Sermon: Living Crossways With The World: Modern Family
Scripture: John 19: 25-27
The other night I got home fairly late in the evening after a long day and an evening meeting, and was looking forward to a little relaxation in my recliner, watching a little T.V. but discovered, as I often do these days, that there wasn’t much worth watching on T.V. It has become such a waste land. It used to be that most of the popular television shows were little morality plays that tried to elevate us to a higher level. Good would win out. The heroes would always triumph. And, as kids, we would want to be like them. The TV characters would be our role models. But now, it almost seems as though T.V. is intent on pulling us down to the lowest common denominator. There are several shows for instance that explore escalating levels of violence against one another. And don’t get me started on the so called family shows. You know the ones. They portray dysfunction as the real family values of today. Where are the shows that present a more traditional view of family life? What would those even look like? And so, with that thought in mind, we continue thinking about the last words of Christ from the Cross and come now to Jesus words about family.
Adam Hamilton is the pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, and In his reflection on the final words of Jesus he tells of a parishioner by the name of Robbie, whose 31 year old son (nearly the same age as Jesus) had died in a tragic accident. And after a sermon in which Hamilton had preached about Mary, and her role in the Christmas story, Robbie came to him and said: “Adam, I’ve never told anyone this, but every time you preach about Mary, I feel a connection to her. I feel I know what she must have experienced in the death of her son. And she must know what I have experienced. When you lose a child, you lose part of yourself as a woman. He was your flesh and blood. I feel Mary’s pain, having lost a son. It is absolutely catastrophic devastation at first.” Some of you have experienced that kind of devastation in your lives. Mary’s story strikes a chord of familiarity for all of those who have lost loved ones – sons and daughters, parents, spouses. And tinged with Mary’s despair over what was happening to Jesus, there also must have been some concern over what was going to happen to her now. She was a widow with apparently only the one son to take care of her and he was about to die. She knew that widows alone did not fare well in 1st Century Jewish society if they had no family to care for them. And certainly these words imply that Mary had no family apart from Jesus. Now we puzzle at that a little because there are other places in scripture that appear to talk about Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Why wouldn’t one of them step up and take care of Mary after Jesus’ death? Well there are at least a couple of possible explanations for that. First would be that the brothers and sisters that are referred to are really half brothers and sisters. The assumption is that since Joseph was much older than Mary, that he was married before and that these are Joseph’s children and so really no connection with Mary. They would not be obligated to care for her. Or a second explanation is that Jesus did not trust any of his brothers enough to step up and care for her. But for whatever the reason, there are apparently no family members to take care of Mary. In essence, condemning Jesus to the cross also condemned Mary to death. And so in the moments before his death, and in the noise and the chaos of that moment, these tender words rise above the crowd. Jesus the condemned, is taking care of His mother. My mother will be 90 years old in May and in the last few months her health has been in decline. We’ve spent the last few days moving her from the assisted living area to the skilled nursing area of Wesley Village. It’s been a difficult decision to make but in the end we did what was best for her. And in the end she was willing to make the transition because I told her it was okay. I understand Jesus’ need to take care of His mother. Leighton Farrell writes:
What makes death so difficult for so many is not the thought of dying but the thought of those who are left behind. What will become of them? Who will watch over them? Who will care for them? What will they do when the one who has loved and cared for them is gone?
Often times when a doctor gives a patient a prognosis that what they have will be fatal, they include the warning that “you’d better get your affairs in order.” That is what Jesus is doing here. He really has no earthly goods to leave for anyone but He does have Mary who will need to be cared for. And so Jesus, who was on the cross in part because he didn’t always follow the Jewish law, now steps beyond the law once more in order to provide for His mother. Leaving her in the care of John would not have been according to the law. And so the scribes and the Pharisees must have been shocked to hear Jesus say: “Woman, see John, he is your son. And John, see Mary, she is your mother.” With these words Jesus lifts the concerns of the family above that of the law.
