Last Words | Kinship
“Behold your son: behold your mother” – John 19.26-27
To hear John tell it, Jesus was in total control.
Each of the gospels has its own way of telling the story of Jesus’ death. It’s too large and sweeping a story for any single, unified telling, so each gospel has different emphases, different scenarios, different words. And in the gospel of John, Jesus maintains his power and control until the very end. He is unmoved by the mockery and sarcasm and dice-throwing guards. He carries his cross by himself, John is careful to state, without the help of any bystander. He speaks in measured tones, not the loud shouts on which Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree. He controls the action all the way, and when it reaches the point of fulfillment, he’s the one who says when it is finished.
So maybe we don’t need to worry ourselves so much about Jesus in John. But we do worry about those he leaves behind. Those like us. Those left wondering, “What will our lives be like now?”
There are all kinds of questions we ask when we lose someone. The loss of someone we love not only alters our lives, it affects our identities. It leaves us searching, and most of all wondering, “Who am I without this person?”
This question runs throughout the course of the beautiful North Carolina novel, Jim the Boy, by Tony Earley. Some of you may have read it. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the depression era town of Aliceville, and the novel narrates a year in the life of young Jim Glass, Jr. Jim never knew his father, and lives with his widowed mother and her three brothers: Uncles Zeno, Coran, and Al. Jim turns ten on the first page, and as he grows throughout the year, his world grows with him. With each event – his first baseball glove, his first brush with a bully, his first trip to the beach – Jim’s world expands, and he struggles to find his place within it.
Most of all, he wonders about his father. “Where did Jim, Sr. come from? What did he care about? Am I anything like him?” He longs for some story or keepsake that will help him know his father – and maybe himself – a little better. From everyone around him, it seems, he hears that question so often used in small southern towns, “Son, whose boy are you?” Jim finds he doesn’t quite know how to answer…and in some ways he doesn’t know what to answer, because it’s a question he’s asking himself. “Who am I?”
That’s the question being asked at the cross, I think. Or some form of it, at least. Jesus’ most faithful and fearless followers are standing near – four women and one man are mentioned – and they’ve begun to realize that the things he had warned them about are happening. They’re going to lose him. “Who are we without him?” they must have asked.
One of those standing near with her questions and fears is the mother of Jesus. Mother Mary. Standing there she must have remembered so much, all the way back to the beginning – the promise of the angels, the foreboding predictions about her son. And now the sword Simeon had once promised has come to pierce her heart.
“Woman,” Jesus calls her. We’ve heard him address her this way before. We met his mother earlier in John at the wedding in Cana. When the wine ran dry and the host blushed with embarrassment, she appealed to her extraordinary son. In those days, she knew things about him that others had not yet seen. “Woman,” he had said back then, “My hour has not yet come.” Standing at the cross, she must have longed for that earlier day. For now, it is clear that his hour has come and it falls mercilessly upon them all.
Not far from her stands the beloved disciple – the man mentioned some five times in John’s gospel. We know that Jesus loves him and apparently that’s the most important thing about him. The gospel never says why Jesus loves him, but I’d bet it has something to do with his commitment. He’s the only one of the 12 standing there at the cross. In the back of his mind he must have feared what the others feared – that they’d end up next to Jesus, on that cross he had warned them they would take up. The others have long since fled the scene. Even Peter, rock though he is, has heard the rooster crow and realized his fear has turned him traitor. But not the loyal disciple. Not this one named “Beloved.”
Mary and the Beloved. They both stand near, with all their questions – “Who am I, if not his mother?” “Who am I, if not his friend and follower?” “Who are we without him?” And the text says that Jesus sees them.
John’s description suggests that Jesus sees them suddenly. It takes him a few moments, you understand, with all the other things happening in front of his eyes – all the commotion of soldiers casting lots, passers-by mocking, and religious leaders arguing. But finally, Jesus sees these two and speaks. And from an otherwise controlled Jesus comes a statement of great emotion and tenderness. “Woman,” he says, “Look. Here is your son.” Then his eyes meet the disciple’s and he says, “Here is your mother.”
