March 19, 2014

The Cross: A Lesson in Love - Mar 19, 2014

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If there is one thing that people need in order to thrive in life, and enjoy life—that thing is love. As children we need to know we are loved by our parents. We need to hear that we are loved, and we need to experience that love in tangible ways. As adults we long for the love of a close friend, or a spouse. Without love, life would be hard to bear.

In the book of First Corinthians, we are given a profound and poetic description of true love.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV).

As sinful human beings, we find that our ability to love is limited. We may want to love others through what we say, and do, but too often we fail to let true love guide our choices. Too many things to do, too many pressures to bear, and too many people to please—all combine to weight us down. And instead of persisting in love, we stumble in sin. 

While OUR ability to love is limited by our sinful nature, God’s ability to love is boundless and unlimited. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than at the foot of the cross. On the cross we find a most profound lesson in love.

John 19:25-27 (NKJV)

25 Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” 27 Then He said to the disciple,  “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.
This group of people who gathered at the foot of Christ’s cross had all been effected by God’s love, in one way or another.

Jesus’ mother Mary had been chosen by God to bring his divine Son into the human race. Mary heard the angel’s announcement. She conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. She gave birth to the world’s Savior. She raised the Christ-Child, caring for him as only a mother can. Mary knew God’s love for her through the gift of motherhood.

Mary’s sister, whose name was Salome, knew God’s love for her also. She was blessed by God with Mary as her sister. And while sisters can, and do, fight with each other. Their sisterly bond is capable of overcoming the scuffles that go on between siblings. When Mary’s Son was crucified, Salome knew what she had to do. God had given her a sister to love, and so she went with Mary to support her in her time of need.

On the other side of Mary, we find another Mary. The wife of Clopas. It appears that Clopas was Joseph’s brother, making this other Mary the sister-in-law of our Savior’s mother. She too knew God’s love for her. She had been blessed in marriage, and had gained Mary as her sister-in-law. And she too, went with our Savior’s mother to the foot of the cross, to help her in her time of need.  

Among these women at the cross, we find yet another Mary, Mary Magdalene. She knew the God’s love for her. But her connection to Jesus was not through biological, or marriage ties. Mary Magdalene had come to know God’s love for her when Jesus cast seven demons out of her. In response, Mary Magdalene had followed Jesus—both in faith, and physically as well. She followed Jesus of Nazareth during his ministry, and along with others, they cared for the needs of our Savior.

The last character that we find at the cross in this scene, is the writer of this Gospel: the apostle John.

John was one of the closest friends of Jesus. He was a disciple. A follower who trusted that Jesus was the Messiah sent from God. But John was also one of the twelve apostles. And within this circle, he was also one of the three whom Jesus confided in more intimately.

It was Peter, James, and John who found themselves on the mountain, praying with Jesus when he was transfigured before them—showing visibly his glory as the Son of God. It was Peter, James, and John who were permitted to enter that house, and that upper chamber, when Jesus raised the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus from the dead. It was Peter, James, and John who were invited to go a little farther into the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed on the night of his betrayal and arrest.

None of this was because John deserved such honor. Early in life, he and his brother James were somewhat arrogant and boastful men. Their nickname was “the sons of thunder.” And yet, under the teaching influence of Jesus, John had been changed.

When John wrote his account of Jesus’ mission later in life, John took care not even to name himself. In John’s Gospel he’s always referred to as, “another disciple”, or like in our reading for tonight, “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

Now, at first reading, that title might seem arrogant. As if John were saying that he had somehow earned Jesus’ love more than the others. But the whole Gospel of John shows that wasn’t what he meant. When John searched for something to call himself, something that wouldn’t draw attention to himself, he ended up defining himself as “loved by Jesus.” It was as simple as that. The one thing that John felt defined him, was Christ’s love for him.
It was Christ’s love for John that had moved him to follow after Jesus when he was arrested. Taking great risk, Peter and John trailed the mob which had arrested Jesus, all the way to the high priest’s palace. And when Peter stole away in sorrow after denying that he knew the Lord, John continued on and watched as Pilate pronounced the death sentence on his dear master and friend.

It appears that at this point, John left the scene and hurried into the city to find Jesus’ mother, and the other women that we find gathered at the cross in our reading.

And when the crowd had drawn back, John and these women had moved forward. Five people who had known the love of God, and the love of God’s Son, from experience. People who had seen the power and love that radiated from Jesus in his healings, in his Gospel preaching, and in his unending patience.
And while they didn’t understand it at the time, these five people were witnessing the greatest expression of God’s love for them. In the days and months to come they would learn the full significance of Christ’s crucifixion. They would learn how these events had been foretold from ancient times. That this was the way in which the eternal God would erase the sins of mankind—by letting his Son take the punishment for the sins of the world while he hung on that cross.

And even while Jesus was hanging there, experiencing the horrific agony of crucifixion, his perfect love was still conscious and active. When he saw his own mother standing below, he summoned the strength to speak through his pain. To speak a gentle command to his mother, and to his beloved disciple. He said…

“Woman, behold your son!”

And to John,

“Behold your mother!”

Jesus spoke with great economy of words, for his suffering was heavy. But his intent was clear. A new relationship was created here by our Savior. Mary was to see John as her own son now, and to care for him accordingly. John was to see Mary as his mother, and to care for her likewise.
Mary’s husband, Joseph, was apparently dead by this time. But she did have children who could have cared for her physical needs. But the Scripture says that Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe in him yet. And more than anything Mary would need someone who could support her spiritually in this, oh so painful time.

And John, he would need the same support. At the time, it  appeared that he was losing his greatest friend. John would benefit from comforting Mary, and being comforted by her.

And so, John took action right away. Upon hearing this command of Christ, John led our Savior’s mother away, to his own home. Away from the deep sorrow of seeing her Child crucified.
When we face pressure, great pain, or tragedy in our lives, that’s when we often fail to care for others. That’s when we lash out at the people who love us. People who are just trying to help. That’s when we retreat into ourselves and leave responsibilities unfulfilled. Like I said earlier, as sinners, we know all too well that our ability to love others is, sadly, limited.

But the love of God is unlimited. We see that here, don’t we? Even in the hurricane of agony that Jesus was facing, he still summoned the will to care for his friends. Friends who had sinned against him many times. Even as the punishment for their sins was falling on him, the love of Christ still blazed with intensity.
In this moment, Jesus teaches us how to love. Selflessly. With patience. Seeking to benefit others, not ourselves. Not holding their sins against them, but bearing and enduring all for their benefit.

But in this account the Holy Spirit has given us FAR MORE than an example to follow. In this account the Holy Spirit shows us what a great Savior we have. One who bears our sins against him with patience. One who kindly endures our failures daily. A Savior who looks through all that we are, and loves us to the end.

Satan would have us believe that there is a limit to Christ’s love. That eventually, if we don’t clean up our act and get it right, Jesus will abandon us. But that’s ridiculous. OUR love is limited by our sinfulness. But CHRIST’S love is unlimited—a fact which our Savior's cross teaches quite clearly.
The apostle John learned that lesson at the cross. In later years, after Jesus had been raised from the dead and all the confusion of these days had been explained, John wrote the following words…

10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 ESV).

The cross of Christ does indeed teach us how to love others. But first, and foremost, it teaches us how God loves us. And this is powerful. For above all, we need to be loved. And while parents will fail in their love, and siblings will fail, and spouses will fail, and friends will fail, and we will fail—God has not failed. For in Christ we are loved with the greatest love, and fully redeemed.

10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10 ESV).


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