February 25, 2018

Famous Last Words, III: Behold

Passage: John 19:25–27

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When Jesus then saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby,
he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!'    —John 19:26


It may seem a throw away line, but, words matter.  What we say fills the air with our ideas and lingers on long after we have gone.  The words spoken at the time of death are particularly searing since they may literally take someone’s final breath as he or she rights a wrong, pleads for someone’s future or offers a blessing.  They are spoken from the heart.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks volumes on his last supper, prays for disciples and for us, prophesies our future and speaks and speaks and speaks.

Once Jesus is stripped and nailed to a tree, his words are brief.  Listen for God’s word as Jesus speaks his last in the 19th chapter.

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus then saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.

From birth to death, human relationships form the basis of our lives. The communities we live in determine the quality of our lives, reveal the uniqueness we each possess, and connect us to a larger purpose.

Consider these examples.

Navy SEALs are some of the finest in the armed forces and operate with sophisticated equipment to accomplish their unique missions; night vision goggles, stealth weaponry, and communications devices we might never imagine.

Yet, when they train recruits in 6-person teams, they start with carrying a tree log.  Imagine a rudimentary telephone pole-like log. It is taller than me.  Rough. Heavy at 180–200 pounds.  Now, fresh, athletic recruits should be able to carry roughly 30 pounds each, but they are to carry this on their right shoulder, their left shoulder, held in front of them…all while marching or running in step.  After two hours of drills, they then are to stand and balance their log above their head for what may seem to us a brief 45 seconds, but it is an interminable time to hold the log, level, and unwavering.[1]

Before anyone acquires sophisticated equipment, they all learn to work together.  Through a simple log drill, they support each other.  No one shies away from keeping each other in line…literally.

Their lives depend upon seeing the truth of each other and themselves.  They need to know vulnerabilities, unique strengths, and, together, build the confidence to pursue the missions they will later accept.

Not many of us could be Navy SEALs either by desire or physical aptitude.

Let’s consider something open to anyone regardless of age, physical aptitude or background:  IMPROV.

At Second City, people are flocking to learn the skills of IMPROV, not to become the next Tina Fey or Steve Carrel—although some may harbor that unspoken dream—but with as varied reasons as their professions, shapes, and futures.

IMPROV training starts with everyone standing in a circle throwing a green playground ball at one another.  In these not-so-childish games, each person learns to see and hear and respond to one another in ways we too often overlook in our daily lives.  “To see” each other insufficiently describes the awareness one needs or the vulnerability to allow others “to see” you.

IMPROV is always performed within an ensemble, a team of individuals who learn to rely upon each other, with real-time and direct feedback.  As obviously as one who literally drops the ball or doesn't learn the game, whoever does not play in the framework of the scene, steps out of character, or simply misses a cue is called out. Everyone blows it at some time or another. IMPROV demands ensemble members to become finely in tune with each other—no one gets the spotlight or laugh alone and they all get to bomb together. [2]

The Chicago location for Second City attracts 5,500 students each year to IMPROV classes.  One of their senior instructors reflected, “People are looking for an authentic community, where they learn to be themselves and their best.  In ensembles they feel fully alive, which is why they come here week after week and year after year.”  It hurt my heart to learn he was particularly talking about the loyalties on Sunday, the most popular day of the week. I just want to run and say, “church is on Sunday…that’s where we are to bring our whole selves, the broken parts and the parts that shine and be together.”

We thirst for the safety of these communities where we can be vulnerable and learn to rise to our highest potential, communities of trust.  Maybe we find it in book club, Wilderness Confirmation Class, at the golf club, in a new mom’s group, Rebel Football, or the Masonic Lodge.

When we look back on life, where we found our truest selves revealed, built trust, and formed bonds that endure, are from the spaces and times that gave us this kind of belonging.  This is community—we do not live apart from one another and owe our very lives to those who surround us.

The Women’s Reading Group is moving through David Brooks’ The Road to Character, one chapter at a time.

The stories he writes of luminaries, who exemplify character, always begin with the community in which they were raised.  Who inspired them?  How did they fail?  What guideposts shaped them?

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s mother held a strict pattern of personal conduct, whereas young Ike had burning passions.  One Halloween, his parents told him he was too young to Trick or Treat with his brothers.  When his pleas were ignored and he was left behind, Ike flew into a tantrum, raced outside to pound his fists against an apple tree until his hands were bloody and torn.  Later that night, as his mother soothed his wounds, he recalls she told him to beware of any anger or burning hatred inside.  “Hatred is a futile thing, which only injures the person who harbors it.”

When he was 76, Eisenhower described the night that gave him one of the most valuable lessons of his life—he acknowledged he was wrong, needed to control his rage, but could move forward. For Brooks, this story serves as an example of the essential drama of life—to accept that we all bear an inherent image of God as well a side to that is selfish, deceiving, and self-deceiving.

Reflecting on this incident, Brooks reclaims the word “sin” from the only socially acceptable usage, to describe a fattening dessert. He argues the capacity to recognize “sin” and human failings is essential to developing a moral life and living in community.

