A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Good Friday 2 April by Revd Catherine Duce
Readings of address: John 19. 26-30
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.
Fr Greg Boyle is well acquainted with death and grief, having buried 229 young men, and having consoled countless grieving mothers and former gang members.
Fr Greg is a Jesuit priest who has worked for over thirty years in one of the most deprived areas of Los Angeles. His church sits between two large public housing projects, with the highest concentration of gangs in the United States.
Slowly and humbly, Greg’s ministry has evolved. Initially he tried to broker peace between his warring parishioners. Then he grew to understand that violence was never about a set of demands, rather it was a language of trauma, mental illness and despair. The young men and women in his parish had what he described as “a lethal absence of hope” – denied childhoods due to extreme levels of abuse and addiction, resulting in they themselves facing long prison sentences and the cycles of isolation and despair continuing.
Fr Greg and his local church initially began a school for these gang members. Yet no one wanted to teach there. Then they started a jobs programme. “Nothing stops a bullet like a job” read their t-shirts. But no one would hire these young men. So they started a social enterprise, beginning with a bakery. Former enemies now standing side by side in the kitchen baking croissants for a thriving business. Yet Fr Greg noticed that even then, when a crisis hit, like the ending of a relationship or the death of a family member, these young lives would unravel once again. What was missing was relationship, what was missing was access to unconditional loving acceptance.
Staffed almost exclusively by people who themselves have been through the programme, this is now the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world.
The young people come seeking sanctuary yet as they settle on their journey of healing, they themselves become the sanctuary that others seek, and they return home to their now children and share that peace with them also, thereby breaking old dysfunctional cycles of violence and despair. Greg Boyle’s whole story speaks of the power of radical kinship and family to transform and to heal broken relationships. A new family is formed on the programme that is mutually transformative – restoring dignity, opportunity and hope.
Such a vision of community begins at this very moment today with Jesus hanging on the cross.
In the face of unspeakable brutality and violence, gasping for his last breath, Jesus is still reaching out to others and building compassionate community. Here in these final words from Jesus to his mother and to his beloved disciple, Jesus is commanding them to behold and to be held by each other, to cherish one another as they cherish themselves. This simple self-giving act and instruction encapsulates the very mystery of who we are called to be in our Christian discipleship.
In these words we find both comfort and commission.
On the level of earthly family, Jesus is entrusting his mother to John, who may well have been his cousin, so that he will take her away from the hideous spectacle of crucifixion and look after her in a society where a lonely widow has no protection. John writes: From that hour the disciple received her into his home. “Into his home” Stephen Verney points out, are words that have a deeper significance; they can mean also “into the privacy of himself and the intimacy of his heart”. Jesus is giving Mary to John and John to Mary in a new reality of Love which is the beginning of the new age; the birth of the church.
Through Mary and John many polarities meet – young and old, masculine and feminine, peasant woman and young intellectual. Yet lifted up on the cross and at the point of total powerlessness and compassion where human beings are no longer afraid to open themselves to each other, Jesus is saying to them “Let there be no schism. I give you to each other, and as you receive each other into the privacy of your hearts and lives all the opposites you represent become woven together into one – no longer stitched together, but woven throughout into one fabric from above.”
These are words of both comfort and commission.
The commission at the heart of this passage is to recognise that we too give birth to Christ as we see and set Christ free in one another. We become Christ as we receive Christ’s Spirit from each other in the private depths of ourselves.
Through imitating Jesus’ compassion on the cross we are setting ourselves and others free to love one another. This is what the former gang members in Los Angeles discovered- a freedom to love and to be loved that was leading them and their neighbourhood into new life.
For the local Jesuit Church in Los Angeles it wasn’t a smooth journey. As the local church increasingly became a gathering place for undocumented migrants, homeless people and gang members some of the existing congregation got upset. One man who had been baptised in the church at a young age shook his head and said begrudgingly “this used to be a church”. Yet others, finally felt it was becoming a church, becoming the community God envisions church to be – living out a radical tenderness towards one another in the face of discrimination and diversity.
This too is our commission. To continually ask of ourselves as a church, Can we be reached by the people in our neighbourhoods who might desire the offer of relationship? Are we as a church able to go to the margins, not to change people but to be changed and blessed and enriched by those we meet? I think of people who are housebound for whatever reason who are now reaching us online and I rejoice, and ask, who else are we overlooking in our ministry and mission? This is the path to real kinship. The Christ in me recognises the Christ in you.
Walter Bruggemann writes of this passage ‘The Messiah who makes new families calls us out to meet new brothers and sisters, new mothers and fathers, new sons and daughters. His words of family making for this new mother and this new son … continue to surprise us as we are called always to new family that violates all old boundaries of exclusion and defensiveness.’
I think of the Myanmar nun who courageously stepped out in front of the military and knelt down in front of guns to protect her family of God’s children in her village.
I think of the newly widowed from Covid and what a radically compassionate response might be from the church?
In these examples, even in the face of death Jesus is reaching out to you and to me pointing beyond death to the building of a new loving community of hope. Reconciling. Healing. Transforming. Let us never tire from seeing Christ in those we meet.