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Lenten Perspectives: John, the Beloved

Good morning, church. Please go with me again to the book of John, chapter 19, and we’re going to start reading in v. 25.

We’re in a season of the church known as lent, which is a time of fasting and waiting. Fasting reminds us of our dependence upon the God alone. This kind of waiting, this observance of the church calendar, teaches us that our lives are built around the things God does in the world, our days are numbered by him.

We’ve decided, through the season of Lent, to follow individual people through the last week or so of Jesus’ life, called passion week, to see through their eyes the events which brought our savior to the cross to die in our place—just as he died in the place of each person in the passion narrative. My hope is that we would begin to see pieces of ourselves in each of these men and women, so that we might understand in new and more personal ways what it means that Jesus died on the cross for us.

Last week we looked at Caiaphas, the hight priest and ruler of Jerusalem, who in order to keep his place and his reputation decided to kill the true king and high priest over the people of God. In attempting to uphold the true law of God, he killed truth itself. Jesus, though, took everything Caiaphas meant for evil and intended it for good. Jesus gave up his throne, bore our shame and sin, became unclean, and died in the place of his people.

This week, I want us to imagine ourselves in the place of John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, to interact with Christ through John’s actions, and to know that Jesus died for John’s sake.

Read with me, starting in John, chapter 19, starting in v. 25, and I’m only reading through v.27. [John 19:25-27]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me. Father God, who adopts us as his own; Christ, who calls to us from the cross; Holy Spirit, who binds us together as one family; we pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.

My first point for today, and you may notice a theme, is just that we are John. We are John. It’s always been easy for me to see myself in the apostle John, maybe because our stories are similar in some ways.

The thing you have to realize about John, as we imagine ourselves in his place, is that John was young—how young, we don’t really know, but just through textual clues, I’ve always thought of him as barely a teenager when Jesus calls him to follow; or maybe I’m just projecting, because I was barely a teenager when Jesus called me to follow him.

Tradition holds that John and Jesus were cousins; Mary, Jesus’s mother, had a sister named Mary Salome, who married Zebedee, and together they had James and John, who were brothers. They were living in the same small town as Jesus’ family, and tradition holds that Joseph, Jesus’s dad, died when the children were still coming up, so it seems Zebedee took Jesus’ family under his provision until Jesus was old enough to provide for the household. Jesus and John grew up together. They loved each other like brothers.

I grew up with Jesus as well in my family. He was present at our dinner table, in our church, in the lives of my parents and grandparents. I remember, when I was very young, about six, my brother was baptized and I told them I wanted to be baptized as well—not that I really knew what it meant to follow Jesus at the time, but I always wanted to do everything my brother did. I wonder if this is how John started following Jesus: he saw James put down the nets he was mending, get out of the boat, and follow Christ—and John, the kid brother, thought, I’m going to do what my brother does.

I remember when Jesus first saved me, when he first called me to follow him, I was confused and embarrassed—I thought I had been following him already, because I was so familiar with him. I knew all of the Bible stories—I had literally read my Bible through twelve times by the time I was so many years old—I knew everything about him. I had grown up with him all around, but I learned when Jesus saved me that there is a difference between knowing about Jesus and loving him; a difference between growing up around him and following him.

I love reading through John’s gospel, because John is writing later in his life about his memories as a child, about this person he’s tried to follow through his whole life. Everything in the gospel is so thought-out, because John has been thinking through these interactions his whole life. Throughout the gospel, John refers to himself as the one whom Jesus loved, and there’s books written about that phrase, but very simply, my understanding of the phrase—and again I may be projecting, but my understanding—is this: that John is telling his readers, the only part he played in the gospel story is the part of a child who is beloved by a father figure, an older cousin, one who watched out for him, one who included him in the important work he was doing in the world. Jesus called John, and John followed in childish ignorance, having no idea what he was committing to or how this would go. He merely knew that he was beloved and allowed to follow.

