John 18:1-19:42

With appreciation to Carlyle Marney for many of the ideas developed in this meditation.

Jesus responds to his first interrogation by Annas. The former high priest demands an accounting of Jesus’ teaching and of his disciples. “Ask those who heard what I said” Jesus replies. “I have done nothing in secret.”

Many testify with their lives. Some of those he taught and touched stay close: grieving women, one loyal disciple, a bystander offers some sour wine, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus find courage to step out of the shadows.

Others from the inner circle betray him or sequester themselves in a safe place.

Those who oppose his life and teaching turn their hostility to testing, torture and torment. Police and soldiers abuse him. Religious and civil authorities judge him. The opportune divide his few earthly garments. Barrabas receives a pardon that costs Jesus his life.

Of all those who gathered at the cross, the early church found the presence of women something it did not wish to forget. Each gospel tells us the women gathered there. Although others kept the painful vigil, John names these three: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary his aunt and Mary of Magdala. Throughout human history, across cultures and countries, humankind has easily and willingly delegated the task of mourning to women. Here they stand.

We do not know about Jesus’ aunt; whether she grieves more for him or for her sister. His return to their hometown had embarrassed the family; left them wondering about his sanity. Whose suffering brings her here? We can only imagine the depth of Mary Magdalene’s pain. Jesus freed her from the grasp of evil spirits, redeemed her life. Her heart breaks at the sight of him hanging in such agony.

One among these three women witnesses the unthinkable. No parent anticipates that their child will precede them in death. No parent expects capital punishment for their child. Something has gone terribly awry. Mary’s son is dying: so close, and yet just out of her reach.

Given her youthful, angel visions, surely Mary could have anticipated an easier life. In those days, a widow and a mother had her children, not social security, Medicare, or a pension to rely on. Her children cared for her, nursed her, and provided for her in her old age. Mary’s boy is dying. What will become of her now? (Barbara Brown Taylor)

Carlyle Marney, that fine preacher, challenges us to imagine all the ways Mary could have spoiled Messiah, could have ruined the Christ. If Mary had told Jesus all the things she knew and remembered, all she had experienced in her own body, all she had pondered in her heart, she could have turned him into an arrogant Savior.

We find no indication in all of Scripture that Jesus learns anything from Mary of the things she holds so carefully inside; of the angel visits to a young girl; of a profound “yes”; of wonders tucked quietly away in the chambers of her heart.

Her decision costs her everything, even her child.

Dying a humiliating, agonizing death on the cross, his clothes have already been stripped from him. He has no money, no land, no security to offer; only a word. Looking down at her, from the place where they have nailed him, through the haze of his pain he speaks to her. He does not say goodbye or thanks or “I love you”. He does not call her mother. He calls her woman; the same as at the wedding at Cana of Galilee. “Woman, behold you son” he says. And to the beloved disciple, “Behold your mother.” (Frederick Buechner)

In this moment, Jesus does an astonishing thing. He passes over his brothers and gives his mother to the disciple whom he love whose name we do not know.

The most important thing about this disciple is that Jesus loves him. And while we do not know the why of the love, we do know that of all of the male disciples, only he stands here at the cross. Only he stands with Mary, putting himself in danger. After Jesus gives them one to the other, the Gospel tells us that the beloved disciple — in my favorite translation—“takes Mary into his own”.

In this word we see an act of great compassion and mercy. I wonder if it felt that way to Mary?

Small comfort for her years of discretion, for all the years of being pushed aside; small comfort after the promise of this son’s birth. Jesus speaks something powerfully more here than a word of caretaking for the one he calls woman. He speaks of a more profound love, of deeper sweetness, of a mystical connection that will bind him to those who believe in him for all eternity. He speaks the first words of new creation; the words of painful new birth, of radically re-arranged relationships.

The principalities and powers sense the victory of having torn his family and followers apart. Jesus quickly begins putting a family of new faithfulness together. According to other Gospels, Jesus speaks two times from the cross to his father. Then, he turns to Mary—calls her woman—and links her—as mother—to another beloved, another son, another beloved son. (Barbara Brown Taylor)

Mary and the beloved disciple find themselves drawn by Jesus into a mysterious loving union in which he will continue to be present with them, even after he has gone from them. He will be present in their love, in their care, in their sharing of life and being. He will be present in what lives between them.

A richness of faith and life grows between them and spreads to others. For when the beloved disciple takes her home and other disciples emerge from their hiding places, they find themselves in the presence of a woman whose contact with the Holy Spirit is far more intimate than their own. (Barbara Brown Taylor)

She has seen things outside their experience, felt things in her body beyond their imagining, pondered things they never knew possible about the one they all loved.

Jesus, at the hour of his death, does as he has done before. He calls on a friend and feels no need to explain or apologize for what he asks. He does not negotiate with Mary or with the beloved disciple. He simply says “There she is, your mother” and “Woman, there he is, your son.”

No sentimental moment, this one. Rather a word of love for all eternity. Spoken by the most fully human and most fully divine one it is still our deep privilege to know; spoken that we might know on this dark day and in all the days to come what it means to love this Jesus, and the one who sent him, and the others whom he loves, and all that lies and lives in between.

Today, here we stand: at the foot of the cross. What bonds of love, what re-arrangement of life and circumstance, what opening of heart and life will bind us to Jesus for all eternity?

These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication.

Resources

Carlyle Marney, “Behold thy Mother,” He Became Like Us

Barbara Brown Taylor, “Mother of the New,” Home by Another Way

Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures

Additional Resources: