Friday, 12 March 2010

The Church, our mother and our family

John 19:25-27
Mothering Sunday 2010

I recently watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, when Benjamin discovers who his real mother was. Queenie, the woman who brings him up asks him, ‘Did you go to the grave of your mother?’ And Benjamin replies very firmly, ‘You are my mother’.

We’ve all had mothers or mother figures

But I am very aware that this is still a service which can be quite painful: painful for those of us who have lost mothers; painful for those who have longed to be biological mothers – but have not been able to have children, for whatever reason; painful for those who have very difficult memories of their mother.

But this Mothering Sunday service never in fact set out to celebrate motherhood, although it is a good thing to celebrate. It comes from the BCP reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, which includes verses from Galatians 4, in which Paul contrasts two mothers: Sara the mother of Isaac, and Hagar the mother of Ishmael, both wives of Abraham. The difference was that Hagar was a slave girl and Rachel was free. So Paul writes, “I am taking these things figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves. This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother”.

And Paul looks at those who are slaves to the law – that is they believe that they have to fulfil the law, do everything the law requires in order to be saved – and then he looks at those who are saved by putting their faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God, and he tells them that they are free from following the external law.

But from those verses and from other passages, the idea has grown that the Church (with a capital C – not a congregation or a denomination – the people of God together with Jesus) is our mother. Cyril of Jerusalem said, ‘You cannot have God as your father if you are not prepared to have the church as your mother’.

It is the church, the people of God, through whom God brings us to life. It is the church, in the form of your neighbour or your parents or your colleague or your Sunday school teacher, who first preached the Good news about Jesus to you.

It is the church, the people of God, through whom God nurtures and grows us – whether that is through services, teaching, praying, receiving baptism and communion. It is the church, the people of God, who offer us love and care.

And Mothering Sunday for the church is not initially a celebration of our individual mothers, but it is a celebration of the life of the church, the people of God.

And John 19:25-27 are very striking verses, because what we see happening here is a small picture of what the church is called to be, and what it is.

It all starts at the foot of the cross. That is where the Mother of Jesus and the disciple who Jesus loved are standing (John 19:25-26).

At the very heart of the church, of the people of God, is the cross.

It is the place where God has put us right with God and right with other people.

[It does not depend on us keeping the law, having lived a good life, because none of us can do that. But it is the place where God has shown us his mercy. At the beginning of John’s gospel, John the Baptist sees Jesus and declares, ‘Behold the lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world’. So Jesus became that sacrifice for sin. He took onto himself our sin, so that we can be forgiven.

And the cross is the great leveler. The only way into God’s Church is through receiving what Jesus has done for me on the cross, recognizing that I am a sinner, a rebel against God, who is saved by grace – by God’s sheer love and goodness. So there is no place in the church for pride in relationship to another. I cannot stand over another person and say ‘I am better than you’, or ‘I am more significant or important than you’, because the only reason that I am here and you are here is because Jesus died for me and for you.]

What happens here in John 19, happens at the foot of the cross.

1. Jesus gives people a new identity.

I don’t know what you are like when you are in pain, in real pain. I confess to being a bit of a cat. I want to go off and die on my own. I really cannot be thinking about other people. When I am in real pain, the I in pain gets bigger and bigger.

Jesus, on the cross, remembers both his mother and the beloved disciple.

But I do not think that Jesus is simply ensuring that someone will look after his mum when he dies.

What Jesus does here is much much more radical.
Even if Joseph had died by this time, Jesus had brothers. They could have looked after Mary. That is what would have been expected. And John already probably had a mother.

What Jesus is saying is that because he has died on the cross, John – a young man, and Mary - an older woman, come into a new relationship. He is saying to Mary, because I die on the cross, John is now your son. He is saying to John, because I die on the cross, Mary is now your mother.

At the beginning of his ministry, in Mark 3, Jesus is teaching. His mother and brothers come to take him away because they think he has gone mad. His followers tell Jesus, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside’. Jesus replies, ‘Who is my mother and brother?’ He looks at those listening to him and he says, ‘Whoever does the will of God is my mother and my brother and my sister’.

This really is transformational stuff.

Jesus is telling us that as members of the church we are in a new relationship with each other.

And that is the challenge. How much do we see those who are older in the church as our mothers and fathers in Jesus? How much do we see those who are younger in the church as our sons and daughters in Jesus? How much do we see those of the same age as us as our brothers and sisters in Jesus.