I have two older brothers, and my childhood was spent following them around and doing everything they did. I was beloved by them, and they did a good job of including me. Following Jesus always felt the same for me. I’ve never had any idea what I’ve gotten myself into, I just know that I’m beloved, and I’m glad I get to take part in what Jesus is doing in the world. I just follow Christ around in the world, and from time to time I ask, “Can I have a turn?”

The first mention of John in the passion story is at the Lord’s supper. The text says he is reclining at the table, leaning on Jesus. This is after they had eaten the meal, the lamb and the wine, and I remember when I was that age, getting sleepy during our church’s Sunday evening prayer service. Especially on the days we had a potluck dinner before service, I would lean, usually on my mom, somewhere between sleep and waking, and wait for the service to be over.

Then in the text, Jesus begins telling the disciples about his own arrest and crucifixion. The text says Peter, who was a full-grown adult, motions to John, and I wonder what the motion was, if Peter jostles the child to wake him up and ask the question everyone wanted to ask, because John could get away with it: “Who will betray you? What are you talking about? I missed it.”

John doesn’t speak much after that, like a child who has realized that something serious, some adult matter, is going on around him, and he’s trying to stay out of the way. He gives an extended account of the dinner after that moment—a lifetime later, that night is burned in his memory. In the garden, he stays close to his brother, and tries to stay awake to pray with them, but can’t. He’s been sleepy since dinner, and he finally passes out. He wakes up to soldiers and shouting and his cousin, whom he loves as a brother, being arrested. Why? For what charge? The rest of the disciples disperse. Peter follows him, and John tags along.

Notice how everyone throughout Jesus’ trial is suspicious of Peter. Peter was an adult. Peter gets stopped at the door to Caiaphas’s palace, and John just walks right through. He finds a servant girl, probably around his age, asks her to let Peter in and she does. Peter is questioned, asked if he’s one of Jesus’ followers, and what is he doing there, at the trial. No one ever notices John. When important things are happening, people rarely notice children. They’re not worried John is going to pull some sort of rescue attempt; he has no sword, as Peter does. He’s powerless.

Peter leaves the trial weeping, and at that point, John is alone, but he stays. He sees things no child should see. Those memories would have come to him in his sleep. His was a visceral, traumatic experience of the crucifixion. He was there. He would spend the rest of his life thinking on the cross. A new, harsh reality sets in to his life, that following Jesus is not going to be what he thought it would be. If this is Jesus’s road, following Jesus will bear a cost.

And in the end, when they lift Jesus up on the cross, three women find John in the crowd. Someone had apparently gone to tell Mary, Jesus’ mom, what was happening; her sister was probably with her. Maybe it was James. I imagine Salome’s interrupting him mid-sentence, “Where is John?” And his face falls, because he realizes he doesn’t know where his little brother is. In the mess of everything—the fighting, the arrest—John got left behind. And it takes a mother to hear, “there’s an angry mob killing everyone associated with Jesus,” and think, ok, that’s my best guess of where my son would be; I’ll go there. I imagine her finding John at the front of the crowd, and breaking down crying, covering his eyes and turning his face.

The passage we read this morning isn’t recorded in the other gospels. I wonder if anyone else noticed Jesus talking to them. Jesus is on the cross, and there in the end, are his little cousin, his aunt, his mom, and one of his best friends. They would have been allowed to approach the cross, because again, no one would have worried what they might do—three women and a child.

Jesus, in his last moments, tells John to look after his mom, and his mom to look after John. They needed each other. Mary because Jesus would no longer be able to provide for her, and as a widow, she had few people to care for her. John, because he still needed looking after, and Jesus wasn’t going to be able to do it anymore.

Of all the works Christ did in his life, let’s not forget this one: that he loved and cared for his mom and his little cousin, that he made provision for them. He cared about, he provided for his family. With all our passion in this church to do the work of the kingdom, let’s not forget this work of Christ in the world.

When I was younger and new to following Jesus, I was starry-eyed about the older Christians around me. I always assumed that one day, if I kept spending time with Jesus, I would be an adult who left childish things, including my childish faith, behind me. My experience as a Christian, and now as a pastor, though, is quite the opposite. The more mature I get in the faith, the more I understand myself as a child—one who is dependent upon the care of the people around me, one who is still learning, one who needs to be corrected and guided. He keeps calling me back to a childlike faith, one that follows him around and asks for a turn doing the things he’s doing in the world. Over and over again, Christ is calling me to be like John.