He writes:

Sin is communal, while error is individual.  You make a mistake, but we are all plagued by sins like selfishness and thoughtlessness.  Sin is baked into our nature and is handed down through the generations.  We are all sinners together….It is to be reminded that as the plight of sin is communal, so the solutions are communal.  We fight sin together, as communities and families, fighting our own individual sins by helping others fight theirs.[3]

In this secular book on character development, Brooks continues with other aspects of and states, “sin is not a demonic thing.  It’s just our perverse tendency to mess things up, to favor the short term over the long term, the lower into the higher.[4]

Community is where we learn to thrive as individuals.  Yet, even within a community we risk isolating ourselves in a cocoon of like-mindedness that alienates those outside, and enable members inside the community to deceive themselves.

John’s Gospel begins with Jesus as one with God in the beginning of time, sent as “truth and grace” to live among us in the flesh. Jesus’ incarnation revealed God’s intent for our lives.

Throughout his walk on earth, Jesus invited people to follow into a new community, in which, before all else, they were beloved.  They are included because they are beloved by God.

Jesus bridged great divides of tribe, class, or race moving freely through Samaritans, women, Roman Centurions, and Gentiles.  Tax collectors, fishermen, most likely some carpenters, and people of all shapes and abilities joined this community.  They learned to care for one another, not by carrying a log or throwing a ball, but by believing in Jesus.  They were held accountable, called out for mistakes or not “getting it” and also forgiven.  More accepting of their inherent sin and the abundant grace from Jesus, the group became bigger and stronger in reaching towards a higher ideal.

Sure, the Pharisees and religious leaders and skeptics were invited, but many opted out.

Each time we read a story of the people Jesus encounters, however foreign or ancient these individuals appear, it is an invitation and a mirror for us to see who we are.  Are we willing to join in this community?  Will we accept Jesus’ teachings that may contradict what our community says about others and us?

However much we may presume the other cannot be in our circle, cannot love us, or cannot be loved, Jesus reveals it is possible.

One of my favorite verses in all of scripture comes at the point in John’s Gospel when Jesus is telling a large crowd that to be a believer is open to all.  But, it may require them to give up previously held notions with social or economic comfort and take on new risks to let God dwell within. There are high expectations to live out the command to love God above all else.

Those who heard this left in droves.

Jesus turns to his disciples who stayed and singles out Peter to ask “why are you still here?”  Peter responds, “…where shall we go?  You have the words to eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Jesus inaugurated a new community founded only on the expectation you are to come as you are, as God created you. No false pretenses.  Mistakes and sins are obvious.  Forgiveness abounds.  And all are included.

Peter believed Jesus had the words to eternal life. Words matter and those few words Jesus spoke at the death are paramount in his legacy.

It is hard to notice what is missing sometimes.  In John’s Gospel Jesus’ mother is nameless.  The narratives merely identify her as “Jesus’ mother.”  Although she is instrumental in the very first miracle story at the wedding of Cana, Jesus calls her just “Woman,” a respectful form of address at that century.

Now, while watching her son die, she is identified only as “Jesus’ mother.”

Also present is a disciple described throughout John’s Gospel as “the one whom Jesus loved.”  He too is never named.

In the final scene of Jesus’ life, stripped, nailed to a cross, these two are present, defined only by their relationship to the dying Jesus.

Contrary to social custom, Jesus does not address the man first.  Instead, to his mother, Jesus speaks.

“Woman, behold your son.”

Just like in Cana, he calls her “woman” as he hands over natural, family ties.  She is to become the mother of another man, not by flesh, but by his word.

Turning to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.”

“Behold” is not a suggestion but layered with meaning of revelation and discovery.  The Beloved Disciple was to see her in with Jesus’ eyes.

“Behold” is also a command, a pronouncement.  Here it is.  Now it will be.

To believe in Jesus now demands they embrace each other as never before.  To believe in Jesus is not just a confession or point-of-view, it is a way for them to exist in the world, bound together by his divine love.

Perhaps their names are purposefully omitted so we can find ourselves in their shoes.  Scripture is to be a mirror for us.

We saw this play out across major league baseball training camps everywhere on February 23.  Each player on each team left his team’s cap with unique logo in the locker room to wear a baseball cap with the logo, “SD,” for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.[5]  In this simple gesture, they are claiming a relationship in a new community following the shooting that occurred last week, killing 17 youth and teachers.

In the wake of this tragedy, we too stand at the foot of the cross.  There are the victims’ friends who we are to behold—in their anger and their passion.   They will no longer accept the sins of the community that allowed this murder to occur.  Christ is calling us to be in relationship with these youth and to love their lives as he does.

At the foot of the cross, there are the parents whose innocent sons and daughters died.  To believe in Christ asks us to behold them with his love.  A love that is embodied faces the messy, grief-filled, and painful grief with our presence.

As we hear Jesus’ final words spoken to nameless people, we find ourselves at the foot of the cross.  We are to hear “behold” and see one another in the same eyes as our divine creator. May it be so.


[1] “US Military Videos” OpsLens Navy SEAL training lob exercises, accessed February 12, 2018, http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=how+heavy+is+the+log+used+in+navy+seal+training&view=detail&mid=C38F945ABF632EAE10A8C38F945ABF632EAE10A8&FORM=VIRE
[2] John Jurgensen, “The New Face of Second City,” The Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2016, accessed February 1, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-new-face-of-second-city-1467922031.
[3] David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York:  Random House, 2015), 54.
[4] Ibid.,  55.  I took the liberty of redacting one of Brook’s rare uses of a profane word into “mess” out of respect to the pulpit and worship.
[5] “Persons of the Week”  ABC News, February 23, 2018, accessed February 23, 2018,  http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/person-week-major-league-baseball-players-53318457