Audio is available here: Good Friday 2014
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ 27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
John sets the scene deliberately, the camera angle is framed, four soldiers to the left of the cross gambling for Jesus’ earthly possessions, four women to the right of the cross looking on in horror, unable to help, just as unable to leave. Jesus and the Beloved Disciple in the middle. And as the soldiers settle the estate of Jesus of Nazareth, he cares for his mother. He gives his mother to the Beloved Disciple, and him to her. And from that hour, the disciple took Jesus’ mother into his home. After this, Jesus knew that all was now finished. He bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
One could sentimentalize the scene and say, his earthly work was finished because he made arrangements for his mother to be housed and fed after his death. In the end, Jesus was a good son, looking out for his mother, and her welfare. With no estate to give her in support, with even his clothes becoming sport for soldiers, Jesus could at the last call only upon the loyalty of the one disciple who did not run. He could make arrangements. And he did. But is this what John asks us to do with his story? Does John want us to soften the edges and make the story of Jesus’ crucifixion a tragedy whose one redeeming feature was that Mary and John left together to remember the teachings of the good, but finally and desperately mistaken teacher?
No. I don’t think so. And the reason is found in four key phrases.
Here’s the first one: “And from that hour.”
Those four words should arrest us! They should stop us cold. We’ve heard something like that before. Where? And our imaginations are cast back to a wedding scene in Cana of Galillee. Can you see yourself there? People are dressed in their best. They are feasting—I like to imagine pita and hummus and a lamb shank and lots of wine. They are singing. They are clapping. They are circling around the bride and groom, pressing in on them to wish them well. And off to one side stands the strange itinerant rabbi who has gathered a few disciples. His mother pulls him away. “They have no wine,” she says to him. She is embarrassed—perhaps the bride or the groom is a close family member for whom she feels some responsibility. She doesn’t want any social breaches spoiling the party. The wine is running low. She wants Jesus to fix the problem. And his answer: “What is that to you and to me? My hour is not yet.” My hour is not yet. Four more words. The hour. What hour?
Hang on. That’s not the only place. Where else have we heard something like that? Oh right. Phillip—the disciple who hailed from Cana in Galilee—comes to Jesus with a strange report: “Jesus, some Gentiles want to meet you.” And Jesus reply? “Now the hour of the Son of Man has come.” And he begins to speak cryptically about what sounds like his death.
My hour is not yet; the hour is come; and from that hour. Do you see?
The hour for which Jesus came, the hour which would forever bind Gentiles to the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, the hour which is, from God’s perspective, the beginning of the great wedding party that would mark the end-time for God’s people, is the hour of the cross. Good Friday recalls the hour of Jesus death. This is the hour for which the Son of Man came, the hour of his glory, the glory of God’s one and only. This is the place where the glory of the Son, which was his from all eternity, was put on public display. On a roman Cross. The glory not of a conquering general surrounded by sychophantic soldiers in a victory parade, but the glory that is a life poured out to display God’s love for the world.
And from that hour, what?
And from that hour, he (that is, the disciple) took her (that is, the mother of Jesus) into his own home. That is our second phrase. He took her into his own home. What is the first effect of the hour of the Son of Man? What is the first result of the glory of the Son being put on display? What just the arrangement of an adoptive relationship which would allow his mother to live reasonably well into old age? No. What the coming of the hour creates is a new family. The death of Jesus creates a new family, with new family bonds. Bonds effected not by the blood that flows through our veins, but by the blood that was spilt as Jesus freely gave up his life. Bonds that tie all those born of water and the spirit together.
All four Gospels make plain that Jesus had a strained relationship with his family members. Mark’s portrayal is the most blunt, where the mother, brothers and sisters of Jesus attempt to restrain him, forcibly if necessary, and take him home. They think, quite simply, that he is crazed. And for his own safety, he needs to be, well, silenced. And while Luke and Matthew take the same story and soften its edges somewhat, there’s no escaping the words of Jesus: “Whoever does the will of my father, this is my brother, my sister, and my mother.” Jesus believes in family, to be sure, but in family of a different kind. Jesus’ family is one brought about not by procreation, but by re-creation in the waters of baptism and obedience to the commands of the Father.