But this is only the beginning of a most difficult teaching for the religious Jews at the Cross. There is more happening here. I think with these words Jesus redefines the definition of what family is, not according to the law but in the eyes of God. And that’s where these words from the cross become very hard for us to hear. Because, you see, many would like to take this concern for his mother and draw from them the conclusion that Jesus was a champion of traditional family values. But I think that might be a stretch if we place them along side other statements Jesus made about the family. In fact, there is some evidence that in the eyes of the world Jesus’ family was a dysfunctional family. Now stay with me here because we would like to see Jesus as the champion of family values and use these words from the cross as evidence of that but we need to think about that. Jesus was conceived and born out of wedlock. Certainly we know now that those were extraordinary circumstances. But to the people of 4 BC Nazareth, Mary was a sinner, an unwed mother, who at the very least should be shunned by Joseph and if the letter of the law was followed, some believed that she should be stoned to death. The only thing that saved her was the fact that Joseph stood by her. In fact, she felt like such an outcast among her own people that she chose to make the long hard trip to Bethlehem when she was in the last days of her pregnancy rather than be left behind by herself in Nazareth. She probably thought it would be safer. And there are other evidences of dysfunction in Jesus family. In fact, dare I say it, there is evidence that Jesus does not place high priority in what we would describe as the traditional family. His concept of family is crossways with the world. For example, when He was twelve years old, he went with Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem for the passover. But rather than start the journey home with them, he stayed behind to learn in the Temple. And when they found him there a few days later, he says to them:
What’s the big deal, you should have known I would be about my father’s business.
I wonder if when he heard this, Joseph the carpenter, looked around and thought there is no need for a carpenter in the Temple that he was aware of. What was Jesus talking about “His Father’s business?
At the wedding in Cana when the wine ran out, Mary frantically sought out Jesus. Jesus, you can do something about this. And Jesus, essentially says, What are you talking about? It’s not my problem. I’m not ready for this?
And when he called the first disciples to follow him, he basically called on them not only to drop their nets and abandon their boats and leave behind their father to fend for himself.
One day when he was teaching in the synagogue, some came to him and said, “Your mother and brothers are outside and want you to come and see them.” And Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
It is not that surprising then that when he looked out from the Cross for someone to care for Mary, none of His brothers would have been there. Scripture makes it clear that his brothers did not really support his ministry. Their lack of presence at the Cross was like them saying: We tried to warn him. But he wouldn’t listen to us.”
And He made other statements that were not really family friendly, like: “I’ve come to turn father against son, mother against daughter.”
Once when he called one to follow him, the man said: “My father just died. I need to go bury him and then I’ll join you.” And Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead. You come follow me.” I read about a preacher who was asked to preach at a University Chapel for worship on Parents Weekend and he read the story of Jesus calling the Disciples and in the process asking them to leave their father behind. And then he closed his Bible and looked out at all of those parents who had brought their daughters and sons to that campus and who were getting ready to leave them there, and he said: “Jesus broke the hearts of many a first century family”. Not very family friendly
These words of Jesus are crossways with the world’s understanding of the conventional family.
I love the story that William Willimon tells from his days as Chaplain at Duke University. He writes:
My last graduation weekend as a campus minister, I said to a young woman who was a graduating senior, who had been an active participant in the campus ministry, “I want to meet your parents this weekend. Will they be at graduation?”
“I wouldn’t advise that,” she said. “My mother’s really mad at you.”
“Me? Why on earth would your mother be mad at me.” I asked.
“Because she’s (upset) that I’m thinking about going into mission work with the poor. She blames you for putting all this religious stuff in my head. I think she liked the old me that she once had better than the new me who’s working with Jesus.
And then he goes on to comment: At Duke, in twenty years as chaplain, I had maybe ten or twelve angry, anxious phone calls from parents. Never did they say, “Help! I sent my child to the university and he got addicted to alcohol,” or “Help! I sent my child to college and she became promiscuous.” No, the calls I got were, “Help, I sent my child to Duke and she became a religious fanatic.” Religious fanatic defined as, “she’s going on a two year mission to Haiti.”
Jesus, the one who so disrupted conventional families, is, on the cross, forming a new family.
