At the foot of the cross: Good Friday meditation

Original art by Scott Erickson www.scottericksonart.com

By  Fleming Rutledge –

“When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother. And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.” –John 19:26,27

The day of Jesus’ crucifixion was not — I am sorry to disappoint anyone —was not the first Mother’s Day. It was something infinitely more embracing, more universal, more radical. One of our best interpreters of the Gospel of John writes of this very simply: “At the time of the Lord’s death, a new family is brought into being.”[1] This, above all, was and is the goal of his life, his death, and his resurrection: to bind himself to a united fellowship of believers with whom he would abide forever. The New Testament calls this new family the ecclesia, the church. One of our popular hymns says it perfectly: “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. / She is his new creation, by water and the Word.”

And yet many of us don’t understand what is happening on Good Friday. We Americans tend to be a sentimental people. This makes it difficult for us to look directly into the horror, shame, and degradation of a death by crucifixion. In the case of this particular saying from the cross, our tendency toward sentimentality causes us to prefer the idea that this saying of our Lord on the cross is about taking good care of your mother. I am a mother, and I definitely want to be taken care of! But this is not what the Fourth Evangelist, John, wants us to understand. In the Fourth Gospel, the mother of our Lord plays a quite different role.

In one of John’s memorable stories, the marriage feast at Cana, Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, what have you to do with me? My hour is not yet come” (John 2:4). In English, this sounds very rude. In Greek it is more respectful, but we notice that Jesus does not call her “Mother,” and she responds to him not as his mother, but as one of his followers – one who is beginning to have a glimmering of an idea about who he is. She says to the servant, “Whatever he tells you, do it” (v. 5). She is learning to be his disciple. That’s what Mary represents in the Gospel of John. She does not appear again in the Fourth Gospel – except in passing and in company with others – until his hour actually does come and he is crucified.

From the cross, once again Jesus calls her “woman” rather than “Mother.” Her identity as Jesus’ mother is not important to John. It’s striking that John never uses the name Mary for Jesus’ mother. The Marys in his Gospel are those other true disciples, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene. In fact, it’s remarkable how rarely the mother of Jesus is called Mary at all in the New Testament, except in those famous first chapters in Luke – the nativity story. As the New Testament presents her, when her son enters upon his ministry, she becomes a follower as others do, and like those others, she is a beloved member of the new family that comes into being through the power of Christ’s death. In John’s Gospel, she stands out as a particularly faithful disciple, one who follows Jesus through his ministry from the beginning even to its ghastly end at Golgotha. So, when he speaks to her and to the beloved disciple (traditionally John himself) from the cross, he is giving two unrelated believers to one another. He gives his mother to him and him to her, in a completely new kinship that infinitely transcends blood kinship.

The evangelist tells us that the beloved disciple takes the mother of Jesus to his own home “from that hour.” It’s of great significance that John uses the phrase “that hour.” This doesn’t mean that John and Mary took off for John’s house right that minute. The idea of “the hour” is the heart and center of the Fourth Gospel; John has shaped his whole narrative around it. Throughout, Jesus speaks of his hour – “My hour is not yet come,” and then finally, the day after Palm Sunday, he declares, “my hour has come” (John 17:1). For John, it’s the turning point in the Lord’s earthly life. The Lord’s passion is about to begin.

What initiates Jesus’ declaration? The moment when Jesus proclaims that his hour has come is the moment when, for the first time, a group of Gentiles comes to seek him out. They come to the disciple Philip and say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12.:21). This event — the arrival of the Gentiles —is the inaugural event of Jesus’ “hour,” the hour of crucifixion, of Jesus being “lifted up” as he said he would be – “when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all [humanity] to myself” (John 12:32). Pilate, not knowing what he is doing, orders an inscription to be nailed up on Jesus’ cross: “The King of the Jews.” It is written – listen to this – written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (John 30 19:10). Do you see? Hebrew is the language of the Jewish nation, but now – in this “hour” of crucifixion – the King of the Jews is revealed as the King of the empire, the true Ruler of the world and all the people in it. This is the hour of the remaking of the cosmos and the reconciliation of human relationships.

And at the same time that his universal kingship is announced, Jesus turns his failing eyesight down to the people standing on the trash-strewn ground covered with blood and human waste and gives these two disciples to one another. These two who remain at the cross represent to us the beginning of the church in the moment of her Lord’s degradation and suffering unto death. Again the hymn: “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord … with his own blood he bought her and for her life he died.”

Taking the Gospel and the Epistles of John together, no writings in the New Testament are more concerned with the church than John. You wouldn’t necessarily notice this, however, if you read the Gospel without looking for it. Our typical American individualism tends always to focus on the single, supposedly autonomous person, so we typically read the Bible through that lens. And it’s true that for the first two-thirds of the Gospel, John features a striking number of personal, intimate conversations between Jesus and single individuals: the Samaritan woman, Nicodemus, the man born blind, Thomas, Martha of Bethany, Mary Magdalene. These stories stand out because they are beautifully crafted by John, a master dramatist. So, most people tend to read the Fourth Gospel that way. But the overwhelming emphasis in John is not on individuals, but on the organic connection that Jesus creates among those who put their trust in him. This theme reaches its apex in chapters 15 and 16, during the last hours of his life on earth, when he teaches, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5).