John himself, who all four Gospel writers, has the least to say about Jesus’ brothers, tells his readers plainly that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him. Indeed, it seems that it was only after the resurrection, and as a result of a vision of the risen Lord, that two of Jesus’ brothers—James and Jude—became disciples. Jesus own flesh and blood: James, Jude, and even his mother, do enter into Jesus’ true family, but in the same way we all do: by responding in faith and obedience.
By so establishing a new family relation between his mother and his disciple, Jesus in fact points us to a deeper reality: that his death is the means by which God’s people are reconciled not simply to God, but also to each other. It is the sacrificial death that founds the community of the church, the Famiy of God. The death of Jesus, in other words dissolves some social ties and creates new one ones. The death of Jesus creates a brand new way of thinking about family. The death of Jesus creates the church.
That brings us to the third phrase. What is the response of the dying Jesus to the abrupt departure of his mother and disciple, from that hour? Jesus, says John, knew that all was now finished. He knew that all was now finished. The work was done. The new family was created. This is how the world will be saved.
John announced this at the outset of his Gospel with these words: “He came unto his own and his own did not receive him. But to as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the children of God, even to those who believed on his name.” And he concluded his Gospel with the same words: “These things were written that you might believe on the Son of God, and in believing have life in his name.”
And here, at the climax of his Gospel it is told in narrative form. This—the cross—is the work that Jesus came to do. And the sign of its success is simply, the creation of the new community, the church, in the people of his mother and his beloved disciple. All is accomplished. Expressed quite powerfully in one word in Greek: Tetelestai. It is finished. The very last words John places on Jesus’ lips.
Why are we here? Have you ever wondered about that? Why is the Church here? Why are Christians here? We are here, said Pope Benedict, quite rightly, to do three things: we are here to care for the poor. We are here to worship God. We are here to evangelize, to tell people the Good News about Jesus. At the end of the day it’s a very simple threefold mission, a plain, elegant, single braid, if you will. And Good Friday should bring us back to that simple, plain, elegant braid. For here we are reminded of whose example we are to follow, whom we worship and why, whom we are to talk about. Here is where it all holds, the nail, if you want, around which all three strands of our mission are tied.
We are a people in mission. We are a people called to care for the poor, to worship God and to evangelize. Why? Because this is the family the death of Jesus has created. And that work is finished. Oh we have work to do—compassion and justice, worship and liturgy, preaching and evangelism—but it is all done, weaved together in a single braid, because Jesus knew that with the creation of his new family, all was accomplished.
And with that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Our fourth key phrase. At a plain level, it is a fitting, simple conclusion. Jesus’ work is done. And knowing that, he dies. Jesus dies not at the whim of Pilate or Herod or the religious leaders. Not even at the whim of the soldiers who crucified him. He dies in his time, at the conclusion of his hour, when his work is accomplished and not one second before. This is John’s way of stressing—as he has done throughout his Gospel—that Jesus is never reactive. He is from first to last free. He has a job to do and a timeline in which to do it. And he is in control throughout.
But as things always are in the fourth Gospel, this reading is but the beginning. John’s highly polished Greek is here ambiguous. It is most often translated in such a way as to emphasise the death of Jesus. He gave up his spirit. He freely gave up his life. And that is true. But here is another, equally valid translation: “When Jesus had received the wine, he said ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head, and gave over the Spirit. Wow! Think about that. In the moment of his death, is Jesus giving up his spirit to his father, or giving over the Holy Spirit to the Church?
The answer is both. The death of Jesus is what creates a new family—the Church—and it does so by becoming the place where the Spirit is poured out on God’s people. The Spirit—the very life of God—is, by the death of Jesus—given to those who believe in him, making us not partners in a common cause, but brothers and sisters because we share the same source of Life—divine life!
The life that animated the ministry of Jesus, by his death, now animates the lives of his followers such that we become his family, and as his family, do the things he does. We care for the poor. We worship God. We announce the Good News.
So it is that John’s depiction of Jesus’ death, far from being a sentimental soft focus portrayal of a dying man’s last care-full expression of love for his mother, is a depiction of the hour in which the Son of Man would be glorified, the hour in which a new community would be created, the hour in which the life-giving Spirit would be given. So it is that Good Friday is the ground upon which we gather as God’s people, not simply today, but everyday. For here we remember that we are who we are because of what Christ has done. It is accomplished.