You see, if we look at these words of Jesus from the cross as simply an affirmation of the conventional family, we are missing something essential. In that day, for the Jewish people, there was no greater social or religious attachment then the family. Their country was under siege. The temple was corrupt. Your family of origin pretty much dictated who you were and even where you could go. Sons were identified through their father. Jesus was often referred to as the carpenter’s son. And he was Jesus of Nazareth because that’s where his family was from. One of the criticisms directed at the claim that Jesus was the Messiah was that He was from Nazareth and Nazareth wasn’t even a priestly city. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Before people could accept Jesus as the Messiah and embrace a new religious order they had to get beyond that idea of the conventional family. And the idea that Mary could somehow become the mother of John, and John could somehow become Mary’s son in place of Jesus, would defy everything that they understood about the traditional family. Jesus wasn’t just saying John I want you to take care of my mother for me. He was saying John I want you to love Mary like a mother. This becomes even more astonishing when we understand that John’s own mother was also there at the Cross. And she was probably Mary’s sister. What kind of modern family is this? What Jesus was proposing at the Cross was not a picture of a family that was based on biology or origin. What he had in mind was a family that was based on God’s love. He is teaching that human love is simply the reflection of divine love. And those that we love with divine love are our family. Jesus had put that in perspective when He had said to the Disciples at the last supper:
My children I will be with you only a little longer. (So) a new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this love all will know that you are mine.
The Christian family is a family that has love not birthright as it’s foundation. Jesus idea of family is Crossways with the world because it does not conform to the conventional understandings and limitations associated with the family in the first century or the 21st century. In essence, Jesus was saying to Mary, “There’s John, love him as a son, as I have loved Him as a brother.” And to John, “There’s Mary, love her as a mother, as I have loved her.” Jesus’ love brings everyone together into His family, no matter who we are, or where we were born, or what our lineage is, when we love as He loves us. In Christ’s love, everyone becomes our brother and sister, parent and child. With these words, every adoption agency that has ever arranged an adoption, and every agency that has ever placed a foster child in a home came into existence. Fleming Rutledge, says that both John and Mary “represent the way that family ties are transcended in the church by the ties of the Spirit.” Adam Hamilton tells this story:
Roger is an elementary school teacher. One night, many years ago, he was working late. As he was leaving the school long after dark, he noticed one of his students, a boy named Johnathan, swinging on the playground by himself. He asked the little boy why he was on the play ground so late by himself and learned that his mother had left the family and his father worked all night and couldn’t really care for him. Roger put his arm around the boy and assured him that everything would be okay and took him home. But after that night he began to take a special interest in Johnathan and began to help him all he could. Eventually the boy was placed in foster care while his father tried to get his life together. He began to bounce back and forth between his father’s care and foster care. Eventually, seeing how much he had helped the boy, the father asked Roger if he would take Johnnathon into his home. Roger did and welcomed him as though he were his own son. He offered Johnnathon a radically different future then he would have otherwise had. Johnnathan began to thrive. He grew up to be a remarkable young man. He went to college and graduated and he fell in love with a beautiful young woman and married her and together they went to South Africa to work with the poor, and then they returned to Chicago and started a mission for inner city boys who have no place to call home. And Pastor Hamilton concludes the story with these words: Johnnathan and Roger’s story is important to me because the woman he married was my daughter. From the day she was born, I began to pray for the boy who one day would be her husband. Little did I know I was praying for a little boy whose troubled life would find stability and hope because of the love of a teacher whose faith compelled him to see this child as his own. How grateful I am that Roger had heard the words spoken from the Cross, “Behold your son.”
And then the final thing that we need to understand is that with these words Jesus is inviting us all in to the Christian family that we call the church. The church, as Christ envisioned it, is made up of people from every walk of life who are brought together by the love of Christ. Through Baptism we are adopted and become a part of God’s family. And in that family we take care of one another. Because of humanity’s incredible diversity that is often
a process that can only be completed through the love of Christ. We may not like everyone in the church but on
the Cross, Jesus is bringing people together in his love. A preacher says this about these words from the Cross:
Watch closely. Jesus is forming the first church, commanding us to live as if these foreigners were our relatives. Church is where we are thrown together with a bunch of strangers and are forced to call these people, some of whom we have no natural affinity with, nothing in common, “brother”, “sister”. So after this moment (on the cross), never again could the world say family without Jesus’s people thinking church.
For the Disciple, the church becomes our modern family. It is the family of God. It is the place where, on the Cross, Jesus opens up the doors for everyone and out of His great love, speaks the words. “Here is your mother. Here is your son. Here is your brother. Here is your sister.” It’s the family of God. The community of faith. The church. I love how one writer describes what is happening on the Cross when he says:
All of the problems that you may have had growing up in your family are being healed because He who had no conventional family, He who sired no children, is busy forming the largest family the world has ever known.
It is a family that is brought together not by birthright or social position or financial condition or societal constraints. It is opened up to all, even you and I, and brought together by Christ’s great love. These words are our invitation to come and be a part of this family of God.