Thursday, April 20, 2017

A New Family

A New Family (4/14/17)
Robert R. Thurman, Crucifixion
This year I had the opportunity to participate in a "Seven Last Words" service on Good Friday. The service of worship was conducted by pastors of the Belle Vernon Area Ministerium. The service ran from noon to 3:00 PM. I Preached on John 19:25-27.

          Good afternoon! It is an honor and a joy to be with you today—though perhaps it seems odd to use the word joy on Good Friday. In the Church, we have a funny relationship with the Easter story. We love Palm Sunday. We love the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. We love the adoring crowds. We love it when our church choirs process into the sanctuary, singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor!” We love waving palm branches and shouting, Hosanna! Well, we love doing it in church on Palm Sunday, but honestly, when’s the last time you shouted, “Hosanna!” in Walmart or McDonald’s? And we love Easter Sunday. We love the story of the empty tomb and the risen Christ.
          But we’re not so comfortable with all the stuff in between. The story of the passion isn’t fun. But the truth is, you can’t have the glory and the resurrection without the suffering and the crucifixion. You can’t have the shouts of loud “Hosannas” without the crowds chanting, “Crucify!” While we want to remain in the triumph and the earthly glory of Palm Sunday, or the joy of Easter morning, we must also watch the broken and suffering Christ on the cross. And so, I’m glad that we’re gathered here today, not as members of our particular congregations, but simply as Christians, to dwell in the uncomfortable parts of this story. There’s much to be learned—even in this little sliver of the passion story!
          This part of the story is about a family in crisis. Jesus and the disciples formed a sort of family, but that family is about to lose its most beloved member. The family is about to lose its leader, the person who gives them a sense of direction and a sense of identity. This part of the story really resonates with me. I can relate to that loss of identity.
          I don’t live here in the Mon Valley, but I have deep roots in this community. My grandmother lived almost her entire life in Rostraver Township; she taught first grade in Belle Vernon Area schools. She and my grandfather raised three kids, and like so many people who were born here in the Valley, my aunt and my uncle both moved away. My dad was the kid who stayed in Western Pennsylvania.
          Twelve years ago, my cousin Brian got engaged. Brian’s mom, my Aunt Diane, left the Mon Valley over fifty years ago. Brian spent part of his childhood in Albuquerque, NM and part of it in Cooperstown, NY. Brian got engaged in his final year of med school, where he met his wife.
          I visited Brian shortly after he and his wife got engaged. The three of us went out to dinner one night. His wife asked us, “Do you guys come from a big family?” And without missing a beat, Brian said no and I said yes. Our grandmother was one of ten children. I went to the family reunions every year. I knew all of my great aunts and uncles. I knew most of my cousins—even though many of them have long since moved out of the Valley.
          Later that year, Grandma passed away. She was 97 and she was ready to go, God bless her, but she was the last one left from her generation. In the years since, many of my elderly cousins have passed away, too. I lost my dad three and a half years ago. I felt like a boat, cast off from its moorings. I was adrift, no longer connected to my roots. I didn’t realize how deeply my identity was connected to these family members who had passed away.
          And yes, I stand before you today, knowing that my true identity is in Christ. I know that all of the other claims on my life and my name are of lesser value. But those identities, those experiences that come from a network of relationships, from a huge extended family—those things formed me, too. I cannot dislocate myself from my great, big, wonderful, earthly family. So, I think—I hope—I can imagine some of Mary’s pain as she saw her son crucified. And if I feel unmoored, detached from my past, imagine what must be going through Mary’s mind. Imagine the pain and the loss.
          In the last two generations, we’ve seen an awful lot of changes here in the Mon Valley. You saw so many of your children and grandchildren leave the Valley for other opportunities. We also saw the decline of the industries—coal and steel—that gave this region its identity. And we’ve seen our churches decline, too. That’s not the same as Mary’s pain, but I think we can all relate. We can be forgiven if we wonder whether Jesus has abandoned us, too.
          Now before we go any further, I gotta get all Presbyterian with you. I know I just said that it’s great that we set our denominational identities aside and that we’ve come together simply as Christians—and I truly believe that’s way more important than our own brands of Christianity. But the part of me that was trained in a Presbyterian seminary says we have to stop and consider where we are in the Gospel of John; it’s all about the context.
          The Gospel writer just spent five whole chapters on Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples. I suspect a number of you went to services at your own churches last night, commemorating Maundy Thursday. Those services focused on the events described in Chapter 13 of the Gospel of John, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and his final meal with the disciples. At that meal, Jesus gives them a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.
          Now let’s be honest, there’s nothing particularly new about this commandment. The commandment is first stated in Leviticus 19:18—love your neighbor as you love yourself. What’s more, Jesus names that as one of the two greatest commandments.
          What’s new about this commandment is Jesus. Jesus is the new answer to an old question: How do we live into the commandment to love one another? Even though Jesus is speaking to the disciples, he is also speaking to us. What is new about this commandment is not that we are to love one another, it is how we are to love one another. We are to love as Jesus does. It is a self-giving love; it is humble; it is about loving and serving everyone. Jesus redefines how we are to love.
          We have to look at this section of the passion story through the same lens. This part of the story is about family. Mary, the mother of Jesus, only appears twice in the Gospel of John; first at the wedding at Cana, and now at Jesus’ death: “The mother of Jesus brackets the life of Jesus, underscoring his humanity and the need for her presence.”[1] It is a mutual relationship, and this is typical of the relationships in John’s Gospel—Jesus needs these relationships as much as the people in stories need to be in relationship with Jesus.
          Think of the Samaritan woman at the well. Yes, she needs the living water that only Jesus can provide, but Jesus needs her to provide water to meet his physical needs. More than that, Jesus needs witnesses to share his love far and wide. And that’s precisely what the Samaritan woman does—she goes and tells her people about Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
          This is also true for the disciples. Jesus needs them to continue the work of reconciliation and salvation that Jesus began when he entered the created world. But these mutual relationships cannot continue in the same way after the earthly Jesus is crucified. So, Jesus redefines family. He calls upon his earthly mother, Mary, and his Beloved Disciple to enter into a new relationship, a mutual relationship. Jesus creates a new family here on earth, a new bond, a new way of being in relationship.
The mutual care between Jesus’ mother and the Beloved Disciple models the relationship between God and Jesus, between us and Jesus, between the believer and God. The mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple display the relationship that Jesus has described throughout the Gospel.[2]
          This is the way we move forward in our churches and in this community. We all need family, so we must always remember that our true identity is in Christ. While we are shaped by the experiences of our earthly families, we must always renew and strengthen the bonds with our brothers and sisters in Christ—this is also our family. And then we must get outside the walls of our churches and invite new people into our families. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 229.
[2] Lewis, p. 229.

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