A sermon preached on John 19.17-42 at Wine Before Breakfast on April 15, 2014.
I have attended a lot of funerals in my life – at least 25, probably more. I have mourned expected, understandable deaths – grandparents, elderly parishioners. And, I have grieved inexplicable, difficult deaths – the suicide of a close friend, the death by cancer of my roommate in our first year at university, the murder of a man I worked with, the death in an accident of a cousin, a baby. There is really only one common element I have noted throughout the many funerals I have attended in my life. Afterwards, I am starving.
Every time, after the funeral is over, my body cries out to me with ravenous hunger: “Feed me”, “I am alive”, “I am alive”. At its pure, not-at-all-rational core, my vulnerable, human body wants to affirm life in the midst of death: “Feed me”, “I am alive”, “I am alive”.
A few months ago I heard a program on CBC radio describing funerals as the new “proms”. Apparently there is a trend surfacing where people take pictures of themselves and each other – individually and in groups – at funerals and post the photos on Instagram, Facebook and other social media sites. All dressed-up, with special attention taken to make-up and hair, surrounded by family and friends…funeral pictures are rising up all over the Internet.
At its best I see this practice as another form of honouring life in the midst of death, an attempt to literally capture, “click”, life in a photograph while death is lurking in the next room or across the hall or in the corner, in the casket, by the door. At its worst, however, I see this trend as the epitome of a culture desperately trying to deny death, that wants to turn even a funeral into a prom, that wants to bypass death completely for…flirtation and a party and dancing.
It is my difficult yet significant task today to invite you to be truly present at a death, at Jesus’death, to invite you to dwell with his I-can’t-even-find-the-words-to-describe-it suffering, to invite you to witness his last breath. Although, it isn’t really my invitation – it is John’s, it is God’s: Come, sit at the foot of the cross. Face indescribable, overwhelming suffering. Face death. Ask the hard questions – mourn, grieve, keen. Feel the stones under your feet. See the crosses pointing upwards, towards that gray, barren sky. The hour is – finally – here. I say, John says, God says this morning: Come. Don’t rush on or by. Come. Sit. Sit at the foot of the cross…that is, of course, if you aren’t here already.
I have many fears – too many to name in a short sermon on a Tuesday morning. But my deepest, most paralyzing fear is that my son, Samuel, who turned three last week, will be hurt or harmed in some terrible way – that Samuel will die before me. My whole being trembles, shakes in its depths, when I think of this funeral, the one funeral I absolutely never ever want to attend – No, not Samuel, not Samuel, not Samuel.
As I have reflected on the passage from John before us this morning, I have contemplated and puzzled over and lost my breath at the tremendous suffering this story describes – at the sorrow, the sorrow of God. We are told throughout the New Testament that Jesus is the son of God. So today, in this passage, God is mourning the death of his or her beloved child. God is experiencing my worst, most terrible, heart-wrenching fear, my nightmare. God is watching and witnessing and enduring the death of God’s only son.
Of course, we also learn throughout the New Testament that Jesus is not only God’s son but is also God – embodied, incarnate, God amongst and amidst us. So God is not only suffering on this day the unspeakable, indescribable grief of a parent whose child is dying or has died…but this is God with nails through the hands and feet, this is God who pleads “I am thirsty”(v. 28), who whispers, “It is finished”(v. 30), this is God who is being tortured, who is experiencing excruciating pain, this is God who bleeds…and dies.
God the parent and God the son suffer terribly today.
This is a stark, dark day of suffering for God.
The passage today seems preoccupied at times with claiming that the events it describes are the fulfillment of the scriptures. Four times the author deliberately states something along the lines of, “This was to fulfill what the scripture says…”(v. 24, also vs. 28, 36, 37). To me this means that this murder, this death of God/of God’s only son is not simply an accident or an awful unforeseen circumstance, the more-or-less unexpected consequence of Jesus’three years of activism and deep, healing ministry. No – deep and terrible suffering is intended to be part of this story, of God’s story.
Why is this the hour we have been waiting for?
Why is the suffering of God so essential…to the story of God?
It is tempting to bypass this confusing and heart-wrenching death and go directly to the resurrection – the very point of this death is so that death can be vanquished, Jesus will rise again! But, rising in sunshine and triumph and new life…that is for Easter Monday…or Tuesday in this community. On this day, today, the family and the followers of Jesus don’t know the resurrection is coming. They have to try to make sense of a reality and a story which includes God’s death/God’s son’s death on the cross. And, so do we. After all, today, we too, with them, are seated at the foot of the cross. The challenge before us, the invitation is to sit and grieve, to not deny, to not rush on or by.