There is no other way to be a disciple of Jesus than to be in communion with other disciples of Jesus. Why do you suppose the Lord didn’t separate out each one of his followers, stand us up separately, pronounce us each a unique individual, and then bid us go off and create ourselves? He did the opposite; instead of making us independent and self-centered, he makes us mutually interdependent and other­directed. The night before he died, he washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-20). He told them, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another even as I have loved you…. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). And he prayed long and earnestly for them, the long “high priestly” prayer of chapter 17: “Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as [you and I] are one” (John 17:11).

The love that breaks down barriers, the love that “endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), the love that forgets self and focuses entirely on the well-being of the beloved community – that is the love of the Father and the Son for each other and the love of the Son for us. This is not abstract. It is worked out in self-giving. But the love that Christ enacts and commands for his followers cannot be enacted in isolation. A young man who said, “Jesus and me, we’ve got our own thing goin’ on” is sadly lacking in his understanding of what it means to abide in Jesus. Dorothy Day, the revered Catholic writer and activist, said repeatedly, “You can’t practice love without community.” As many analysts have lamented, our culture is in danger of losing this sense of community. I read something interesting in two different sources recently. People who do studies of marriages have learned that married couples thrive best when they get together frequently with friends. The much-recommended “date night,” one on one, is apparently not as therapeutic as a couple gathering with others. After nearly sixty years of marriage, I can speak to this: my husband and I thrive when we have guests – any guests, but we flourish particularly when we have guests who also know and love the Lord.

A beloved British play called Journey’s End, about soldiers in World War I, has recently been made into a film. It last appeared live on Broadway in 2007. It’s an ensemble play with several actors and no stars. Each actor has his own individuality, but each has more or less the same time on stage and each is equally important to the whole. There was an interview with the actors in the 2007 production. Here’s what one of them said: “[Our director] said again and again that everything you do onstage is for someone else, it’s never about you. That was such a wonderful thing to think of.”[2] Isn’t that remarkable? This culture of ours is so focused on thinking about our own selves. “My time, my space, myself” – that’s just one advertising slogan out of so many. We are urged on a daily basis to be good to ourselves, develop ourselves, believe in ourselves, and yet here is this actor saying how wonderful it is to think of participating in something that was never about you, always for the good of the whole. That’s the church when it’s working the way it’s supposed to. This is why Cyprian of Carthage said eighteen hundred years ago, “You cannot have God as your Father unless you have the Church as your mother.”

Another interview that struck me was with the famous contemporary artist Frank Stella. His latest work had just been exhibited to great acclaim. Yet he “did not seem to feel any pressure to blow the horn for his new work.” He said, “Making art, for me, is the opportunity to be free of one’s own identity. It’s not about finding one’s identity, no matter what the psychologists say. It’s about losing one’s identity. I want to make something great that applies to everyone. Then I myself can be submerged.”[3]

When the community that Christ died for is working the way it’s supposed to, that is what is going on. It’s hard, sometimes, to put this across, because it’s so easy to dismiss the church out of hand. The church can break your heart with its sin. It’s broken my heart a few times. Every day brings some new revelation about the awful things that have been done by the church. It’s much easier to say, as many do, I can be a Christian without the church. But this is to renounce a most basic and fundamental message of Jesus throughout his ministry, and, as John dramatizes it, it is shown forth most of all from the cross, in Jesus’ death. He is giving you to me and me to you. The disciples of Christ today as two thousand years ago are drawn together in mutual love of our Lord.

For all its sins, though they be many, the church is still the Body of Christ himself.

You are loved by our Lord. There is no limit to the love of Christ which overcomes the sin within his Body. Please come back.

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopal priest, a best-selling author, and widely-recognized preacher whose published sermon collections have received acclaim across denominational lines. Her other books include Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ and The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. 

This article is adapted from a sermon that Rev. Rutledge preached on Good Friday on the Seven Last Words of Jesus at St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York City.The article is excerpted and adapted from Three Hours: Sermons for Good Friday by Fleming Rutledge ©2019 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved. You can obtain a copy on Amazon: https://smile.amazon.com/Three-Hours-Sermons-Good-Friday/dp/0802877192/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1555524485&sr=8-1

Notes

  1. E.C. Hoskyns, The Fourth Gospel (1947), 530.
  2. Melena Ryzik, “A Regiment of Actors Falls In, Night After Night,” interview of cast ofJourney’s End, The New York Times, March 13, 2007.
  3. “Critic’s Notebook: Frank Stella Builds a Landmark Out of Romanticism and Steel; A Monumental Sculpture Is Headed for Washington,” New York Times, May 17, 1001.

 

 

Comments

  1. Lynn Higginbotham says

    Thank you Fleming Rutledge for an excellent message on the meaning of the Cross and the supreme message of love that Jesus gave to the world through his life and sacrificial crucifixion on our behalf. There is just so much that, as you point out, we miss in our reading the bible if we do stop and pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us and open our hearts to truly seek meaning in every word of scripture. We, the church, must stop fighting each other and we must stop ignoring the Way, the Life, and the Truth. Jesus is our Lord, and Savior, and Master. All those who claim to be Christians and followers of Jesus Christ had better check the purposes for which they fight and be sure they are standing on solid ground, not shifting sands. Thank you so much for your encouraging and motivating message.

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