And with that, amidst all the tragedy in this scene – amidst the loss and the swirling questions – with a statement from the cross and a few deliberate glances, Jesus brings these two together. “From that very hour,” John says, “the disciple took her into his own home.”
We’re left wondering what it is that this last word is meant to do, or at least where it comes from. What’s motivating Jesus?
On one level, it’s a statement of provision by a son. Christian interpreters from Athanasius to Aquinas have interpreted it this way. He wants to take care of his mother. We know enough about the vulnerability of older women in those days to understand his concern. Joseph has presumably passed on, and Mary is not wealthy. Her son has never owned anything but the clothes on his back, and now the soldiers play dice for those. So Jesus wants to know she will have someone to belong to – someone to protect her from the cruel things people can sometimes do and say to those alone and vulnerable.
This is the man, remember, who once outside the town of Nain had come upon a funeral procession where a widowed mother was burying her only son, and Jesus raises him from the dead. Wouldn’t he want to know that, in his place, someone will do all that is within their power for his mother?
It’s how most people approach the end. Hoping they’ve said enough. Hoping they’ve been enough. Wanting the best for the dear ones they leave. And Jesus dies in this way, not so different from many of us.
But in other ways, it’s entirely different from us. So much larger. So much bigger. For Jesus always had a wider view of family than most of us who put such a premium on the conventions of close family life.
In the gospel of Mark, for instance, he had once said to his mother and brothers: “Who are my mother and brothers? Looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31-35).
It’s one of many hard sayings from Jesus that challenge our conventional notions of family and community, and invite us to take a wider view.
Many of us have come to enlarge our conceptions of family. We are fond of the notion that while there is your family of origin, there is also “the family you choose.” Do you know that phrase? Have you seen that hashtag on photos? This “chosen family” is an even more important form of support these days, as it’s less common for family units to work the same business, live on the same plot of land, or even live within driving distance in the same city or state. Living far away from conventional networks of family support, many of us find ourselves forming new relationships that are “like family.” So Jenny and I have our “New York family.” We have “Nashville family.” And we have “Greensboro family”…which is oh-so-critical as we think about just how much babysitting help we’re going to need! The family we choose.
But that’t not quite it either, is it? For most of us choose those familiar and comfortable, who look like us or sound like us. Our eyes readily find those most likely to reinforce and support our lives as they are. But the community gathered around the cross is not the family you choose. Not at all. It’s the family Jesus chooses for you.
It can be a hard realization. Until we come to understand that this broad view possessed by Jesus – this wider conception of family and community – is actually the hope of the new world. It’s the substance of the hoped-for kingdom and kindom for which Jesus gave his life on that cross. The family Jesus sees. The family Jesus chooses for us.
My friend Preston Clegg is a pastor in Arkansas – of Second Baptist Church in downtown Little Rock. Years ago he served as pastor of the Baptist Church of Bruceville, Texas. The church was at the corner of Benton and Plumb streets, and also on that corner lived three kids – 2 boys and a girl.
They always came up to the church, any time someone pulled up. A car could pull up at 7am and over they came. It wasn’t just that they loved the church – although they did – but Preston came to learn that most especially, they didn’t want to go home. It wasn’t what many of us have known home to be. So they came up to the church on the corner of Benton and Plumb all the time.
And that church loved them. If they played ball, church members would go cheer in the stands. Members would hug them at church on Sundays, or take them out to lunch. And one Sunday, Samantha said she wanted to be baptized.
When the day came she walked up to the church from her home just down the way with her plastic grocery bag full of a towel and a change of clothes. “Preston,” she said “I think my mom’s coming to church today to see me be baptized.”
When the time came, Preston walked out into the baptisty of that little church and scanned the small congregation, and Samantha’s mom was no where to be found. Then Samantha walked in from the other side and Preston could see her – she scanned the room and her mom was nowhere to be found. He gripped her shoulder, pulled her close, and thought that somewhere deep in her soul one of the grandest moments of her life was also one of the most disappointing.