Jean Vanier, in his commentary on the gospel of John, himself, sits down at the foot of the cross and asks some powerful questions: “Who can believe that this naked man, condemned to death, is the Word of God made flesh who liberates us from all the chaos inside us and around us?” He continues: “The Gospel of John requires me to ask myself: How prepared am I to bow down before this humble king and welcome the source of love and truth that flows from him?”
For, the call is not just to sit at the cross, not simply to mourn and to honour the immensity, the tremendousness of this suffering… but also to kneel down on the stony earth, to bow our heads, to worship this naked, bleeding, dying Jesus.
Why is the suffering of God so essential…to the story of God?
Why, possibly, would I, would you, want to worship a God who is naked, bleeding, nailed to the cross?
As I have dwelt with the passage over the last few weeks, I have come to see that this excruciating suffering of Jesus is a visible, tangible, unequivocal sign that Jesus is a new kind of king bringing a new kind of kingdom. By kneeling and worshipping at the foot of the cross, we are committing ourselves to a king and a kingdom of love, to a king who is hardly, barely recognizable in the empire – in a culture of sexual, economic and ecological exploitation and death – because he dies! In this context of overwhelming oppression, the death of one who was spilling over with love…equals life. And those in the empire who hold life in their hands, who have the power to take life and end it or extend it…these people and powers equal death. Jesus is a new kind of king bringing a new kind of kingdom – a king who aligns himself with the powerless, not the powerful…a king who doesn’t cause suffering but suffers himself…who is and brings love not exploitation, who offers life not death, life…in death. We worship a nailed-to-the-cross king because he was killed for spilling over with love. He was killed for tending life in the midst of a culture of death. He was killed for living and embodying and promising a kingdom defined by love.
Of course this side of the kingdom, when we can only glimpse what is to come, when the kingdom of love is under construction but is not yet fully, finally here – it is not only God who suffers but we all bleed. I believe the panoramic pain of God revealed to us in this passage shows us that we are not alone when we suffer – God is with us in our trembling, to the end. In the passage today God is tortured and killed in God’s own body and simultaneously watches the torture and killing of God’s own beloved child. God enters into the fullness of the suffering of human experience.
God knows suffering
God knows our suffering.
Disappointment, pain, anguish are part of life this side of the kingdom, part of the fullness of life dedicated to the promised and coming kingdom of love. So, we worship an authentic, broken-down king who experienced the worst, the darkest depths of human existence. So, until the kingdom comes we suffer, we will suffer, when we suffer, we are not alone.
I have been playing with parent-child themes throughout this sermon:
God is Jesus’parent, Jesus is God’s child.
I am Samuel’s mother, Samuel is my son.
God is our parent, we are the children of God.
These themes are alive in my words and imagination because I am so intrigued and moved by what John describes as Jesus’last act before death – his creating of a covenant of love between Mary, his mother and John, his disciple, his friend:
“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.”(v. 27)
With the empire of death’s breath rattling his bones, Jesus calls Mary and John to become parent and child to each other, to make a home together. Jesus’last earthly act before his physical death is to bind Mary and John together in a covenant of love. In the midst of the crushing empire and the kingdom glimpsed but yet-to-come, Jesus calls those of us at the foot of the cross to be family to each other. So, we worship a king, a God who embodied love until the end and whose last act, from the evil of the cross, is one of deep love – “Woman, here is your son…Here is your mother.”(v. 27)
So, the passage today calls us to the cross, to sit and mourn and not deny the reality of terrible, real suffering and death. But the call is also to worship, to worship a God whose message of love was so threatening to the powers in charge that they killed him…whose most powerful, empire-denying, death-defying, love-overspilling act was…to die.
In worship, in communion with this God, each week, together, we eat Jesus’body, we drink Jesus’blood…and love spills from the well, from the love of God into us and out. We take Jesus’broken body and poured-out blood into ours. We take his love into us…and, I believe, we then carry this love out to the suffering world.
So, with the current empire of death breathing on my neck and yes, even lurking inside me this morning, I worship a suffering God and king and I say:
“Jesus, feed me, I am alive, I am alive”.
In this Easter season, with death knocking, pulsing, pushing down our door, let us say together: