Fleming Rutledge on Why ‘Being Christian Without the Church’ Fails the Good Friday Test

We Americans tend to be a sentimental people. This makes it difficult for us to look directly into the horror, shame, and degradation of a death by crucifixion. When Jesus says to Mary, “Woman, behold thy son” and to John “Behold thy Mother,” we often interpret this saying of our Lord as a sentimental invitation to take good care of your mother. I am a mother, and I definitely want to be taken care of! But this is not what the Fourth Evangelist, John, wants us to understand. In the Fourth Gospel, the mother of our Lord plays a quite different role.

In the side aisle of the chapel where I often worship, there’s a beautiful, unusual altarpiece. It depicts one of John’s memorable stories, the marriage feast at Cana where Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, what have you to do with me? My hour is not yet come” (John 2:4, RSV throughout). In English, this sounds very rude. In Greek it is more respectful, but we notice that Jesus does not call her “Mother,” and she responds to him not as his mother but as one of his followers—one who is beginning to have a glimmer of an idea about who he is.

She says to the servant, “Do whatever he tells you” (v. 5). She is learning to be his disciple. That’s what Mary represents in the Gospel of John. She does not appear again in the Fourth Gospel—except in passing and in company with others—until his hour actually does come and he is crucified. From the cross, once again Jesus calls her “woman” rather than “Mother.” Her identity as Jesus’ mother is not important to John.

In John’s gospel, Mary stands out as a particularly faithful disciple, one who follows Jesus through his ministry from the beginning even to its ghastly end at Golgotha. So when he speaks to her and to the beloved disciple (traditionally John himself) from the cross, he is giving two unrelated believers to one another. He gives his mother to him and him to her in a completely new kinship that infinitely transcends blood kinship. Mary, along with others, becomes a beloved member of the new family brought into being through the power of Christ’s death.

When the time of the Lord’s death approaches, Pilate, not knowing what he is doing, orders an inscription to be nailed up on Jesus’ cross: “The King of the Jews.” It is written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (John 19:20). Hebrew is the language of the Jewish nation, but now—in this hour of crucifixion—the King of the Jews is revealed as the King of the empire, the true Ruler of the world and all the people in it. This is the hour of the remaking of the cosmos and the reconciliation of human relationships.

At the same time that his universal kingship is announced, Jesus turns his failing eyesight down to the people standing on the trash-strewn ground covered with blood and human waste and gives these two disciples to one another. These two who remain at the cross represent to us the beginning of the church in the moment of her Lord’s degradation and suffering unto death.

Taking the Gospel and the Epistles of John together, no writings in the New Testament are more concerned with the church than John. You wouldn’t necessarily notice this, however, if you read the Gospel of John without looking for it. Our typical American individualism tends always to focus on the single, supposedly autonomous person, so we typically read the Bible through that lens.

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Source: Christianity Today