life. The second is that she went with the Apostle John, who is identified as the Beloved Disciple, to Ephesus. I personally incline to the Ephesus tradition, but it is impossible to be sure.
Regardless of whether they stayed in Jerusalem or went to Ephesus, in any culture, but particularly the culture of the time, that it was not a family member who looked after Jesus’ mother after his death would seem a bit odd. Why the Beloved Disciple?
In St John’s Gospel, the Beloved Disciple is both one of Jesus’ disciples and someone who is representative of all those who hear the Word of God and keep it. He is one of those that Jesus describes as his ‘mother and brother’. The first mention of the beloved Disciple is at the Last Supper. In most of our translations the Beloved Disciple is described as reclining next to Jesus at the Meal (John 13:23-25). Reclining was the normal posture at a formal meal. The translations, however, are all being a little coy when they translate it as ‘reclining next to Jesus’ or ‘by Jesus’ side’. A more literal translation has:
‘There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved.’ (John 13:23 NASB)
In these highly sexualized days, we can understand the translators’ concern about translating it literally, but again, I think that St John wants us see another layer of meaning here. Jesus will tell his disciples later during the evening that they must ‘abide in him’ (John 15:1-11). The Beloved Disciple, the ‘one whom Jesus loves’, is the one who abides in Jesus and who has Jesus’ word abiding in him. He represents all those who hear the Word of God and keep it.
As I have said, it is Mary herself who is the first to keep the Word, keeping it in faith before keeping him physically in her womb. When the Blessed Virgin Mary is told by the angel that she will ‘conceive in her womb’ and will bear a son who shall be called the ‘son of the Most High’, Mary’s response is:
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)
Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist says to her:
‘… blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Luke 1:45)
Blessed is she indeed!
We have no idea what life was like for mother and son during the years in which he was growing up and working in Nazareth. Was there no conversation between them about his identity or at least about his intentions? Maybe there was more than we imagine.
After Jesus has gathered the first disciples around him (John 1:35-51), Jesus goes, St John tells us, three days later with his disciples to a wedding at Cana in Galilee, where his mother is also present (John 2:1-11). It is his mother who tells him that they have run out of wine. Why tell him? Understandably, Jesus asks his mother what it’s got to do with them. His mother knows and understands her Son. She says to the servants:
‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it.’ (John 2:5)
Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and do it!
After this his first miracle, Jesus goes with his mother, brothers and disciples to Capernaum (John 2:12), the home of Peter, where he now makes his own home (Matthew 4:13). Jesus’ physical brothers, St John will tell us, do not yet believe in him (John 7:5). They will, but for now, Jesus’ disciples are his spiritual brothers, the ones who will be his witnesses and continue his work after he returns to the Father.
Before his death, Jesus gives two gifts to his disciples. We thought about one of them last night, the gift of a Meal in which he gives his body and blood to remember him by. Today, Jesus gives his mother to be the mother of all those who, like the Beloved Disciple, abide in him and keep his word and who, in the Meal and the Mother they share, together form his spiritual family.
Today, as we gather at Cross, Jesus invites us to join his family with his Mother, the Beloved Disciple and all those who hear the Word of God and keep it. Put that like that, it sounds like an invitation we cannot refuse. But before we rush to join, we need to pause and consider the head of the family for he is the One who is nailed to the Cross and who is bleeding to death.
Secretly, we respond by saying to ourselves that that’s OK. In three days’ time, we will be able to forget the blood and the nails, the crown of thorns, and the pain and suffering of the one who wears it. We will have flowers back in Church, the altar will once again be adorned, and the talk will all be sweetness and light.
I am sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not the family we are being invited to join. We are being invited to join a family who every time they sit down together for a meal, remember Jesus’ death and feast on his body given for them and his blood shed for them. Forget it? He has made sure we remember it. We cannot live without it.
Simeon said to Mary when she and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple, that a sword would pierce her own soul too (Luke 2:35). The family we are invited to join is a family that knows pain. But again we ask, ‘Isn’t that over now that Jesus has suffered and died?’ I am afraid not. Jesus said:
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.’ (Luke 9:23-24)
Being a part of the family of the Crucified One means taking up our Cross, denying ourselves, and dying to self. Jesus’ death shows us what our life should look like. But who would want to join such a family? Those who hear the Word of God and keep it, says Jesus.
To keep it, though, we need to understand it, and that means understanding why his death is so important and so central. St Paul writes to believers in the Church at Corinth:
‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures …’ (1 Corinthians 15:3)
St John writes:
‘… but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 John 1:7)
His death matters to us, because without it our sins can’t be forgiven and we can’t be cleansed.
We, however, don’t like all this talk of death either our Lord’s or our own. This is why today will be a day many will want to pass by quickly and leave behind. We can’t wait to begin preparing for the Easter Sunday and to celebrating Jesus’ resurrection rather than his death. Of course, the resurrection matters. Discussions about which is more important Jesus’ resurrection or his death completely miss the point. It is in his death that his work was accomplished. The resurrection is the God’s vindication of the work Jesus has finished on the Cross. It is God who raised Jesus from the dead. If Christ is not risen his death has been in vain. But his death was not in vain. Sin has been defeated, evil conquered, and his Church born.
As we will see on Sunday, the Risen Christ will tell Mary Magdalene to go to his brothers and say to them:
‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ (John 20:17)
Mary Magdalene will go to his disciples, his brothers who hear the Word of God and keep it. They will be hiding behind closed doors ‘for fear of the Jews’ (John 20:19), but the time will soon come that, as they are gathered there with the mother of Jesus (Acts 1:14), the Holy Spirit will fall on them as he fell on Mary, and the family of those who hear the Word of God and keep it will begin to grow.
Without realizing it, the Pharisees and scribes got it right when they said of Jesus, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them (Luke 15:2).’ Today, Jesus welcomes us sinners. He welcomes those whose lives are messed up, who have made mistakes, and who are struggling with guilt for the wrong they have done; he welcomes those who are hurting, who are suffering because of the wrong that has been done to them, and those who want more from life than what a materialistic society can offer.
He welcomes them at the Meal that he gave and, as we sinners eat together and have fellowship with one another, we proclaim his death until he comes, the death that offers us the forgiveness and peace we long for. It is in this his family that we find the strength we need to serve him and others, and in losing ourselves and dying with him, that we find our life.
St John writes that the Word of God came unto his own but his own received him not (John 1:11). On Good Friday, we see him rejected. But St John continues to tell us that as many as received him he gave power to become children of God (John 1:12).
As the Word of God completes the work he came to do, he invites us sinners to find forgiveness in him and become children of God as members of the family of those who hear the Word of God and keep it.
May we today respond in faith as Mary did: ‘Let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38).’