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“And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

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Title: “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home”

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Date: 10 March 2024, The Fourth Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday

 

“And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home”

Last week, I was in Houston, Texas, attending the annual gathering of a body called the Episcopal Parish Network, which brings together leaders of American parishes, to share ideas, and address the challenges of mission and ministry in the 21st Century.

The opening event of the conference was a panel discussion between five prominent church leaders. These included the CEO of the American church’s most significant retreat and conference centre; my own former colleague, now my successor at the cathedral in Chicago; the rectors of two major parishes, one in Manhattan and the other in Atlanta; and – bringing an English perspective to the proceedings – my opposite number in the southern province, the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Reverend David Monteith.

Their task was to share experiences of leadership in the face of change and disruption, and each of these five shared a particular challenge facing the institution of which they are at the head. The Dean of Canterbury shocked the room into silence with his opening sentence: “If things stay as they are, then the simple truth is that Canterbury Cathedral will close in three years’ time.” The CEO of the Kanuga conference centre spoke of the vast decline in bookings and revenue from its principal source of revenue, as the church has moved away from in-person events. We heard of a parish diminishing a once vast endowment by running deficit budgets for almost sixty years; of the challenges of managing substantial real estate while trying to fund ministry in a racially divided city; and of a diocese foisting a land-deal on a cathedral that would deliberately devastate the mission of a vibrant and growing church community.

What bound these five eyebrow-raising stories together was not just the challenges of maintaining mission and ministry in such trying circumstances, but the constant voices of onlookers – including onlookers within the Church of God – talking of despair and failure. Voices pointing out that – on both sides of the Atlantic – church attendance is plummeting, economies are not doing well, there is no money to be had, donors are disillusioned… Best just to give up and accept reality.

And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home…

For if things are not going well, it’s wise, it’s sensible, it’s practical to be realistic. No point in getting your hopes up. No point in indulging in wishful thinking. If the end is nigh, then all you can do is make the best of a bad deal. Which – apparently – is what we find Jesus doing, as he makes the last decisions of his life.

The Fourth Gospel recounts how the leaders of the Jews had demanded of Pilate that Jesus be crucified. Jesus has been led to – of all awful, horrible places – Golgotha: The Place of the Skull. And there he has been crucified – the centrepiece of a triptych of victims of brutal Roman rule. His clothes have been given away; his tunic has been the subject of a dice game; it seems that there’s nothing left to do except for him to die.

But, so Saint John tells us, “standing near the cross”, in a very small, and mainly female clutch of those who were faithful to the very end, Jesus sees his mother, and that curious, anonymous, shadowy figure that the evangelist calls ‘the disciple whom he loved’.

And so it is – at what, seemingly, is the end of all things – there is no wishful thinking. No unrealistic hopes of some glorious future that cannot possibly take place. All that there is time for is one last bit of practical action – sorting out someone to look after his dear old mum. “Woman,” says Jesus, “here is your son,” and to the disciple, “here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home…

Except he didn’t.

Well, I suppose he might have done… but I’m not sure it is what Jesus was really telling him to do… because… because it isn’t actually what Jesus said.

What Jesus actually says, in John’s original Greek, is that from that hour, the disciples takes Jesus mother eis ta idia – which is to say, ‘into his own…’. The evangelist does not use the word for home, or for house, or for care, or for anything else. And – even if the result of Jesus’ final command was that Mary goes to stay with the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ – this is about something bigger than simply a change of domicile or address.

Because today is not – in the first instance – about our biological mothers. It is about an almost mystical vision of the calling of the Church of God. For Mothering Sunday finds its roots in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he talks about ‘the Jerusalem above’ (in contrast to the earthly city), of which he says, in a curious turn of phrase, ‘and she is our mother’. And the thing that you need to know about today is that, until the liturgical revisions of the 1970s and onwards, Galatians chapter four was read, year by year by year, from at least the middle ages until very recently on the Fourth Sunday of Lent – and that is why today is known as Mothering Sunday. Open your BCPs, and you will find that passage as the epistle reading – it was read, here in this cathedral, at our 8am service this very day.

And from this rather curious Pauline text sprung an appreciation of mother church (including of course, the mother church of a diocese, such as this beloved building), and, only in a very secondary sense, an appreciation of the mothers of families. So, when we speak of Mothering Sunday, we speak first of the call of ‘mother church’ – of the call of the baptized community which is the church of God, and its vocation to ‘mother’ those whom it is called to serve. Which is why it is so important to understand the significance of Jesus’ final words to his own mother and to the Beloved Disciple that are our gospel reading today.

Which brings us back to this curious, and really very broad turn of phrase penned by the evangelist, when he records that the disciple simply takes Jesus’ mother ‘into his own…’

For in this final instruction given just before Jesus will speak of his work being finished, complete, and made perfect, Jesus has not, in a moment of morbid defeat, asked his best pal to be kind to his mum. As the culmination of his own mission in the world to which he was sent, the Living Word of God has looked into the for-ever sized future and with these dying words called into being and described the proper vocation and mission of his Church. For ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, properly, should be us – the Church, and in these deceptively simple words, we, the Church, are being given our calling to embrace the pain of the world, to take it into ourselves, so that we can show the world the true, vast, sacrificial love of God contained in the Good News of the Word Made Flesh that is the subject of the Gospel of John.

And that is wonderful… but it comes with a price – the price that is inherent in any worthwhile vocation – the price of heavy responsibility. For if we – whether it is the ‘we’ that is this Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York, or if it is the ‘we’ of the Church of England, or if it is simply the ‘we’ that is the whole Church of God – if we are to show ourselves worthy of being beloved by God like the shadowy disciple whom Jesus loved… if we are to take people ‘into our own’, then we first have to make sure that our own ‘house’ or our own ‘church’ is speaking of the things that are beloved by God. We have to make sure that the church is properly living out its vocation – its vocation given to it by Jesus as he hung, dying, on the cross.

And that is what the five, inspiring and brave church leaders whom I heard speak last week were saying. For each, in their own way and in their own context, was reminding us that neither financial pressures, or sinful behaviour, or diminishing membership, or overspent endowments, or divisions and rows over sexuality or gender, or anything else must get in the way of the Church of God being faithful to her vocation to serve the world. And each of those five were clear that it is precisely in dedicated, confident, and faithful service that the Church of God will flourish, and even grow.

Because God is not a God who gives up. God does not believe that death has the last word. God calls the Church to reimagine its mission and ministry in every generation, not to ‘think small’, but constantly to find new ways to think big in embracing the call to be the ‘mother church’ that represents that ‘Jerusalem which is above’, and remind the world that God’s love is the one thing that, even when it hangs, dying on the cross, will never fail us.

Amen.

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