The Lame Word
Admit it; when you heard the 3rd Word from the cross, you thought: "O this is the lame one." Sure, every word that comes from Christ's lips is precious, divine. But this is lame compared to the 6 other words. Where's the pop, the shine, the power, the kingdom, the glory is these words that can be described as housekeeping'? Yeah, it's lame for me too.
Hold on. Look whose here. John uses the Greek word behold' 5 times in this chapter. Two of those times are in the 3rd Word from the cross. "Behold your son." "Behold your mother." Jesus isn't calling for Mary to look upon her crucified Son, but to look upon the disciple whom He loved as now being her son. But it's important to know that Jesus hangs naked before God and mankind in the presence of His mother. That's how the Romans crucified. That was part of the shame. It's proper that we don't depict our crucified Savior naked, but it's important to know He was. I've visited countless folks in the hospital. Sometimes they're in such a state that they are not able to properly keep themselves covered. If a family member or even a nurse is there, they quickly cover them. If I'm there alone, I do it. And O how Mary wanted to do that now. Don't think her beloved Jesus hangs high above her. Later in this chapter, Jesus will be given a drink by means of a hyssop branch which is only 18 inches long. So Jesus hangs there naked right before her eyes.
This is in fulfillment of Simeon's prophecy 33 years earlier that her soul would be pierced when Jesus' was. But her sufferings aren't redemptive; don't pay for sins; don't satisfy God's wrath. Jesus' did. And His sufferings were added to by the presence of His mom. Her Son is being crucified as a blasphemer by the church and a revolutionary by the state. The people regard Him as worse than Barabbas who incited rebellion and murdered people. Mary is like the mother of a mass killer or a child abductor. Have you seen one interviewed? You've got to feel for them. Feel even more for Mary. Her Son really wasn't guilty. But how do you think people judged? By numbers. All that stand by Jesus is His mother, His aunt, probably another aunt, and a formerly demonized woman. But where are Jesus' siblings? Why aren't they here to comfort Mary? John earlier told us, "Even His own brothers did not believe in Him" (Jn. 7:5). And Joseph is more than likely dead. That's what why Jesus entrusts His mother to a disciple rather than brothers or sister who never did believe in Him.
Still Mary is suffering here and her suffering increases her Son's and in His we find help. This what Is. 53:5 says, "With His stripes we are healed" (KJV). We've been praying this truth for a year in the Litany: By the mystery of His holy Incarnation; by His holy Nativity; by His baptism, fasting, and temptation; by His agony and bloody sweat; by His cross and Passion; by His precious death and burial, we ask for help. This truth we sing in a 19th century hymn: "By Thy helpless infant yearBy Thy life of want and tearsBy Thy days of deep distressBy Thine hour of dire despairBy Thine agony of prayer...By the cross, the nail, the thorn, piercing spear, and torturing scorn", by these we're helped. Every stab of pain heals a stab of your guilt; every drop of blood covers one of your sins; every tear shed for His mom washes clean one more wound of yours. A 15th century painting shows this: Drunkards and gamblers surround Mary as she cradles her dead Son, each sin inflicting a fresh wound on Jesus' body (MacCulloch, Reformation, 6).
Still what about the words? How aren't they lame? Well, let's look what's going on. The Order of Creation is being upended. This is in keeping with a sun that doesn't shine and an earth that is going to quake, but it's at an even more fundamental level. The empower woman movement has been around since the late 60s under various names. And the goal has always been to make women more like men. Let them be able to behave just as aggressive, assertive, and arrogant as us. Well, how many men do you count at the cross? One. Four women are referred to here. Mark mentions "the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee" (15:40) and Matthew says, "many" of these women were there (27:55). Even 4th century Chrysostom noted this: "The women stood by the cross [as the disciples fled], and the weaker appeared the stronger. From that point, everything was entirely transformed" (ACC, NT IVb, 317). And does Christ look like the Head of Man that He is here? No, He's being crucified by them. And men sure aren't acting like the head of the woman when they're cowering for fear, leaving them alone to endure these terrible events.