And I want you to see in our text; not only are we John, but Jesus died for John’s sake; so Jesus died for our sake. Jesus died for John’s sake; so Jesus died for our sake.

Of all the things we can say about this passage, I want you to understand that when Jesus gives John and Mary to each other, he’s bringing John into his immediate family. They aren’t cousins anymore; John, from this point on, is his adopted brother.

In one sense, not much has really changed—John was already family, he was already close with Jesus and Mary; they already lived nearby. But in another sense, everything has changed.

I think again of my own call to follow Jesus. It was never exactly going to make headlines or shock anyone: child raised in Christian home becomes a Christian. Outwardly, not much changed. I didn’t stop living with my parents. I was already going to church, already reading my Bible, already striving to obey the laws of God. Actually, when I was saved I didn’t tell anyone for about ten years, and I wasn’t baptized until I was in my mid twenties. I had thought that not much had changed; but I was wrong. Really, everything about my life changed when I was welcomed into the family of Jesus.

In short, I went from someone who was around God, who was familiar with him, who spent time near him, to one of his children—I was in God, and he in me. I began to long to spend time with him in church and to read his word. My future goals started to shift toward things that would take part in God’s work in the world, taking up my father’s business. And the people who were his family became my family—the older women of the church my mothers, the older men my fathers. I went to church and discovered brothers and sisters, children for whom I was partially responsible. I began to serve them. I became a part of Jesus’ family.

There’s one way to look at Jesus giving John and Mary to each other where we strive to imitate Jesus, we see ourselves in his place, caring for his now widowed mother and this child of whom he had charge—and this is good, we should imitate Christ in all things. But there is another way of understanding our passage, where we see ourselves in John’s place, recognize that we are in need, and we can see Jesus acting out in miniature what his work on the cross accomplishes for each and every one of us who places our faith in Christ.

Because of his work on the cross, he calls out to you and to me, to anyone who will hear him, and says, behold, your mother; behold, your son. This passage shows us the intimate nature of what Christ accomplished with his work on the cross. Yes, he is our example; yes, on the cross Christ wins victory over evil and death; yes, on the cross Jesus satisfies the wrath of the father—but also, on the cross, he recognizes our need for him, and calls out to us inviting us into his own family.

Many of us have gone through our lives believing that we don’t have a place, we don’t have a family in which we belong, people we can take care of, or people whom we can trust to take care of us; so we assume we will need to take care of ourselves. We never look to the church when we are in need, or when we feel alone.

Jesus, on the cross, reveals the truth: that by his death, you are called home to the family of God. You are able to be called sons and daughters of God, and he is a good father, one who will never leave you, one who will love you no matter how many mistakes you make, or how far from him you go.

John, that day, standing next to Salome, the mother he always had, a mother who loved him enough to come out and find him in the midst of a riotous crowd—John gained another mother in Mary through the death of Christ. So it is with us—every person in the church is our family. Everyone here is welcomed and loved.

I would invite you to see yourself in John, to recognize your own child-likeness; to know that you are in need of his work on the cross, that you have a father and a family who will love you and walk with you through life. I would invite you to look at the people around you in this church as people you have charge of, mothers and children who have been entrusted to your care through the work of Christ on the Cross, and to see yourself as someone young, who doesn’t always understand, and who needs to be served by the people around you.

Lastly, I pray you would see yourself as someone who is beloved; a beloved disciple. If we see ourselves primarily as people who love Jesus, then we are able to fail, we fall in and out of love, we make mistakes, we leave. But if you see yourself as one who is beloved—then your status in the family of God is not dependent upon you or anything you do. You are a son because the Father loves you and has adopted you as his own.

In the end, he calls out to each of us from the cross, inviting us into his family. I pray each of us, every day, would see our need, and answer his call in childlike faith. Pray with me.