At the end of that service he asked Samantha to stand at the back of the church so people could greet her and put their arms around her on the way out. People came through – all hand shakes and hugs – and eventually up to the front of the line came “Grandma Florence.”
Florence Whitter was the grandma of Bruceville, TX. Everyone called her “Grandma.” She knew everybody. She knew everbody’s parents and their parents, and all the things those parents didn’t want their kids to know. She was about 5 ft tall if you counted her perm. But she was a giant of faith – a woman who rose early in the morning and read her Bible, and even prayed by candlelight into the night.
That morning, Preston was standing by Samantha and Grandma Florence grabbed Samantha by the shoulders and she said “Samantha, the decision to follow Jesus is the most important decision you will ever make in your life.” And she looked her in her eyes and she said “I am so proud of you, my sister. And if you need a friend for the journey, I will be a friend for the journey.” And she said to Samantha, “I love you.”
And Samantha looked at her, “Grandma,” she said, “I love you, too.” (1)
“Sister” and “Grandma.” And for a girl whose mother was absent from that day – and largely absent from her life – it turns out she had family there after all.
It’s the kind of thing that can happen at Benton and Plumb. Or at Friendly and Mendenhall, come to think of it. Or anywhere Christ’s people gather around his cross.
Jesus is looking at two people – a mother, a son – but he can somehow see so many more. He can see so many more of us who need these words. It’s the mother and the beloved disciple, but, if we’re faithful and bold enough, it’s you and me following that far and standing beside them on the hill. Standing with all our questions and crises of identity. Standing with our fears and self-doubt, catching Jesus’ eye and hearing his words. “Here is someone to whom you belong.” On the cross, Jesus who never married, and never fathered children, creates a family. He redefines what it means to be related and calls for us to do the same. He tells those of us who wonder who we are without him, that we are with him when we are with one another.
It’s his last willed act. It’s so important that immediately after he sees it done, John says in v. 28, “Jesus knew that all was now finished.” For in his absence, a new kinship exists.
In Tony Earley’s novel, young Jim has a home. He has a mother and three uncles. But in the absence of his father still he wonders about who he is. He feels he has one shot. His mysterious grandfather lives up the mountain outside town. Jim never met the old man, but he feels he must hold some secret about his father.
So on his eleventh birthday, Jim convinces his uncles to take him up the mountain to meet his granddaddy. When he reaches the top, an extraordinary thing happens. He finds that his grandfather is dying, and can’t recognize anyone, and certainly doesn’t recognize Jim. And Jim realizes that he probably knows as much of his father as he ever will.
Jim walks back down the mountain with his uncles, and as he heads toward Aliceville, he begins to cry. His uncles gather round him, and then this dialogue ensues:
Uncle Zeno said, “Hey. Jim. Shhh. What’s the matter?”
Jim waved an arm out at the world beyond the end of the mountain. Uncle Zeno frowned and shook his head.
“It’s too big,” Jim said.
“What is?” Uncle Zeno asked.
“I don’t understand, Jim.”
“I’m just a boy,” Jim said.
Uncle Zeno rocked back on his heels. He looked at Uncle Coran and Uncle Al, then smiled at Jim. ”We know that,” he said, “But you’re our boy.”
You know that the world out there is big. Home can seem far. And we ask those questions for which there never seem to be satisfying answers. But today we hear again that I’m yours. And you’re mine.
And if we can look out even farther, we can see that they are ours. She is ours. And he is, too. As are so many others we can come to see with the eyes of Jesus. All part of this new community, at the center of which is the cross, where the words can still be heard for those faithful and bold enough to gather there, “Here is your family.”
(1) Story from Preston Clegg’s sermon,”Church Freedom: Saints in the Light,” at the CBF Oklahoma Fall Gathering on October 15, 2011