This shows the unhinging of the created order. Here there is both Law, showing our sins, and Gospel, showing our Savior. Here a disciple becomes a brother. Venerable Bede, 8th century, tells of stories handed down to him that Jesus called John away from his wedding ceremony. As a result, Jesus gave the more desirable sweetness of His own love to John who had been called away from marital love (Ibid., 318). So the disciple whom Jesus loved is now a brother not just in the Spirit of Faith but in the flesh, since they now share a mother. And Mary is taken back to what Jesus predicted 20 or so years ago. Jesus is about His Father's business full time now. And as He told her in Cana about 3 years ago, she doesn't have any share in the business of divinity. However, here, as He did at Cana, He uses the endearing address dear woman' to let her know, she has a share in this. Gregory the Great said: it was from the nature of the Father that Jesus could do miracles, but from the nature of His mother that Jesus could die. Since it was from her that He got the ability to die, Jesus acknowledges her at His death and sees she is provided for the rest of her life on earth (Ibid., 318).
Behold, look, see, this isn't a lame Word from the cross at all; it's gold. If the sermon title had been in your bulletin, you would've known where I was heading to begin with. L-a-m-e has the acute French accent mark above the e which means it's lame. Lame is a fabric that has gold or sliver threads in it. All our paraments have woven into their fabric gold which transforms ordinary colored fabric into something extraordinary. Likewise, a man dying, even a executed one, is in some sense ordinary. There are, after all, 2 thieves dying with Jesus. But God being here means there's gold here, so it's lame not lame.
Jesus is dying in a fearful way, as if He won't see His mom and beloved John again. There's no, "See you soon." "See you in heaven." Luther says it is "immensely painful when someone departs in this way" unable to think of any future other than death (LW, 69, 262). How in the world is this gold? Because He dies like I expect to; I see here that Jesus knows what I will be going through and so can comfort me. In C.S. Lewis Till We All Have Faces there is a goddess statue "standing tall and straight in her robes.., the loveliest thing". But she is not worshipped; instead a shapeless stone is. The character explains why: The beautiful goddess wouldn't understand my speech. She is only for nobles and learned men. There is no comfort in her for people like me (272). If Jesus had died marching to the tune of Onward Christian Soldier, to whom would I go on my deathbed? I hear Jesus humming, "Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted" and I'm comforted.
There's no ordinary, let alone lame, thing going on here. This is lame; this is gold. Luther preaches, "Christ abandons everything for our sake the earth, His mother, His disciples in order to save us" (LW, 69, 262). This is the scenario where your wife and mother are in a canoe with you. It capsizes and both are heading for a waterfall and certain death. You can only save one. Which will it be? It's true Jesus is distancing Himself from earthly things to save us, but Mary and John really stand with us. They too were sinful. There was nothing in them worth saving. But it's still true; Jesus, and the Father too, are faced with the dilemma of being able to save only one. Romans 5 shows who one' is: "While we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly" (6). Read on: "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (8). Further still, at last it says, Jesus did this "while we were enemies" (10). Maybe you've never had a real enemy, someone who stayed mad at you, was glad to hurt you any which way he could? It's the guy in the book, movie, or show that inflicts pain, torment, torture even and laughs while doing it.
The choice was holy Jesus on one side and all sinners on the other. Jesus could save Himself or us. God the Father could save the perfect Son or us hateful, ugly, ungodly sinners who were still enemies of Him. Us and Jesus are headed for the falls. Neither the Father nor the Son let us ungodly sinners go over the Falls into Eternal Damnation. The Son Himself takes the plunge and goes down, down, down to the bottom most pit of hell where the arch traitors Cassius, Brutus, and Judas are forever being eaten by a 3-headed Satan. This isn't lame but lame. The very gold of theology: Christ forsaking all others, with this cross did wed a world full of sinners to redeem them from the pit of eternal death.
This word from the cross is sometimes referred to as "the word of relationship." It shows that to the very end Jesus was mindful of His earthly relationships. He kept the Law right to the end. He honored His mother and He provided for His neighbor. It's true what Jesus did here could be styled as "housekeeping". But it sounds like the military's use of the phrase mopping up.' A WW II general said, "I recommend that the military, and the correspondents, and everyone else concerned, drop the phrase mopping up' from their vocabularies. It is not a good enough phrase to die for" (American Caesar, 327). These simple acts of placing Mary in a believing family and giving John a mother to love him, cost Jesus dearly. More pain, more suffering, more time on the cross. If mopping up' isn't a good enough phrase to describe something men suffer and die for, how much more so does "housekeeping" fall short of what God suffers and dies for? That is a lame word, and these event are lame. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Good Friday (20210402); The Third Word, John 19:25-27