Mothering Sunday should never ever exclude people. It has to be an including Sunday, possibly the most inclusive of all our Sundays – because it is the nearest we get to a ‘Church’ Sunday. It is about how we are all part of the family of the church.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is not a justification for Christians to cut themselves off from their biological family, parents or children. Later in the NT we are told very clearly that if we do not care for our biological families we are denying the faith and are worse than unbelievers (1 Timothy 5:8) But it is saying that because of the cross we are now different people. We now have a new first allegiance. We are members of a new family. We have a new identity. We are in a new set of relationships.

2. Jesus commands us to care for each other

This is immensely practical. John takes Mary to his home. He looks after her, and no doubt she helps him. She also becomes fully part of what goes on in the church. She is specifically mentioned in Acts 1 by name, together with the apostles, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost.

And in Acts we are told how the church cared for each other in very practical ways – meeting together, eating together, selling possessions when others are in need.

Now I am aware that we live in a relatively stable community. Most of us have established support networks. But I am very concerned that as a church we should be looking to support those in our congregation who do not have such networks. Maybe they have recently moved to Bury; maybe they have been cut off by their family or friends for believing; maybe they are simply on their own. And we need to be listening to Jesus as he tells us to look at those around us, to treat those around us, as we would treat members of our family.

This is not the job of the vicar or the staff team; this is the job of all of us.

When it works, it is glorious.

I received a letter a few weeks ago from a lady in the church. She writes, ‘I have never really liked the phrase the church family, but recently have had reason to change my mind. I was in hospital and the church became a family to me’.

But I am very conscious as someone with a family of how easy it is to pull up the drawbridge, and to focus on ourselves and on the biological family, and to forget that I really am part of a much bigger family.

And it is incredibly easy for us to focus in on our family and friends (in the church and beyond the church), and we really do need to both listen to Jesus, and to ask him to give us a genuine compassion especially for people within the church, with whom we have become members of a wider family.


There is something that is strange about these verses. In John’s gospel neither the mother of Jesus nor the disciple who Jesus loved are named. Of course they are talking about Mary and John, but it is intriguing. And I do think that we need to read the mother of Jesus and the disciple who Jesus loved as both individuals but also as symbols of something much bigger.

Who is this disciple who Jesus loved? He is the one who is next to Jesus at the last supper; he is the one who is at the foot of the cross; he is the one to whom the women go when they realize the body of Jesus is missing; he is the who recognizes the risen Jesus when they go fishing; and it is his fate that Peter is interested in after Jesus has told Peter how he will die.

And why use this title? Are we not told that Jesus loves all of us?
And that for me is the key. Yes, it is talking about the apostle John, but the disciple who Jesus loved is ‘every disciple’, every follower of Jesus. We are invited to be where John is: next to Jesus at the last supper; standing at the foot of the cross; listening to the news of the empty tomb; recognizing the risen Jesus.

And the Mother of Jesus. If we only had John’s gospel we would not know her name. It mentions a Mary here, but it is a different Mary. She only appears in two places in John’s gospel, but both are significant. She appears at the first of his signs when Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-11). There she tells the servants ‘do what he says’ – in other words she embodies the preaching ministry of the church. And here, in John 19:25-27 she stands at the last of the signs, the cross and the resurrection.

Maybe I am reading too much into this. But it is not unsurprising that people have come to see Mary as a symbol for the church, as a picture of the church, the people of God (the same imagery is taken up in Revelation 12:1-6). It is a picture that has been wildly abused, with Mary given almost the same status as Jesus, and the bible uses other much stronger, more obvious and clearer images for the church (body, family, assembly, bride) but that does not mean to say that it is a completely unhelpful picture.

The icon of Mary.

In Orthodox theology, she only appears with Jesus. She is only who she is because of Jesus. She hears the message about Jesus, she says ‘yes’ and Jesus is literally born in her. And she offers the message of Jesus to the world. And the church, the people of God, we are only who we are because of Jesus – we hear the message about Jesus, we say ‘yes’ to him, and he comes among us. And we too tell the world, ‘Do what he tells you. Trust him’.

So on this Mothering Sunday we give thanks to God for those who have been mothers to us; we thank him for his people, the church; we thank him that he has given us life through his people, that he nurtures us through his people; and we pray that as we stand at the foot of the cross, as forgiven sinners, we may look at each other and at ourselves with new eyes, and that we would show to each other the same love that John showed to Mary.

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